When I got to the train station the morning of the trip to Ostrava, Czech Republic, only four students were there with the four RAs/faculty, and it already seemed like a very different experience from any of the other NYU trips. Ostrava, one of the most polluted and industrial cities in the country, is also home to a large population of Roma people.
Before coming to the Czech Republic, discrimination and oppression of the Roma people is definitely not a social issue i knew much about. Of course, throughout the semester, it’s something that not only did I learn about in my classes, but was evident in the environment around me. Because of this, I wanted to go to Ostrava and learn more about the issues and actually speak to the people working against the discrimination they and their communities face.
We got on the train and after about four hours, reached the city. As the train pulled into Ostrava, the immediate surroundings reflected what I heard about it. Smoke rose above the city in clouds from the many large chimneys and bricks and brass architecture told us we really were in the post-industrial city of Ostrava. As we walked to the hotel, the scenery changed to prettier, more Prague-like buildings, but hints of the heavy pollution and industrialization were always there.
After dropping off our stuff at the hotel, we walked to the non-profit Life Together, part of the wider, European non-profit called DARE (Desegregation and Action for Roma Education Network), an organization of both Roma and non-Roma activists that fights for desegregated school systems and equal access to education for Roma children. We were greeted warmly by all the workers, and then got to sit with two women who work there, Renata and Anna, who explained the many obstacles Roma children face in accessing education, what that means for their future, and the implications these problems have on the Roma community as a whole. Hearing the first-hand stories of the horrible ways teachers discriminate against small children was one of the most revealing about how deep the prejudice against the Roma people runs in the Czech Republic. The fact teachers will actively and openly discriminate against children as young as five, and then blame genetics and send them to worse schools after refusing to help them like they help to non-roma children really sums up how people view the Roma community, and what activists like Renata and Anna are up against.
After seeing the non-profit, we went to the community center Renata runs for the Roma Community there. She and Věra, who is in charge of the dance group there, showed us around. We got to meet some of the girls who hang out there, and they performed their traditional dance for us. It was really interesting to see how this center helps Roma kids, and to get a feel for the sense of community there. From the wood-working room, the music room, the computer room, and just places to hang out, the community center was clearly very loved by the kids, and we could see that Renata acted very much as both a mother-figure and leader to the girls there.
Then, Renata took us to her home in a neighborhood right by the community center, called “living together”. This community is one of a kind in Europe, created to show that Roma and non-roma could live to together without any problems. With 10 Roma families, 10 non-roma families, and 10 families of mixed roma and non-roma couples, this community proves what too many people refuse to believe: that Roma people are not the source of their communities problems, rather the prejudice and systematic oppression is, and they can in fact live peacefully with non-roma people.
Next, was dinner back by the hotel, where we were lucky to have Renata and Věra join us as well. They were incredibly funny (even though everything had to be translated through the RAs) and shared amazing stories, both about the work they do with DARE and at the community center, as well as just funny stories from their personal lives. After getting all the free food we could out of NYU, we headed back to the hotel after a long, incredibly interesting day.
The next day, the first thing on the agenda was a tour of an old industrial factory in the Víktovice area - where we saw the old blast furnaces and coke ovens, and got a walk through of the coal processing which gave us more background on the cities history before we continued learning about the problems the Roma communities face there today.
Then, we heading back over to around the community center where we met with Renata again, and saw, what to me was the most horrendous part of the trip. We walked down a street of the worst housing in the city. Roma people, who many landlords refuse to rent to, are forced into horrible conditions that still cost a normal price for rent. The crumbling anteriors, empty doorways, and broken windows lined the street. No heat, no gas, no running water - these buildings would have looked abandoned, had it not been for the people walking around and chopping doors and other wood torn from their own houses to heat their home. As the freezing wind blew around us, Renata told us about how the owners of the properties are making tons of money off the systemic oppression of Roma people. Because many landlords won’t rent to Roma people, these landlords rent exclusively to Roma, but the price raised way above what the buildings cost. For many, it is the cheapest that will rent to them, though it is still way higher than necessary. Then, the landlords neglect the tenants and the buildings, while they get rich, people are burning their own doors for heat.
On that note, we said goodbye to Renata and went back to the hotel for check-out. Overall, the Ostrava overnight trip was incredibly interesting and sombering, and it definitely humanized a social issue that previously felt very far away from me as an American. I feel very lucky I could get out of Prague and get a wider, and more real, sense of how people in the Czech Republic live, as well as a better understanding of how the societal inequalities we talk about in class actually affects people in their day to day life. Also, speaking to Renata and Věra about what they do for their communities was incredible, especially to really see how the non-profit and community center function within the community and really address a difficult situation from all angles. I’m very glad I decided to go on the Ostrava trip, and learn about the problems the Roma community faces in a much more direct and meaningful way than I could have in a classroom/