Between shelves brimming with Mandarin literature, walls filled with Chinese tapestries, and an aroma inundated with the scent of Longjing tea, Martin Kriz’s home décor is fitting as he describes his life as an African Czech using one word: different.
A Chinese Translator and founder of a non-profit organization for orphaned children, Martin Kriz has consistently confronted the challenge of being in an outsider. In the Czech Republic, less than one percent of the population identifies as black and 95 to 98 percent are purely Czech.
“Being different in Czech society can put you in danger of a comfortable life,” said Kriz. “But being different might end up being a solution.”
The danger of living comfortably as a minority is particularly heightened in the Czech Republic which has been distinguished as one of the most xenophobic country in the European Union, according to critics.
African Czechs were formerly perceived as successful as they originally migrated to the Czech Republic on scholarship during the Communist era. Starting in the 1950’s, a small number of Africans entered the Czech Republic and their studies were funded, mainly for medicine. Kriz’s birth father was studying at a Czech University when he met Kriz’s mother. However, his father returned to Africa a few years after Kriz’s birth. This left Kriz with a Czech mother and Czech step-father.
Although Martin Kriz was born at a time where Czechs saw Africans from a Communist-era perspective, this positive view shifted as Czechs see the atrocities of war in Africa.
“There is a large popular resentment towards migration of people from non-European countries,” said Yasar Abu Ghosh, a current professor at New York University Prague specializing in sociocultural anthropology. “Now people don’t make many distinctions between the Africans brought during the communist time and the events that took place in North Africa that triggered recent migration.”
The Czech Republic not only has the least favorable view of migrants but was also one of two countries in the European Union whose attitude towards immigrants became more disapproving since 2003, according to 2015 statistics done by Norwegian Social Science Data Services.
The image of war-ridden immigrants seared into the thoughts of Czechs is the source of this xenophobia says Ghosh. “There is no foundation for the feeling of danger because the Czech Republic is not receiving any asylum seekers.”
In 2015 only 1,156 people applied for asylum in a country of ten million.
In a time emblazoned by increasing anti-immigrant attitudes in the Czech Republic, Kriz hopes to help combat the alienation that ethnic minorities face as the result of increasing Czech xenophobia, Martin Kriz co-founded a non-profit organization: Chocolate Children or Cokoladove Deti.
“I set up a network with people with the same experience related to the effect of being different,” said Kriz.
The NGO, which Kriz co-founded with two Czech Television journalists, unites orphans from various locations in the Czech Republic for events such as fashion shows, sporting events with students from other schools, retirement home visits, and Christmas celebrations. Kriz aims at specifically aiding minority orphans as he feels they face the most difficulties assimilating into Czech culture.
A university student, volunteer for Chocolate Children, and biracial Czech herself, Flaviancia Mouyabi advocates for the work of the program.
“I remembered how hard it was for me to grow up being different and that I had no self confidence because of it,” Mouyabi said. “I think this organization helps not only the society to understand and accept difference but also helps children to take their difference as something they should be proud of and appreciate.”
Martin Kriz similarly tackled the issue of confidence due to his different appearance as he grew up in a smaller town in northern Bohemia, Teplice. He perceived the true stigma of his skin color when he began to date women in high school, and their parents would not approve of him.
“I had a girlfriend and her father said that a black guy could be interesting, but if she wanted to settle down, she would have to look further,” said Kriz. “He told her if she stayed with me, her kids would go through hell.”
Despite facing rejection from Czech women based on the color of his skin, it was this same rejection that propelled him to bond with someone new: A Taiwanese woman. After attending St. Petersburg State University and moving back to the Czech Republic to work in advertising, he also focused on his relationship.
“We had a lot in common, she also felt she was different,” said Kriz. “We were in a rock band, I played guitar and she was the singer.”
Despite their relationship being temporary, the Asian culture that his girlfriend acquainted him with became a permanent and significant aspect of Kriz’s life. He immersed himself into the culture by going back to Charles University and getting a degree in Sinology. Desiring to completely engulf his life into Chinese culture, he became a foreign correspondent in China for Czech Television three years starting in 2002.
Kriz now works as a Chinese translator for the Czech government and part time Chinese instructor at Charles University, while also adorning his Prague home with artifacts from the streets of Beijing.
Although being different was initially seen as an obstacle for Kriz, he expressed that he wouldn’t have achieved what he has if it had not been for him accepting his difference and using his experience to help others. His obstacle became his solution.
Martin Kriz did acknowledge that he did not have as difficult of a time in the Czech Republic as some other minorities such as the Roma. Roma, otherwise known as Gypsies, have been historically the group facing the greatest degree of discrimination in former Eastern Bloc countries.
However, Kriz’s program focuses on all minorities that struggle to feel acceptance in the Czech Republic. Kriz claimed his goal is not only to help and educate the Chocolate Children but for them to educate others as well. One of the events that Chocolate Children held this year involved the members and children going into schools and sharing their stories.
One of the board members for Chocolate Children, Simona Martinkova, claimed that members shared their thoughts to “show the diversity in our society, uncover the myths of different groups, and offer a personal meeting as an opportunity for understand between people.”
Kriz proclaimed that his central focus for the future of chocolate children was not to get “bigger and bigger” but to get “better and better.”
While the children have been gaining social skills through the program, Kriz says that he feels rewarded since the creation of the program.
“If you were to earn a million dollars per year, that’s how it feels. So, I’m kind of a billionaire now.”