Roma people, known by the derogatory term ‘gypsies’, have been historically persecuted and still face extreme racism in the Czech Republic and many other former communist countries. During the Holocaust, 90% of the Czech Roma people were killed in concentration camps. In the Czech Republic 2011 Census, less than 14,000 people (about 2%) identified themselves as being Roma and nearly 40,000 identified themselves as speaking a Roma language as their primary language, yet the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency estimates that the actual population exceeds 250,000. Many public school teachers still do not count the Roma children in their classes when reporting class numbers to the government. In a Ceske Budejovice neighborhood, only one out of ten thousand Czech Roma children will make it to university. And to this day, the Roma have no representation in the government. Even after being here for two months, I knew none of this until last week.
The lack of Roma visibility and representation in the Czech Republic has led to a lack of public awareness about their culture, and the first time I began to really understand the hardships of the Roma was this past week at the conference titled Roma in Europe: Toward Representation and Recognition at the University of South Bohemia in Ceske Budejovice. The conference was one part of a week-long effort to have university students recognize important Roma issues and topics.
I was invited to the conference by my NYU Prague professor Salim Murad, who has organized the conference for the past few years and works passionately on human rights issues. Along with teaching at NYU, he is a course coordinator and lecturer for the European Master in Migration and Intercultural Relations (EEMIR) course and he teaches at the South Bohemia University (USB). He has worked on projects for UNHCR Czech Republic and the Human Rights Education Centre of Charles University in Prague. He brought together his NYU, EMMIR, and USB students together for this cultural learning opportunity.
When we first got to Ceske Budejovice we visited the Salesian Youth Center, designed to give all of the young community members a place to develop and help bridge the communication between the Roma and non-Roma. The center offers open play times, tutors, workshops, classes, and even a summer camp, all of which is free to children. The center was beautifully maintained and had a glass-enclosed soccer field on the roof! After visiting the center, we climbed to the roof of communist block apartment building and spoke to a resident and police officer about tensions in their community. Looking out from the top of the apartment building, all you could see were more concrete, bland-looking buildings that were painted bright colors and designs in an attempt to add life through color.
The day concluded with the actual conference itself, where I got to hear three speakers talk about their experiences and interactions in the Roma community. The first speaker was Gwendolyn Albert, who is a human rights activist, journalist, and consultant to the Council of Europe. She shared her research regarding the Romani community, and I got to speak to her about issues regarding a Roma Holocaust site. The next speaker was Yveta Kenety, the Assistant Director for Student Life at NYU Prague. Yveta has a background in working with Roma rights in various positions, and shared her own emotional story of discovering her Roma heritage at age 25. She grew to look past prejudices she may have had and devoted her efforts to bettering education in the Roma community. The final speaker was Jitka Votavova, who works for the organization ROMEA where she and Yveta worked together. She highlighted some of the great education and social programs for Roma students.
The conference was aimed at Roma Representation and Recognition, but there were almost no Roma students there. This conference is a step in the right direction, but highlights how far the Czech Republic and other similar countries need to come to reach social equality and the need for the Roma people to feel safe to identify themselves as being part of their unique heritage.