Once persecuted, the Salesians have run programs unlike any others for Romani children for 30 years in third-largest Czech city
In Ostrava, Czech Republic, the Salesians know that their belief in God can aid others with living good, useful lives, and for three decades the monks have been serving both non-Romani and Romani children there, including visiting those who live in residential hotels. Their efforts are yielding fruit.
The Catholic Salesians of Don Bosco (SDB) began as the Society of St. Francis of Sales, established in 1859 by Giovanni Bosco, an Italian priest, to focus on care for children and youth, above all those living in difficult conditions. The first Salesians arrived on the territory of what is today the Czech Republic in 1927, working in the village of Fryšták u Zlína, and by 1934 they had established a second house in Ostrava on Vítkovická Street.
The Church of Saint Josef, made of reinforced concrete, was then built in what was at the time a workers' settlement full of children, as was a big playground with sports fields and facilities for recreational activities. Father Jiří Caha SDB, director of the local Salesian community that runs today's center with its "oratory" (the Salesian term for a drop-in center for youth), "Don Bosco Ostrava", is an educator and priest, and he told Romani vod'i magazine that when the center first opened, "Three hundred boys a day came to the local oratory!"
In 1950, however, the communist powers halted all activity by male monastic orders, confiscated their buildings and property, and sent the Salesians and members of other orders to camps where they were imprisoned. The Salesians were not able to return to their work in Ostrava until the 1990s.
Today their 50-member team works with children there, comprising four monks, civilian employees, various collaborators and volunteer youth. Together they produce a range of activities unlike anything else available to Romani children, at least, in Ostrava.
"We're not aimed just at Romani children, but I estimate that three-fourths of the children who attend our Center in their free time are Romani," Caha explained. The center offers floorball, football and ping pong, and girls especially love to use the space for dance; there is also a climbing wall, arts activities, theater facilities and computer access.
In the summer the children attend a camp, while during the rest of the year they can spend a weekend at the center or go on field trips to Brno or Prague. "They appreciate it, nobody would ever take them anywhere otherwise, and certainly not for the low amount of money that we charge," the priest said.
To have the gang around you
The fees charged by the Salesians are just symbolic - for the younger children all activities in the center are free of charge, while children age 15 and older pay a low annual registration fee. "They pay just 20 crowns [EUR 0.75] or so in addition to that fee to attend a weekend event or the summer camp," Caha clarified.
Are the young clients from families that are so poor? "Generally those who come here are not well off. However, it's not always a financial matter - rather, they've not managed to find a place for themselves anywhere else," the priest said.
The center also brings together non-Romani and Romani newcomers who are frequently from the same locality or who already know each other from school. At the center there is no interethnic friction among the children.
What these "black" and "white" children tend to have in common is an unsatisfactory background to the relationships in their families, where the adults are usually living their own lives and not paying much attention to the children - not taking the time to speak with them, read to them, or supervise their school attendance. "That also applies to families that are materially well off. Frequently a consumer way of life predominates among them, like the way of life we are familiar with from the non-Romani families, the parents do not find time for their children and then are just amazed when problems arise," Caha said.
The Salesians also spend at least 20 hours a week with children living in the SOIVA residential hotel on Hulvácká Street. They have least two club rooms right in the building and visit with a prepared program open to any of the 200 children living there, as well as holding meetings with a group of mothers and their children.
We asked Caha what obstacles their young clients most frequently encounter. "The main problem, in my opinion, is education," the priest said.
The children see in their own families that while their parents may not be educated, they make a decent living nonetheless, even if it means working informally, "under the table". Many of them therefore lack the motivation to participate in formal learning, to set themselves an educational aim and do something to achieve it.
"If you ask them what they want to be when they grow up, they'll tell you, maybe, that they want to be a hairdresser, just to have something to say - but they don't even know what that involves. We also offer them the opportunity to be tutored, but they aren't exactly rushing to take advantage of that because they don't see it as a big need," the priest said, shrugging his shoulders, then telling the story of a boy on whom the center employees expended a lot of effort so he could qualify for a training institution in Kroměříž - but who gave the school up after just one week.
"There's another cause for that, though," Caha said. "These children are very insecure, their self-confidence is low. If they don't have their 'gang' around them, they don't function."
While such a group of peers may provide youth with a feeling of protection, it can also prevent individuals from learning to go beyond the group and become independent. "Once we were in a restaurant with the children, and a 14-year-old was meant to get up and ask to borrow the salt from the next table. He was so embarrassed that he was absolutely unable to cope with an interaction as banal as that," Caha said.
Building on faith and trust
In the Salesians' experience, the Christian faith can very much aid children with believing in themselves more, and Kevin Polák, a Romani man who attended the cetner as a child and who is now employed there full-time, is an example of this. "Kevin began attending our hobby groups," Caha said.
"Gradually he developed faith in God and began to build his life not just on trusting that he himself is able to cope, but also on the belief that God does exist and will come to his aid. He completed a two-year apprenticeship, began working for the police as a crime prevention assistant, then completed a course in becoming an assistant to an educator and began working in that position for us," the director said.
"He's been here two years now," Caha said, "he has a wife and a child of his own, and I think he has already comprehended what we are trying to do here, what we're after." Kevin's aunt also works at the center and last year began preparing to complete secondary school even though she is a mother of four.
"It's brilliant that the others see her and have her as an example before their very eyes," the director noted, adding: "Not everybody will achieve such a success, but I must emphasize that most of our families at least do not have problems with drugs, alcohol, or violence." According to him, that is exactly because the Salesians' work overlaps with the realm of the spirit.
The monks' work is precisely anchored in values that aid people with overcoming any superficial identification with what somebody is wearing, how much it cost, or what somebody owns, making it possible for people to advance and comprehend the value of an education, of living an honest life, and of cultivating good relationships. "Romani people, fortunately, are open to spiritual matters and willing to discuss them, unlike the non-Roma - it never happens that the Romani parents attack us for daring to bring the children to a church or 'fooling with their minds' by speaking to them about God," Father Caha said.
Don Bosco Ostrava's collaboration with the Greek Catholic Romani Mission in Slovakia is also built on a Christian basis - work that has been successfully developed in Prešov with the support of the Government of Slovakia by the Greek Catholic priest Father Martin Mekel and his non-Romani and Romani co-workers. By making a spiritual turnaround, Romani people there are improving their relationships inside their families, finding jobs, and providing themselves with more dignified housing.
"From 2015 to 2018 we had seven interns here from the mission who introduced us to other forms of work, such as using music or the singing of Christian songs. They were good role models to our children: All had at least graduated from secondary school and they demonstrated that Romani people can also live differently," Caha said.
It was exactly those people from Slovakia, according to Caha, who became the decisive examples for Kevin and his aunt; unfortunately, this year the crisis around the novel coronavirus pandemic has prevented the Salesians from gathering with the children for their usual Christmas programming. "Christmas in Ostrava among the Roma is mostly experienced just as the surrounding consumer society experiences it: a little Christmas tree, presents, and a ton of food," the director said.
"People usually don't attend mass, they don't pray, they don't even sing carols," Caha lamented. On the first Sunday of Advent this year the Salesians have therefore paid visits to the families whose children have been visiting the center to discuss Advent and Christmas with them.
The monks did not discuss Christmas as a time for excess and overeating, but as a holiday about the birth of God's son, Jesus, who came to earth for the "blacks" and the "whites" alike, to save them from death and sin. "We hope that we will at least be able to hold a midnight mass at our church this year and that our families will also attend it, those who have already comprehended that Christmas is not just about potato salad and cutlets, but also about prayer, gratitude, and reminding ourselves of the mystery of Christmas," Caha said.
First published in Romano voďi magazine.
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