Romani people adopted as children from Slovakia to Sweden 20 years ago revisit their native settlement
Alexander Armbäck is 28 years old, has a Swedish name, a college degree, a job, owns an apartment and is married. Because of his darker skin and curly black hair, people usually take him for an Italian or a Spaniard.
He was actually born in a Romani settlement in eastern Slovakia. When he was a year and a half old, a Swedish couple adopted him.
Alexander and two other adopted boys from Slovakia, Christofer and Erik, decided to find out what their biological families look like and how they are living today. Katarína Farkašová found their families and planned their visit, accompanying them with a film crew.
The men have now seen the place where they were born and where they might have grown up if everything had been different. They have also seen how their lives would have turned out if they had remained in the settlement.
"Nobody wanted Gypsies"
The entire story begins in the 1990s in the small hamlet of Mlynky in the Spišská Nová Ves district, specifically in the Mlynky – Biele vody children's home. The director of that facility, pediatrician Terézie Leksová, could no longer just watch as the number of abandoned or neglected Romani children coming to the institution constantly increased.
There was little interest in Romani children among parents looking to adopt who intended to keep on living in Slovakia. That situation persists to this day - a survey done for the civic association Návrat (Return) has demonstrated that even fewer people in Slovakia today would be willing to adopt a Romani child than were willing to 20 years ago, with fewers than 25 % saying they would accept a Romani child.
International adoptions were just beginning to happen in the 1990s in Slovakia, although were not banned as they are elsewere. Leksová knew such an adoption would apparently be the only opportunity for finding Romani children a family.
There is no clear answer as to why Swedish parents in particular began coming to eastern Slovakia. According to Leksová, the choice is random.
People from other parts of the world, such as South America, also were interested in adopting children from Eastern Europe at the time. The Armbäcks were among the parents looking to adopt whom Dr Leksová invited to the children's home she was running.
The couple was accommodated there for several days. That was how they discovered Alexander, who was a year and a half old.
"When I saw Alexander, I said: 'Aha, that's our son'," his adopted mother Christine says in Farkašová's documentary film "Swedes from a Roma Settlement" (Švédi z osady). His adopted father recounts the moment: "A little boy was sitting in the corner. He was looking at us with those big eyes. Whenever anybody approached him he began to cry. It was as if he were saying 'Don't touch me, don't pick me up, don't hurt me.' We nodded to each other: 'That's him'. We sat down about a meter away from him. He was not used to men, he considered them dangerous. Eventually he crawled over to Christine and sat on her knee and never left."
When Leksová met the adopted boys again after all those years, she was happy to see her work had served its purpose. "Children from these institutions can be saved. Here is the evidence. Nobody else here wanted the Gypsies anyway," she says.
In those days 17 children eventually left the institution for foreign adoption. Thanks to Dr Leksová's activities, the rules for international adoptions were finally also modified in Slovakia and today they are a common occurrence.
Farkašová says the approach of these families toward their adopted children has changed. It used to be that adoption was kept secret - not only were the children's names changed, but after the adoption the entire family would move to a place where nobody knew them at all.
In the West, on the other hand, adopted children are told bedtime stories by their parents of how they had to travel half the world over to find them. Such an approach is more common in Slovakia today as well.
"I know several people who have adopted a Romani child and who are pleased and proud. I know they are raising a good person," says Farkašová.
Which is more important - genetics, or upbringing?
Those interested in adopting children to raise in Slovakia mostly still reject Romani children because of concerns that the children will inherit the biological parents' behavior - prejudices play a role here. Were not the Swedish parents afraid of that as well?
Farkašová says that was one of the first questions she put to another Swedish couple who was staying with her recently in Bratislava. "I asked them whether they knew anything about the biological parents. They showed me a paper given to them as part of the adoption. It was in Slovak. The bad conditions into which the child had been born were described there, which illnesses he had been through, and the fact that his biological parents had not taken him for medical treatment, as well as the fact that his parents had achieved a very low level of education. I read it to them with a lump in my throat. They were in shock, but for an absolutely different reason that we might anticipate. They said the child should have been adopted by somebody long ago, because the worse the environment, the sooner it is necessary to aid the child," she describes.
The filmmaker has also investigated whether a person's adult achievements are more determined by education and environment or by genetics. "I did not get an unequivocal answer. However, I know that loving parents, surroundings and upbringing manage to get a child through anything bad," she says.
He needed to know why they gave him up
Why did Alexander return to Slovakia? When he was 15 he began to reflect on his life and his adoption in more depth.
Who am I? Where do I belong? What are my roots? What is my biological family like? Where are they, what do they look like? Do they want to meet me?
Alexander felt he needed answers to those questions. Otherwise they would haunt him the rest of his life.
"Mainly I wanted to know: Why me? Why didn't they want me? Why did they forsake me? In high school I felt abandoned, and that drew me to such questions," he says.
Alexander was the first of the guys to visit his biological family. He then considered what to tell Christofer, Erik and the others planning to visit their own biological parents in the settlements.
"I'll tell them they must do it too. I am unable to explain why, but they must," he says in the film.
Settlements not as bad as they anticipated
In the film, the return to the settlement unfolds like this: Alexander is sitting in a car, the buildings of Krásná Hôrka are looming nearby, and below the town we see many houses and hovels. One after another, they come into view and pass away.
Alexander is nervous. He can't even take a bite of his chocolate bar.
He is about to meet his biological family. They park the car on the edge of the tiny village of Krásnohorské Podhradie and Alexander sees that numerous little groups of people, old and young, are standing out in front of the old houses and following who it is that is arriving.
They introduce Alexander to a middle-aged woman as her son. She embraces him without reservation and constantly strokes his face.
"My Janík," she says. "I did not believe he would ever think about me."
Alexander is visibly confused and nervous. He admits: "This is a shock. I don't know what I am supposed to feel."
The film demonstrates that adoption is able to rescue a child from poverty. It also tells us why it is important for people to get to know their own roots.
Alexander was not surprised by his family's living conditions. When he began to take a deeper interest in his origins, he did his best to find as much information as he could about Romani people in Slovakia.
He read a great deal and also followed up on different kinds of information. From the standpoint of poverty, Krásnohorské Podhradie was not the worst place he could have encountered in Slovakia.
The situation has angered him. In the diploma thesis he authored while at university in Budapest, he compared the integration of Romani people in Slovakia with that of Romani people in Sweden.
Alexander wanted to contribute to addressing this problem through his research, at least. The visit to his Romani family was also important to him because of one other matter.
He wanted to tell his biological parents not to reproach themselves for giving him up for adoption. Actually, he was grateful to them for having done so.
"If I had never been adopted, I would most probably have the same life as my 17 siblings. That means no education, no job, no money, not enough water and electricity, many children, being discriminated against by the majority, and never crossing the borders of Slovakia. It sounds exaggerated, but sincerely, that's the truth. Even if many people in Slovakia do not want to admit it, that is what my life would have been," he says in the film.
Alexander later returned twice to visit his biological family. He has also begun to learn Slovak so he can better communicate with them and get to know them more deeply.
In addition to Management and Psychology, he has graduated in Ethnic and Minority Studies from the university in Budapest. He also studied for one semester in Bratislava at Comenius University.
That is where Alexander met Sára, his bride-to-be. He has also worked in Sweden in a refugee camp aiding abandoned children who ended up there without their parents.
Later he traveled to Nepal, where he aided people as a volunteer. "The experiences with my biological family, with refugees, and from Nepal have influenced me greatly. I have seen what actual poverty looks like," he says.
Childhood without toys
If you ask Farkašová why she has made a film about these adopted boys, she does not have an easy answer - rather, other questions have arisen for her during her work on the film. One of her observations about the fates of these guys is a reflection on family and parenthood.
"In my family it was a tradition to appreciate the child, to be fully dedicated to the child. I myself still live today from my personal memories of a beautiful childhood. That tradition came from when my grandma was a child. Parenthood, for us, is considered to be something that gives life meaning," she says.
When she showed Alexander's biological mother a video of Swedish parents playing with their children in a circle and singing to them, Alexander's mother was surprised. She did not know that was common.
Some of the other settlement residents admitted to the filmmaker that they never had any toys at home, nor any baby carriages. "I think each person does the best he or she knows how. When raising children, unfortunately, most of us unconsciously just imitate own parents. We should focus on Romani parents and teach them how to care for their children. This is not just about changing diapers, but about how to pay attention to them and play with them. The teachers Erika Polgáriová and Eleonóra Liptáková from the Detstvo deťom [Childhood for Children] organization in Dobšiná do an exceptionally good job of that," the filmmaker says.
Originally published in Denník N. Reprinted in Czech in the October edition of Romano vod'i magazine.
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