Roma Youth Organize in Slovakia

Roma Youth

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com.

It wasn’t easy to find Kecerovce. I missed the turnoff on the road leading out of Kosice, the main city in eastern Slovakia. One of the clerks at the gas station where I stopped for directions had never heard of the place, and the other one didn’t know how to get there. I eventually retraced my steps, found the right exit, and drove deep into the Slovak countryside.

Kecerovce is a village of more than 3,000 people, but there isn’t much of a downtown. At the central crossroads, I parked my car in front of the municipal building. Across the road on one side was a pub. On the other side was a small grocery and general store. I did a little exploring and found another pub and a couple churches.

The Slovak government has had a plan on the books for a couple decades to build a nuclear power plant near Kecerovce. Otherwise, the prospects for economic development in the area are bleak. The village is more than 90 percent Roma.

If I didn’t have a set of interviews arranged in Kecerovce thanks to the National Democratic Institute (NDI), I would have missed the most interesting and promising development in the village. Near the pub was a building that I’d completely overlooked during my informal survey. It was a community center, and it housed Kera Club. The Roma youth of Kecerovce and the nearby village of Rankovce – the club’s name comes from the first letters of these two villages — had come together to talk, put on events, and organize community service.

Their mentor was Julius Pecha, a Roma social worker who had lived in Kecerovce for 14 years. He helped out with logistics and with connecting Kera Club, via NDI, to youth groups elsewhere in Slovakia, in neighboring Hungary, and even in other European countries like Italy. He provided the occasional lecture for the club. But he also encouraged their self-organization. “The youth realized that they can do their own activities,” he told me in an interview in the community center last May. “They don’t need any strong support from outside. They discovered that they don’t need much financial support. There are a lot of things we can do for free.”

I also talked with Stano and Anicka, two members of Kera Club. Stano was finishing up high school in Kosice and planned to go on to university. Anicka had finished a forestry program but wasn’t sure what she was going to do next.

I asked all three whether they thought discrimination had increased or decreased over the years and what would be the best strategy to combat it. Stano and Anicka were relatively optimistic, while Julius was quite pessimistic.

“I don’t have much experience with discrimination, possibly because of my complexion and what I wear and how I act in public,” Stano said. “The discriminated against are mostly people who have a darker color of skin and wear worse clothes and don’t behave in public. Education is the most important thing that can change the situation.”

Anicka added, “I feel that the discrimination has decreased over the past four or five years. Back then I had more experience with discrimination, but I don’t know whether that’s just my personal situation. I also think that having more educated Roma is the best way to diminish discrimination.”

Julius felt differently. “As a social worker, I encounter discrimination every day. When I compare it to 20 years ago, there’s much more now, but it’s more hidden. People know exactly what they can say not to be labeled as discriminatory. For example, an employer can place an advertisement for an open position. They don’t write openly that they don’t take Roma. But every time you apply, they say, ‘Well, someone just applied five minutes ago and took the position.’ Regarding the three options, I choose the fourth — positive discrimination — what you call affirmative action in the United States. The changes that have taken place in the United States are important – just look at your Black president.”

Did they think they would see a Roma president in their lifetime? However hopeful they felt about their own futures or the prospects for the Roma community, they all gloomily agreed: Slovakia wouldn’t have a Roma president in their lifetimes.

The Interview

Tell me something about yourself and how you became involved in the National Democratic Institute projects?

Julius: I am 36. I’ve been here for the last 14 years. Originally I lived in Kosice. I work as a community social worker here at the center, employed by the municipality. Originally I was a professional soldier. I also lived in Belgium for four-and-a-half years where I worked for a Belgian charity, a crisis center, doing similar work as I do here as a social worker. I was also the local coordinator of the NDI program here in Kecerovce.

Stano: I am 20 years old. I’m from Kecerovce. Currently I’m finishing my studies at high school in marketing and advertising and travel agency management. I will finish next month, hopefully. I entered NDI through the community center, one of the four centers involved in the project. They used a form that applicants had to fill out, and then NDI selected the participants.

Anicka: I am 21. I am also from Kecerovce. I’m a former girl scout. I was involved in the NDI program through the same process as Stano.

Tell me something about Kecerovce. How big is it? What do people do around here for employment?

Julius: I am a specialist in the demographics here. This the second year that we have done a survey of the inhabitants, so we have some fresh data. There are 3,230 inhabitants, of which 2,900 are Roma. There are three Roma settlements in the village, each at a different social level. There’s an elementary school, a general doctor, a pediatrician, a dentist, and a pharmacy. Two high schools based in Kosice have remote locations here — one for forest work and the second teaches bricklaying for boys and sewing for girls. All of the students at those two schools are Roma, with 92 Roma studying there in total. 720 pupils are in the elementary school, but only three of them are non-Roma. The elementary school runs on two shifts because there is not enough space there for that many pupils. Kecerovce is a central village in this region. The elementary school is attended not only by kids here but by children from five surrounding villages.

Regarding employment, here in Kecerovce, there’s a sort of agricultural cooperative — like a kolhoz. It’s a centralized system that employs 15 people, and none of them is Roma. There are three grocery stores here. And a place where you can buy clothes and shoes. Plus a municipal office and a post office. This building is the community center, and this student club was started through our NDI project.

This project was proposed during the NDI meeting? Whose idea was it?

Stano: This place is called Kera Club. Kera is slang for a curve in the road. So, it’s the club located at the curve in the road. There is also a second meaning. The Ke stands for Kecerovce and the Ra for Rankovce, a nearby village. There were participants from Rankovce in the NDI program as well. The main reason behind the club was that young people had no place to meet in this area except for the pubs. There are two pubs here in Kecerovce. We didn’t like meeting there because of drunk people and smoking. There was an opportunity to apply for local projects through NDI. Local groups could write up their own project and apply for funding. So we came up with the idea of having our own club where we could meet.

The club serves as an open space for youth to come here to pass the time. But we also run our own activities — some lectures, educational theater plays, and meetings. It’s also a place where we can plan events. Now we are preparing for International Children’s Day on June 1. We will do some events for kids here in the village.

What are your favorite activities here in the club?

Stano: Theater plays. Making plans for future events.

Julius: I’m surprised that informal educational activities are so popular among the youth. They talk about health, relationships, culture. I’m surprised that they want to be more informed. Yesterday they asked me to prepare a lecture on birth, abortion, and the prevention of pregnancy. Generally, the youth who participate in the club come up with topics that they want to get more information about. Sometimes I invite other professionals, or I’ll prepare something with Anicka.

The youth realized that they can do their own activities. They don’t need any strong support from outside. They discovered that they don’t need much financial support. There are a lot of things we can do for free.

This paper above my head is from the brainstorming we had at one meeting. It has various plans for how they want to change the village. Many of the things are quite expensive, for sure, like having a gasoline station or a pizzeria. But there are other things that they can do on their own, such as cleaning yards in front of the houses or preparing an event for youth on International Children’s Day. There will be 150 children at this event.

I want to ask about your experience in school. Do you feel that you had a good education, good teachers, good experience — or bad education, bad teachers, and a bad experience?

Anicka: I finished the forestry high school. I did this program for two years. The teachers were good. They took good care of the students and didn’t divide Roma from non-Roma. The non-Roma students had a different study program.

Julius: Those who studied in her school were only Roma. The non-Roma students were in the main school building in Kosice. But they met during practical programs, in the forest, for six days each month.

Were there tensions between Roma and non-Roma, or was it okay?

Anicka: It was okay. We worked together normally.

Julius: I have three children here in the elementary school in Kecerovce. I don’t think the level of education is very good here.

Can you compare it to the education you received in Kosice?

Julius: The main difference is that I was not raised in a completely Roma environment. There were three Roma pupils in each class in Kosice. There were higher demands on pupils when I was in school. The elementary school here provides a really low quality of education to the kids. My son is in eighth grade here at the elementary school, and the teacher in his classes is satisfied when the pupil can read a short article or count some basic math. To go to high school, the kids have to study much harder to get the same amount of information that the kids from other schools have. The kids in Kecerovice should get equal education. But only the kids with determination and who exert a lot more effort even finish high school.

Stano finished elementary school here and is now finishing high school in Kosice.

Stano: Four years ago when I was finishing elementary school here, the student body was 15 percent non-Roma, not just three non-Roma overall. I felt that the teachers gave more attention to the non-Roma students. The teachers did not expect that any of the Roma pupils would go to high school. When I got to high school in Kosice, the color of skin was not an issue only the level of knowledge or skills. The teachers in Kosice don’t care whether you are Roma or not.

I was missing a lot of information when I got to high school because of the education I received here. I had to expend a lot of personal effort to get to the same level as other students in my class. Teachers here cared only about non-Roma students because they hoped that they would get out of Kecerovce. They didn’t care about the future of Roma students.

Are the teachers here in Kecerovce Roma or non-Roma?

Julius: There’s only one Roma teacher in all the schools here.

Will there be Roma teachers in the future?

Julius: There are very few Roma who are studying to be teachers — there’s no money to pay for their training. Higher education is very expensive. A lot of young Roma enter family life very soon and don’t have money to spend for any education. Then there’s the discrimination in the labor market. If you’re a Roma with a high school certificate, it’s hard to find a job. Many times, young Roma are looking for a job and face non-Roma who have better qualifications — or even non-Roma with fewer qualifications but who still get the job. So, the Roma lose motivation to pursue higher education when they see guys who spend all that money for books and so on and who are just as unemployed as the Roma who didn’t study at all.

Is there any study of Roma culture or language in schools here?

Julius: There’s nothing in the elementary school curriculum on Roma culture or language. The most information about Roma culture they got is from this youth club. They were really surprised by the information they received here about their culture — things they didn’t know and didn’t get from school or their parents. There are two private high schools in Kosice owned by Roma that have grammar courses in Romani just like they’re foreign languages.  There are universities with study programs on Roma language and culture — but these lectures are also in Slovak.

Where do you think you will be in ten years, and what will you be doing?

Julius: I definitely don’t want to start anything new. I want to stay here. I see myself in 10 years in the same job position: working with youth, which I love doing. There’s a strong need for such work. But I’d like to have some job security. Most of the income of social workers comes from projects, and that’s always uncertain. So, in 10 years, I’d like to be a professional social worker with job security. And I hope I won’t be a grandfather in 10 years!

Stano: The first thing I need to do is to finish high school. Then I want to finish university. If I can find a job here, I’ll stay here. If not, I’ll look for a job elsewhere, even abroad.

Here in Kecerovce?

Stano: In Kosice.

Julius: A tourist guide to Roma settlements would be very good!

How about you, Anicka, where do you think you will be in 10 years?

Anicka: I don’t know.

What is your dream?

Anicka: I want to continue to be involved with youth. My dream would be to have a bigger space than this and develop even more programs.

What about the forestry work?

Anicka: No. I never worked there as a job. I was just doing it as part of school.

You could take young people out to the forest.

Anicka: Well, I certainly know a lot about the forests around here.

What was the best and the worst part of the NDI project?

Anicka: I liked everything in the program. There was only one training I didn’t like because there was a lot of sitting and listening to lectures, and there was no activity.

What was the training about?

Anicka: I don’t even remember!

Julius: We had that training on the day of the parliamentary elections. We got permission to vote in a small town near Presov. The people in the electoral commission there were surprised because it was a small community and everybody knew everybody else. So, they were surprised when two Roma and four other people came to vote. We were like intruders, but we all voted regularly.

Stano: The most positive experience was that during the six weekend trainings, youth from many different localities came together, Roma and non-Roma — and the barriers between us fell away. At the end, we were cooperating like a family, a bunch of friends, not just people who met at the training. The relationships really grew during the training. On the minus side, I’m scared that we will never meet again.

Julius: The most distant place is about 60 kilometers away. It’s not far, but they had a purpose to meet. Now it’s only on a voluntary basis.

Did this group also meet with folks from Hungary?

Julius: Yes, and they were great.

The Hungarians were Roma and non-Roma as well?

Julius: It was not visible who was Roma and non-Roma among the Hungarians. In Slovakia, it was visibly clear, with blonde Slovak girls and all.

The greatest thing for me, in terms of the NDI connection, is this place. It’s rented for free from the municipality. We don’t pay for rent or for utilities, including electricity and water. They restored the sanitation, so the bathroom works too. And we can use it as we want to — within limits, of course. There’s another room, with a separate entrance that the municipality rents for 35 euro per month. But ours is for free. We were also able to get a computer and a stove from the NDI program — and table and chairs from the municipality.

I also liked that the group of active youth remained even after the end of the NDI program. They learned how to discuss things and cooperate together, and they’re still meeting to work on future activities.

Is there a mentorship program through this club, for the older to mentor the younger?

Julius: There are two groups of young people, one from age 11 to 14, the other from 15 to 20. But on most of the activities they all work together at the same level. With some other activities, the older kids take a leading role. Stano and Anicka are sort of group leaders.

I spent some time in Bratislava. They told me I had to come to eastern Slovakia because it was different. Do you think it’s different out here than Bratislava? And why?

Julius: It’s definitely different here at a mental level. Here people are more open and generous. In Bratislava, people are more selfish. Here people live a more modest life and have fewer opportunities than people in Bratislava. But the most successful people in Bratislava are from eastern Slovakia.

Stano: Here, in the east, there is more unemployment than in Bratislava.

Julius: There is more culture and life in Bratislava: theaters, cinemas. There are more schools — high schools and universities – and more possibilities.

Do you think that discrimination has increased over the last few years? And what do you think is the best strategy for dealing with discrimination in this country: education, jobs, or civil rights protests?

Stano: I don’t have much experience with discrimination, possibly because of my complexion and what I wear and how I act in public. The discriminated against are mostly people who have a darker color of skin and wear worse clothes and don’t behave in public.  Education is the most important thing that can change the situation.

Anicka: I feel that the discrimination has decreased over the past four or five years. Back then I had more experience with discrimination, but I don’t know whether that’s just my personal situation. I also think that having more educated Roma is the best way to diminish discrimination.

Julius: As a social worker, I encounter discrimination every day. When I compare it to 20 years ago, there’s much more now, but it’s more hidden. People know exactly what they can say not to be labeled as discriminatory. For example, an employer can place an advertisement for an open position. They don’t write openly that they don’t take Roma. But every time you apply, they say, “Well, someone just applied five minutes ago and took the position.”

Regarding the three options, I choose the fourth — positive discrimination — what you call affirmative action in the United States. The changes that have taken place in the United States are important – just look at your Black president. Here there should be some quotas established by law related to the employment of Roma, such as 25 percent of all employees must be Roma. If this was legally enforced, it would help other aspects of general life. When you have a family that struggles on social benefits and who doesn’t even have enough money to buy food for the whole month, then the parents won’t care about the education of their children. But if these parents are employed and have enough money, they will start within a few months to think about their children’s future.

Also, 99 percent of the images of Roma in the media are negative. Over the last 24 years, the two groups of people lost nearly all contact. Before they were studying and working together, and they could create a more positive image of each other. During these past years, a kind of vacuum was created. The adults don’t meet because most Roma are unemployed and non-Roma are still working. Not even the youth meet in villages because they don’t go to school together. There’s only some mixing at the high schools. So, people have started to live separate lives.

We appreciate the NDI program because it was called Building Community Connections. The intention was to get Roma and non-Roma together, and we succeeded at this. At the beginning, the two groups of students didn’t talk much. They were sitting separately in the dining room. But by the end, they worked together and openly said that they changed their views of the other group. They’d discovered that they are very much like the other.

When do you think there will be a Roma president here in Slovakia? 

Julius: Never. I won’t be around when this happens. I didn’t see any progress over the last 20 years during the democracy period. The Slovak government is even destroying the Roma settlements now, and this didn’t happen in the last 150 years!

Around here as well?

Julius: The government is demolishing Piskanovo, 100 kilometers from here. It’s a relatively small Roma settlement with 20 houses. The municipality gave the inhabitants social houses with one-year contracts and then destroyed the settlement. The Roma moved to these new houses with one-year contracts, but it cost $200 euro a month. They won’t be able to pay. As soon as they go into debt, they’ll be kicked out.

Lunik 9, a quarter in Kosice, is a kind of ghetto with 6,000 inhabitants. Each of the apartment buildings there has 300 people living in them. Two or three of these buildings have already been demolished because the condition of the housing was terrible. And no one cares about where the people will go. Many of the families were in debt and didn’t pay rent. Or in one flat you might have several generations living there and some of them didn’t have any legal contracts. They ended up literally on the street. The municipality didn’t care about them because they didn’t have any contract. Only those with legal contracts and who were not indebted received other flats from the municipality.

Some of these people moved here to Kecerovce. And these newcomers moved to the worst part of the village and brought their negative habits, such as glue-sniffing, which they taught to the locals. Many of the people here live simple lives. They didn’t think about drugs before these people came and introduced this dangerous world. The people from Kecerovce were not ready for these habits from people of big towns like Kosice. They were struggling to get enough food for their families.

It makes your job more difficult.

Julius: Then we have to make unpopular decisions as social workers to make people safe. For example, we have to call the police to move the people from here back to Kosice. As a Roma, I don’t feel good about that. But there’s no other solution but to move the people away from here because they are bringing problems. These people don’t have any legal housing here. They don’t have permanent addresses. They just come for a visit and stay for half a year. They might build a shack to live in. Their kids go to the elementary school, and it’s hard to get them out of the village.

Stano: I don’t think we’ll see a Roma president in our lifetime either.

Julius: How long did it take for an African American to become president?

It depends where you date it from. The civil rights movement we’re familiar with started in the 1950s. So, it took half a century, basically, from the beginning of the more familiar civil rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Birmingham bus boycott were in 1955 and Obama was born in 1961.

Julius: The difference between the United States and Slovakia, during Communism and now, is that Roma are equally treated at the legislative level. But there’s a big gap between law and reality. No one knows when our reality will be equal to the law. So, maybe we are in the same situation here as you were in the 1960s.

Kecerovce, May 4, 2013

Interpreter: Ondrej Poduska