The Hostel on the Hill

The lack of enforcement…combined with individual antigypsism, has culminated in the continued pollution of prejudice into the Czech education system…

It is one thing to write about Roma related human rights from behind a laptop, but it is another thing altogether to experience for yourself the challenges faced by the Roma community and the charities trying so hard to provide services.

I got this opportunity with the “Roma Social Exclusion” class; taught by Dr. Ondřej Klípa at the Charles University Humanities Faculty in Prague. Our class took buses to meet with the charity Člověk v Tísni (People in Need) in Kladno. The charity, in Czechia, concerns itself mostly with the Roma community and, during our time in Kladno, we learnt some hard but honest truths from the representative social worker.  These truths, coupled with a walk to a Roma settlement on the outskirts of Kladno, popularly known as “Ubytovna Na Kopečku” (Hostel on the Hill), confirmed to us the dire treatment of the Roma in Czechia.

Whether it was the decimation of Czechoslovak Roma communities during the Holocaust, called “the Porajamos” in Romani (literally “The Destruction), or the proceeding policies of aggressive forced assimilation by the Communist regime; you can lay out various examples in Czech and European history which tell a story of victimisation of the Roma community. Very recently, Czechia has seen the election of a populist government, who is prepared to collaborated with Roma Holocaust-deniers, and a President (Miloš Zeman) who describes Roma as “unadaptable”. The toxicity of the political discourse in Czechia has contributed to deteriorating race relations and has, arguably, created more of a rift between ‘majority’ white and ‘minority’ Roma populations.  Very often, it is the social workers who are left to pick up the pieces and Kladno is no exception.

Being declared as essentially socially incompatible by the highest office in the country has its own profound effects on an already victimised community – especially children.  Arriving in Kladno, we were hosted by Člověk v Tísni at their youth centre. It was a living example that Roma children are as talented, intelligent and, yes, as normal as any other child. There were walls with paintings and drawings, shelves of used books, there were pictures of smiling children on trips and, most impressive to me, were the bilingual posters in Romani and Czech. Roma children have so much potential and clearly want to contribute to society.  However, their potential is being destroyed by a society which, momentarily, rejects them.

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Photo: Ondřej Klípa Člověk v Tísni Youth Centre, Kladno

The education of Roma children in Czechia is, what can only be described as, a series of human rights abuses. Not just my opinion, this was the landmark judgement of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of D.H v Czech Republic (D.H) in 2007.  The Czech government was ruled to have quasi-automatically segregated Roma children into vastly inferior “special schools”, designed for mentally disabled children. The Czech government was instructed to change its national policy and, ever since, national and international NGOs have been monitoring the government’s next steps to educational reform. So far, reports from organisations like the Open Society indicate that only cosmetic changes have been made and that educational segregation persists.

Having previously written about D.H, it was shocking to hear confirming testimony from the social worker that nothing had indeed changed.  We were told of a common occurrence. Roma parents want their child to attend a regular primary school and so they approach the school of their choice.  They are more often than not told that there are no spaces available but that other schools (often substandard “special schools”) have open spaces.  One of the roles of Člověk v Tísni is to intervene in such incidents and demand proof of over-subscription. As the social worker in Kladno described, if pressure is applied to individual schools or headmasters, a place invariably and suddenly becomes available. The lack of enforcement of the D.H judgment, combined with individual antigypsism, has culminated in the continued pollution of prejudice into the Czech education system, affecting some of the most vulnerable in society.

Inextricably linked to a child’s health, educational attainment and development is the quality and stability of housing. Roma were originally nomadic, but as the Communists enforced a failed vision of social assimilation, ghettoised estates (like Chánov, Usti nad Labem) popped up as an option of last resort. Before we walked to the Roma settlement, the social worker informed us of an infamous Roma ghetto in Kladno – “Masokombinat”.  The converted former industrial slaughterhouse, ironically, herded in a large portion of Kladno’s Roma population in disgusting and poorly facilitated conditions.  However dire the accommodation, this was home to hundreds of Roma families who, in the majority of cases, had nowhere else to go. Masokombinat was repossessed by the local council and was in the process of deconstruction by the time we visited.

One would think there would have been adequate back-up provision for the Roma families who were effectively made homeless by this move.  There was, but the flats being offered to Roma families were only for those who did not have debt or unpaid financial penalties.  According to the social worker, nearly all the Roma families she deals with have some type of financial difficulty, therefore, only a tiny percentage of the former Masokombinat inhabitants were re-located.  Those with amounting arrears and existing debt had nowhere to go.

Way out of town, close to the motorway and up a dirt path on a hill is where many Roma families ended up. “Ubytovna Na Kopečku”, as it is seemingly affectionately called, was not the stereotypical horror-show of a mud churning, rubbish-strewn ghetto.  Strange as it seems, the former wooden builders’ blocks had a certain element of organisation.  However, this did little to disguise the physical reality of what the systematic oppression of a whole people group can produce.

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Photo: Ondřej Klípa – Wooden huts of “Ubytovna Na Kopečku”, Kladno

As I was looking at the decaying wood, the bleak surroundings and the clear dirt and squalor, I saw an alternative life that I could have led.  I share my ethnicity with the inhabitants of “Ubytovna Na Kopečku” and seeing what is a reality for many people who look like me had a profound effect.  Naturally, there is a feeling of anger towards the Czech government, the EU and the rest of the international community who have acted, if at all, so shamefully slowly to tackle such obvious prejudice.

However, there was also a sense of pride when looking at the ghetto.  It might seem an inappropriate feeling to have, but I want you to think of what you would do if you were faced with oppression at every corner you turned.  Roma parents are trying to enroll their children into mainstream schools, trying to get stable employment (contrary to stereotypes) and still have to raise children in such awful conditions. The Roma should be proud of their decades of resilience, but this resilience has been moulded through unrelenting discrimination.  To the shame of Europe.

Published by the Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University in Prague: “The Hostel on the Hill”

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