Proud to be Romani?

The Roma are a controversial topic in the Czech Republic, and people of Roma origin are often mistreated. After the fall of the Communist regime in 1989, the country began opening up to other ethnicities, and the treatment of minorities improved gradually. But there is still a lot of stigma regarding the Roma.

Stably “poor”

The situation is so bad that in 2011 just slightly more than 13,000 people were officially registered as Roma, only 2,000 higher than in 2001 even though it is clear that the Roma population has increased a lot more than that. Roma attitudes about their nationality can be traced to the treatment they receive from the surrounding, majority population – all of which is reflected in the results of national opinion polls.

There was a poll conducted in April 2010 by the Center for Public Opinion Research to determine how Czechs felt about the relations between them and the Roma minority. The results were that 82% of the participants rated the relations between Roma and non-Roma as “poor” and 33% of these went as far as rating the relations “very poor”. Only 13% of the participants rated relations with the Roma as “good”. This poll was also done the year before, and a comparison between the two years shows that relations had improved. Unfortunately, however, the difference was so small that it falls within the margin of error. It is worth noting that in 2009 the situation was worse than in 2007, and the lack of progress is quite worrying.

Although there are individual instances where people change their minds and occasions when results of surveys help change the opinions of defined population segments, the general public opinion about the Roma isn’t improving – the negativity has in fact tripled over the past twenty years.

Myths and facts

In November a study was done by the Czech Republic’s Agency for Social Inclusion to delineate the attitudes of young Czechs between the ages of 15 and 25. The study asked respondents to rate the truthfulness of seven statements about the Roma, five of which were popular myths that were widely believed among the public. The results showed that 44% of all those surveyed believe that Roma families get higher government benefits than Czech families. Also 43% think that a majority of the unemployed in the Czech Republic are Roma. Twenty-nine percent believe that Roma get free medicine. This shows how negative ideas and myths spread, and the impact is reflected in the results of opinion polls.

There was also a study done on Roma women and how they feel about education. Another popular myth is that Roma women aren’t interested in being educated. To test the validity of this myth, 600 Roma women were questioned and only 6% said that they didn’t find it of key importance for their children to have a high school education. The results also showed that 99% do not want their children to end up in “special” schools – because many Roma children get segregated from Czech children and end up studying with the mentally handicapped.

Live as an “exception to the rules”

Michal Ďorď is a 26 year old Roma living in Prague. He grew up in a children’s home and went to school in Frỳdlant v Čechách and only moved to Prague at the age of 20. Although the town he grew up in had many Roma living in it, he was one of only two Roma in his elementary school. He always had good grades and was considered well behaved, so the other Czech children treated him as one of their own. Even his closest friends later told him that he didn’t look like a typical Roma. They thought he was Indian or Arab. The other Roma in the school – a girl – on the other hand was not as fortunate.

“She was from a regular poor Roma family,” explains Ďorď, “her classmates and teachers thought her bad grades and low attendance meant that she wasn’t behaving.” The kids would say bad things about her and, being part of their group, Ďorď said them too. He wasn’t taught about his identity in school or at the children’s home. “Schools are still not focusing on individuals,” he explains, “they assimilate.” Since he never got the chance to develop his social or ethnic identity he didn’t associate himself with the Roma – and the other children had just as little knowledge which is why they treated the Roma girl so badly. Neither they nor Ďorď at the time realized that her living conditions, background or social-exclusion had a negative influence on her behavior and education. It wasn’t until high school that he got to talk to her and realized that she was a nice person. It wasn’t that he realized that they were one ethnicity and bonded because of that – he realized that she had a nice personality, and that changed everything.

In his last year of university he started an NGO to help people like him. Vteřina Poté has two main programs: advocacy and education. Right now a document involving a pilot program partially based on the survey results of Vteřina Poté is being tested by the Ministry of Education to include identity development in volunteer children’s homes. Perhaps Michal’s work will help to reshape public opinion and compel people to face the facts, not the myths, about the Roma.

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