The last thing I saw before I dozed off was the morning-lit view of Prague from my train window. Around four hours later, I opened my eyes to see Ostrava, the third-largest city in the Czech Republic. To be honest, I don’t remember much of the city. And that’s because my experience of seeing the Roma community in Ostrava is the only thing that seems to stick to my memories of the trip.
The bus ride to the Roma community from the train station was long, and the residential area was on the outskirts of the city, detached from everything else. As we got off, the bus driver, a white Czech man, looked strangely at one of our group members, Yveta. He then asked Yveta, a white Czech woman, if she was really getting off here. I caught the gist. To him, this wasn’t a place for white Czechs. This was a place for the “others.” The bluntness of his racism shook me.
The first row of houses I saw in the Roma community were uniform in size, shape and color. The houses were two-story block houses painted gray, and you could see several yards with laundry hung out in the front. They were a bit older and in need of some maintenance. As we walked by, people curiously peered out of windows and doors. Some residents waved shyly. Our guide on the trip told us that the average rent of these flats was around the same price as the average rent in Prague: 18,337.08 korunas or approximately $802, according to Numbeo. Supposedly, the owners, who abandoned responsibility for these buildings years ago, now leach off of already impoverished Roma families. These families must accept these terrible conditions, because they have no other place to go.
About a block away from the houses was a small one-story building with a backyard specked with patches of grass and two small rusted soccer goals, surrounded with fences draped with plant overgrowth. The building was a community center and a place of solace for the Roma children. The center had a dancing space with a wall covered in mirrors, an arts and crafts room, a music room and a computer room. According to the center organizer, the community center is mostly funded through donors and the sales of planks, which are made by collecting abandoned wood. Before the kids arrived at the center, we hid treats in multi-colored plastic Easter eggs in the backyard as a surprise. Yveta and the NYU Prague staff prepared this event for the kids before, so the delighted children knowingly foraged for the treats. And before we left the community center, the children danced for us.
When we got to the bus stop to visit the next Roma community, there was graffiti written on the wall that allegedly said, “Go to hell, gypsies.” (Gypsy is a derogatory slang for Roma people.) Professor Salim Murad used a colored pencil to cover up the writing, and Yveta replaced it with a heart.
When we arrived at the next community, the situation looked much worse. On one side of the community center was a bridge underneath the road, and on the other was a road curve from which speeding cars frequently zoomed. The first thing I saw was a continuous cloud of black smoke coming out of a blackened pipe out of the side of the wall. This is because the community center was heated by wood-fueled furnaces, but the unhealthy condition still took me by surprise. Inside the center were elderly, middle-aged and young Roma people all gathered like one family in a medium-sized living room. The center had one additional room and a kitchen.
Towards the end of our visit, the children danced for us like the children from the other community had, and this time we joined in.
Every moment in Ostrava with the Roma people was bittersweet. The hope that our visit would be a positive experience for the children made me cheery in the moment. Yet it didn’t soothe the fact that this trip would do nothing to solve the systematic discrimination towards the Roma people. These communities will still need to pay unreasonably high rent to live in terrible conditions. The majority of the children still cannot attend college because the education system sets them up to fail. They will still have to work illegally because of Roma discrimination, and more than 75 precent of members in these communities will still be unemployed in a country with the lowest unemployment rate in the European Union.
At the end of the day in Ostrava, I was fed dinner at a nice sit-down restaurant and given a single room in a hotel by NYU. Our group took the last spot for a tour of the Bolt Tower. Within less than 48 hours, I had the chance to see the Roma slums in Ostrava, empathize with the people there, feel anger and even resentment at the the discriminatory system that holds them back, and then go back to Prague.
Ostrava opened my eyes to the inequality that the Roma still face in the Czech Republic, just as hundreds of other injustices had opened my eyes before. I hope that this time I won’t doze off away from reality.
Photo Credits: Kyle Kim