Foster families of Romani children help them find their roots again in the Czech Republic
Martina Vančáková, organizer of an annual meeting of foster families caring for Romani children as part of the "Our Romani Child" program, has just sent me a message: "I'll pick you up at the station in a big yellow car." She is a psychologist and Romani Studies scholar as well as a co-worker of the Center for Foster Family Care, which is organizing the experiential education trip.
Since she is a mother of four, I didn't expect anything but a "big" car. My son and I endure a hot bus ride, and after a couple of hours, we find ourselves at the station in Jilemnice, where we see the yellow van, and then we're all heading in the direction of the town of Poniklá at the foothill of the Krkonoše Mountains.
"I have to stop for vegetables, the parents gave me a shopping list," Martina says, asking for our patience. We have stopped at her local favorite greengrocer to get what we need and also ordered five kilograms of apples, because the plan is to bake a traditional Romani dessert on the Thursday of our stay.
"Do know where the English word 'lollipop' comes from?" she asks me. Despite my 20 years of daily contact with the English language, I had no idea.
"It's from Romanes, lol'i phabaj, or red apple - the Roma stuck apples on sticks, coated them in sugar, and sold them at markets," she explains to me. After just 10 minutes with her I've already learned something new.
One of the main aims of this annual meeting is to make it possible for those attending to soak up as much of anything "Romani" as they can. "Together with Pavla Pokorná from the Center for Foster Family Care we always lead this trip with a Romani lecturer - this year Veronika Kačová is here with us - and we do our best to put adoptive and foster parents in contact with the broadest possible spectrum of Romani people. That way the families have experiences along with receiving information. If I just wanted to inform them, I would write a brochure, but what changes us most is what we experience. This form of facilitated Romani-ness is unique in the Czech Republic and has enormous potential," she explains to me when I ask why the trip, financially supported by the Preciosa Foundation, the Sirius Foundation, the Czech Labor and Social Affairs Ministry and the clients themselves, is being organized for a fifth year in a row.
I decided to accept the invitation to this annual "reunion" because I wanted to personally get to know parents who have not hesitated to offer to serve as a foster family to many Romani children irrespective of their previous childhood traumas or disabilities. I wanted to talk with these people about their experiences and spend at least a couple of days with them.
Lastly, I brought my youngest son with me, for whom the question of his Romani ethnicity, unlike his older brothers, is something with which he has not yet had to cope just yet. Unfortunately, we did not have the opportunity to meet with anybody from the Romani part of our family for many years, so I told myself that it was high time he got the opportunity to learn more about the Romani culture.
Another part of this year's trip was, among other things, creating the Amaro drom magazine, which even the youngest children contribute to together with their parents. "After dinner we have the editorial meeting, and I'd be glad if you'd listen to the proposals for contributions," Martina told me, bringing me right into the center of the action immediately upon my arrival.
Later I had the opportunity to talk with some of the families as well. I was captivated, for example, by 17-year-old Kristýna and by her mother, Hana, who has four foster daughters.
"If it weren't for Mom I wouldn't be this clever or gifted," Kristýna confides in me. This September she began secondary school with a focus on pedagogy.
There would not be anything odd about that if it were not for the fact that Kristýna attended a "special school" until fourth grade. I don't even want to think about how she might have ended up without Hanka's care and dedication.
Similar thoughts occur to me in connection with Tereza, Hanka's second foster daughter, who has Asperger's Syndrome. When Tereza came to Hanka at the age of five, she was able to form only very brief sentences, but by second grade she was skipping ahead a year and, thanks to her exceptional intelligence and Hanka's care, she has an academic future ahead of her.
I asked Hanka what she would like readers of our magazine to know about foster care. She didn't hesitate to answer: "It's not good to leave older children in children's homes, it's a terrible shame not to give them a chance."
Hanka knows what she's talking about: She brought home three of her daughters when they were older and it's clear to me that she has absolutely changed their lives. Another child who caught my attention was a little boy with a hearing aid who sometimes used sign language with those around him.
"We brought Míša home after we learned that they had been looking for a foster family for a half-Romani, hearing impaired boy for two years without success. He was almost five when he came to us," recalls Zdenka, his foster mother.
Míša attends a special school for the hearing impaired and is making progress. When I ask how his arrival in the family influenced them, his mother answers: "Míša has enriched our lives with a new language, new experiences, new friends, a whole other world we would otherwise have never been a part of."
Aiding children with building a firm sense of identity and self-awareness - including the Romani part of their identity - is not easy, and that is why the foster parents appreciate meetings like this one. "Here we see that we're not alone. We are all trying to solve similar problems," Martina told me.
She has two Romani foster children herself. She knows that makes her family a very specific one.
"If you have to deal with the fact that somebody has cursed at your child and called them a 'Gypsy', you can't talk about that with your neighbor who has little blonde girls - she won't understand what you're talking about," Martina said. She knows she will find soulmates who will support and understand her at the annual gathering.
For that reason, the number of participants is limited. "We want to ensure there is an atmosphere of mutual trust," Martina explained to me.
During the bus ride back, after two days spent with people who never discussed skin color once, I asked my son to tell me if he can answer the question "Who is a Rom, actually?" "A person," he answers, completely disarming me.
As a child who attends a classic Prague primary school - a non-inclusive one - he has basically just had his first opportunity to spend some longer time with darker-skinned children, with a hearing-impaired child, or with a child with Asperger's syndrome. He paid no attention to those differences, however, and neither did any of the other children on the trip.
In this way, all children are the same: They are most interested in making new friends to play with. We adults could learn a lot from them.
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