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August 15, 2022



Infamous housing estate in Slovakia is finally turning around - continued

26.7.2019 11:08
New benches at Luník IX in Košice, Slovakia. (2019) (PHOTO: Jarmila Vaňová)
New benches at Luník IX in Košice, Slovakia. (2019) (PHOTO: Jarmila Vaňová)

"As a journalist I began frequently visiting the housing estate over the course of many years. I got to know the inhabitants, the legislators representing the area, and the mayors. People there would greet me and I never had a problem getting them to speak on camera. It all worked well. My real awareness, however, didn't develop until I began to go there as a social worker," Jarmila Vaňová said in the first part of her unique probe into the contexts and the core of Slovakia's most infamous ghetto - the continuation of which is now below in full translation.

Hope for Luník IX: Part Two

In March the Global Games of the Special Olympics were held in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates featuring 7 500 athletes from 190 countries. Slovakia was represented by 42 athletes there.

One of them was Adéla Mižigárová from Košice's Luník IX Municipal Department. She won gold in the high jump and silver in the 200 meters.

The Slovak media reported on the young athlete in the context of her attending a particular "special school". However, none of the reporting mentioned that she is from Luník IX.

Not even "pro-Romani" or Romani journalists took an interest in that aspect of her life. It was, however, of interest to Luník IX Mayor Marcel Šaňa who, on the occasion of International Romani Day on 8 April, thanked the talented athlete for representing not just Slovakia, but also the municipal department she comes from.

It was the mayor who sent the message about this exceptional girl and her accomplishments into the world. Talent is born everywhere, even at Luník IX.

It is exactly sport that is an excellent means of integrating the children now living there into the rest of society. The above-mentioned case is just a small example of how the majority media approach "Luník IX" as a subject, however.

Even if positive changes are beginning to happen at the housing estate, the media has mostly informed the public about them in a tendentious way. Society does not rate press coverage of the housing estate positively - and never has.

What predominates are comments that range from the mocking to the venomous, such as "even so, they'll destroy it all" or "it will last them one day at the most", etc. The fact is, however, that the fitted benches on the housing estate have been in place and intact for two years now, as have the structures on the playground.

Unsightly areas of the housing estate have been cleaned up, its surroundings are being modified, and its public areas are being reconstructed. The housing estate is becoming more and more interesting to people who have decided to carry out various activities here, from awareness-raising and educational events to cultural and social ones.

There are many such "small big things" happening, but it is very difficult for the majority society to accept positive news from the ghetto. It will take time for this to develop, because any changes there are accepted with embarrassment - even those for the better.

Architects and planners

Košice believes the housing problem on the estate could be resolved by an architecture/planning competition for it that has already been implemented. In its commission, the city has asked architects to design housing over an area of ​​nearly 16 hectares to get an idea of ​​what would be the optimal solution allowing for different types of housing and incorporating the existing structures.

Even though the competition so far just concerned ideas for designs, city officials believe that in the future those ideas could indeed be realized. The organizers of the competition from the Department of the Chief Architect of the City of Košice communicated intensively with Luník IX Mayor Marcel Šana during the preparation of the contest itself.

The Slovak Chamber of Architects also closely collaborated with the city on the architectural aspects of the competition parameters. The winner was a design whose main idea is the reconstruction of the housing estate in the form of residential buildings according to a variable skeleton system allowing the construction to range from simple buildings to multi-story structures of various forms.

This was the first time a public architecture competition of this type - a design competition dealing with housing solutions for excluded Roma communities - has ever been held in Slovakia. The city's main aim was to create the basic conditions for interested Luník IX residents to be able to help themselves, first and foremost, in cooperation with the local government.

From the planning point of view, a nursery school, a primary school with a swimming pool, a community center run by the Salesian religious order and other civic amenities are already working well at Luník IX. At the end of 2017 a new apartment block was built here, with 12 families moving in.

Lease contracts were signed with all tenants, and they pay deposits for housing-related services (cold and hot running water, electricity, gas, heating, maintenance of the common areas). They also had to meet predetermined criteria:  they must be employed, their children must have good attendance records at school, they must not owe the city any debts for unpaid fees, they must have no criminal record, etc.

On the basis of the "Contract on the Provision of a Non-repayable Financial Contribution" from the financier (the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development of the Slovak Republic), the City of Košice received a grant of € 514,976.13, or 95% of the total construction costs. One of the unique advances at the housing estate is a project for an automated subscription to the electricity supply system, which the Information Technologies and Public Administration's International Congress decided to give special recognition in 2013.

The essence of the project is that people can buy exactly the amount of electricity they require and can remotely switch their consumption on and off. The legal instrument to designate special recipients of aid to those in material distress has also been introduced, and categorization of the housing has been carried out - flats are categorized to correspond to a tenant's ability to correctly use the flat allocated, according to the tenant's merits.

The conditions for the allocation of flats at Luník IX were tightened and the allocation of flats for fixed-term use then began, after which the leases were then prolonged (subject to regular payment). These measures helped eliminate unauthorized electricity use or people residing in the units without leases, aspects that had often prevented tenants from being granted a state housing allowance.

Housing estate residents have also learned how to pay for media access. All these positive changes, however, require both the political will of the municipal department and the political will of the city itself, which is greater today than ever.

Mašličkovo and education

As I explained in part one of this article, the illegal settlement of Mašličkovo was created as a result of the demolition of apartment buildings on the estate. Inhabitants of the settlement live in makeshift conditions without water or electricity, hidden behind a wall of bushes.

Over half of the approximately 250 inhabitants of the settlement are children. The aim of the Luník IX self-government is to return them to the housing estate, which implies that a sufficient amount of lower-standard flats should be included in the planned construction.

Every winter, Mayor Marcel Šaňa makes sure people in Mašličkovo have enough wood for heating so the situation of small children freezing in the huts there will not be repeated. What, though, should be done while waiting for the apartments to be built?

All children deserve a chance and a good place to live, all should be well prepared to enter primary school. The mayor's wife, Jozefína Šaňová, who has been working in education for many years, is well aware of these facts.

Her non-profit organization opened a private nursery school just for children from Mašličkovo last year. The capacity of the local preschool is insufficient, so she wanted to create space for even the poorest children so that before starting primary school they have the opportunity to acquire the basic skills expected of a first-grader and to learn the Slovak language.

Children from Luník IX only communicate in Romanes at home. Last year, the primary school on Podjavorinská Street started teaching the Romanes language to lower primary pupils and is among one of the first schools in the country to do so - instruction in Romanes can aid the children in learning their next language, Slovak.

In addition, the children will not have to feel inferior at school when speaking Romanes, which is an equally important aspect of allowing them to speak their native language at school. Of course, this alone cannot be considered integration.

First we need to talk about the quality of teaching locally and the dismantling of the barriers these children bring with them when they enter the school environment. There is already a secondary technical school at the housing estate where young people can learn to be seamstresses or auxiliary masons.

The school offers just a two-year program - without an apprenticeship certificate - but due to the poor level of education locally, improvement must begin somehow. There are already some housing estate residents who have secondary or university educations, though.

Some such residents have moved away, others decided to stay and help, like Mayor Marcel Šaňa and his family. These people are motivating others and proving to them that even in this damned ghetto there are hopeful, talented people who deserve a chance at a better life.

A home - and a stigma

According to public opinion surveys, the position of Roma in Slovak society has been deteriorating. There are no quick solutions for this, we have already wasted enough time as a society avoiding the issue.

Society is anti-Roma and prefers restrictive solutions. Apparently, no one wants to live near people whom poverty can drive to desperate actions.

However, just as the problem did not arise on its own, it will not be resolved by itself. The problems of Romani communities must be approached actively, not fictitiously (i.e., just on paper).

According to the Atlas of Romani Communities, more than 402,000 Roma live in Slovakia, accounting for 7.5% of the population, with most integrated into society. Luník IX, where 5 000 - 6 000 Roma live, is probably the most-condemned place in Slovakia.

From my own experience, I can confirm that although the housing estate faces specific challenges, there are rural locations in the country where conditions are much worse. Escaping a segregated ghetto full of omnipresent poverty, ignorance, and pathological phenomena is very difficult.

The stigma of coming from such a place, often caused by sensationalist headlines, is difficult to get rid of. We have long waited for things to slowly begin to change.

During one election, the idea was expressed that whoever manages to resolve the problems of Luník IX would deserve to be awarded the Nobel Prize. The force that stands a chance of changing things, that seems correct and legitimate, has eventually been found in the ghetto itself.

Luník IX is first and foremost about the people who are - and will always be - at home there. If they are interested in change for the better, if they want it, then it will certainly happen.

Such change will not come tomorrow, or a year from now, because rock-bottom poverty has been reached there not just once, but several times. Living with the stigma that you are from Luník IX is not easy - it is not an advantage, nor is it considered heroic.

Luník IX is a brand that immediately provokes a reaction of barriers, segregation and stigma today. However, there is a way forward, a belief in and a hope of making it a better place to live.

To achieve this, the community there needs a lot of support from the outside, understanding, helpfulness, and the political will of decision-makers. It seems such political will finally exists.

I decided to work on Luník IX for all those reasons. I want to be able, albeit in a small way, to participate in change that makes sense to those who care.

Jarmila Vaňová, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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