I am a Rom. I work for a foundation that deals
with educating Romani children and youth. Since I am 24 years old, I have
a very personal knowledge of the issues that affect Romani youth in the
Czech Republic. The Roma of my generation can be divided into two main
groups: those who grew up within the Romani community and those who grew
up mainly in a non-Romani environment.
The first group of Roma live in isolation from the majority of the population.
In Prague, they generally live in enclosed enclaves in the neighborhoods
of Smíchov, Karlín, or Zizkov. The only advantage to this
kind of life is that it facilitates the preservation of Romani traditions.
A relatively large number of the children who grow up in such families
know how to speak the Romani language and they are familiar with many Romani
songs. Roma from this group have a better feeling for their own identity
than those who grow up outside the Romani community. Nevertheless, even
in these enclosed communities many Romani children suffer from feelings
of inferiority. Little wonder, since they constantly hear negative things
about the Roma in Czech society and experience racism in the schools they
I belong to the second group. For the past 20 years,
our family has lived in the Prague neighborhood of Holešovice, which does
not have many Romani residents. My parents considered it important for
us to get along with our neighbors. They gradually made some non-Romani
friends who used to come on visits to our place. However, they made these
friends precisely because they made no overt indications that they belong
to the Romani community. Until I was about six years old, I was psychologically
all right. It didn't particularly occur to me that I was a Rom.
Everything changed when I started to attend elementary school. The kids
at school started calling me a stinking Gypsy, nobody wanted to
have anything to do with me, and nobody wanted to stand next to me in gym
class. My first reaction was to deny my identity. I started telling people
that I was no Gypsy, that I was Hungarian or whatever. I used to come home
crying and I started bringing home bad report cards. I wanted to go to
a special school because I knew that most of the kids there would be Roma.
But my parents wanted me to get a good education, so I stayed on at the
regular elementary school.
When I finished grade three, my parents had me
transferred to another school. By then, I had learned my lesson and I told
everyone at my new school from the outset that I was Hungarian. All of
a sudden, everything was better. After all, people here get along with
a Hungarian a lot better than they do with a Rom.
During this time, I had no opportunity to establish my own identity.
My parents did not teach me the Romani language because they wanted me
to be completely fluent in Czech. Although I started to play the violin
at age eight, I barely knew anything about Romani music. I played classical
When I finished elementary school, I started going to a high school
that specialized in economics. There was no way I could pass myself off
as a Hungarian there, and I no longer wanted to either. Because of that,
I had only one friend in the entire school. The other students used to
make fun of me by saying, for instance, how great it was that I could have
such a nice suntan in the winter.
Thankfully, the communist regime collapsed in December 1989. For the
first time, I felt pride when I saw several Roma at the anti-communist
demonstrations and heard a Romani representative say: "The Roma are with
you." The crowd responded with vigorous applause. Unfortunately, after
the revolution, several guys at the school shaved their heads and started
making my life difficult. That's an old story, though.
I think my story is typical for children who belong
to the second group. The parents, out of fear that their children will
not be accepted in society, try to ensure that their kids will be assimilated
into the majority culture. But complete assimilation is impossible. Their
children grow up with a contradictory identity. They don't consider themselves
to be Roma, but they know that they are not gadje (non-Roma) either.
They are full of complexes.
Any solution to such problems requires communication between the Roma
and the gadje. Those gadje who might have an interest in communication
are afraid of it because they know almost nothing about the Roma. Neither
the gadje nor the Romani children are taught anything in Czech schools
about the Roma. It has gotten to the point where even the Roma no longer
have a desire for communication.
While the gadje are bombarded with distorted information about the negative
phenomena related to Roma, the Roma have become skeptical about whether
the Czech Republic really plans to crack down on racist-related crimes.
The sad fact is that whenever a large group of Roma get together at a dance,
almost every one of them has had a personal experience with a skinhead
attack. In my family, my father has been attacked once, my sister once,
my brother three times, and I myself have been attacked three times. While
many Czechs are shocked at the number of reported racist-related crimes,
the actual number is far higher because many Roma don't believe the police
will do anything about them and so they have stopped reporting them to
The recent so-called Romani exodus to Canada was
naively attributed to a report on TV Nova, when in fact Roma have been
leaving this country in droves for five years now. Large Romani families
like the Demeters, the Lols, the Rusenkovs, and the Taragoš have already
left. I feel regret as I write these lines because many of my good friends
have also left. They never harmed anyone. They were simply born as Roma.
The best Romani émigrés left first. Last week, I heard that
12-year-old Filip Taragoš, who could potentially become one of the world's
best dulcimer players, left with his family. If you believe what the media
say you might think that these Roma are emigrating for economic reasons.
That is nonsense. The Roma who are leaving the country are the ones who
are better off, more entrepreneurial, more educated. Most Roma leave because
of violent racism. The Czech Republic has the third largest number of skinheads
in Europe! Last year, I tried to convince Vasil Lol, an outstanding musician
who isn't so bad off financially, to stay. He told me: "The fact that the
skinheads have beaten me up doesn't bother me. But I won't let my children
get killed." I couldn't find a counterargument.
I have a feeling that the atmosphere in the Czech
Republic is now ripe for change. Both gadje and Roma should now move to
loudly express their opposition to racism of any kind, the majority culture
should strive to learn more about Roma culture, and a dialogue should be
initiated between the two groups. If each one of us starts to deal with
other people as inviduals, we might discover that in most cases we will
also be treated as individuals. My non-Romani friends, who are far more
numerous than they used to be, would certainly agree.