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Slovakia: The Roma People, “Livin’ On the Edge”

One of the major ethnic minorities in Central Europe are the Gypsy/Roma/Romani people. It is unclear how many of them live in Slovakia, because often they label themselves as ethnic Slovaks or ethnic Hungarians in the polls.

They arrived centuries ago here, and even though this is their home, they're not fully integrated with the majority. In the Slovak language, for example, “to gypsy” (cigániť) means “to lie.” On the other hand, they are popular for their dynamic music and, historically, they've been considered excellent blacksmiths and horse herders.

Traditionally, they've been living in their own communities, some of them as nomads. They survived various assimilation initiatives, some of which would be deemed unacceptable today. During World War II, from 220,000 to 1,500,000 Romani were killed by the Nazis.

An illegal Roma settlement in Slovakia. Photo by Flickr user matýsek/Matus Kacmar (CC BY 2.0)

During the socialist era, nomadic way of life was prohibited, and instead of their wagons and ghettos, the Roma received new flats. One of Slovakia's largest and best-known Roma neighborhoods is Luník 9 in Košice.

After the fall of communism, the poorly educated members of the Roma community became the first victims of unemployment. Unable to pay their bills, some of them left their flats and created illegal colonies, with no access to public services, such as electricity, sewage and garbage collection.

They also grew to rely on social benefits a lot. One of the common majority stereotypes is that the Roma “have many children because of the related benefits” – even though a large share of children in foster homes are Roma.

Poverty leads to increase in crime. People living near the Roma colonies are unable to enjoy fruits of their work in gardens and fields, and even trees in national parks are being cut illegally. Children and old people are being robbed, often by the Roma youngsters who cannot be prosecuted. Real estate located close to Roma neighborhoods is quickly losing value. Some people are trying to defend themselves. In the village of Ostrovany, for example, a wall was erected between the Roma neighoborhood and the rest of the village – but it proved useless, because young thieves were able to get over it.

The media tend to focus a lot more on the problematic members of the minority than on the ordinary Roma, while some people in the majority population tend to believe that most of the unpleasant facts about the minorities are concealed to keep “social harmony.”

Fortunately, along with the state's positive discrimination, various non-governmental organizations are working with the Roma, visiting them regularly, teaching them how to deal with money and highlighting the importance of educating their children. The work done by Jozef Červeň (SLO), a Catholic priest from Luník 9, is a good example of this kind of effort.

A Roma settlement in Moldava nad Bodvou, East Slovakia. This place, called The Hole, is outside the city. In the newer part of it, there are newly-built one-room houses for one family. Some of them are clean, colorful and nice. Others are dirty and very poor. In the old part, there is one block of dilapidated flats, as well as many shacks, made of different kinds of materials. Photo by Terra, copyright © Demotix (08/22/2009).

But life could be hard even for the educated and otherwise “mainstream” members of the Roma community.

Blogger Janette Maziniova (SLO) spoke about her experiences in an interview (SLO) with SME.sk. Her problems started in elementary school, when her family moved to a different city and no one wanted to be friends with her. Even her teacher would reserve the seat next to her for bad students. As an adult, Maziniova failed to keep the job of a door-to-door insurance seller – because of the color of her skin. A waiter at a restaurant once refused to serve her – until she started speaking French to him.

On the other hand, Silvia Šarköziová, a successful musician, said she had only encountered indirect racism (SLO). She recalled, for example, how her daughter had to persuade her friends she was a Gypsy, because they did not believe someone like her could be one.

According to media reports, the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), is filing a complaint with the European Commission regarding Slovakia’s failure to remove all forms of racial discrimination. Miroslav Lacko, head of the Košice branch of ENAR's Slovak branch, said (SLO) that “racism in Slovakia has become part of everyday life” and cited as an example the construction of a new segregated colony for the Roma, financed by the Slovak government with the knowledge and money of the EU. “It is concentration camp surrounded by a fence,” Lacko said.

ENAR's initiative has been widely commented on in the Slovak online space.

Blogger Zuzana Panáková wrote (SLO):

Every activist speaking about discrimination should buy a small house in one of those villages in Eastern Slovakia, where Gypsies make up at least 60% of the population, and live off nothing else but the fruits of the earth he would plant himself. Only after this such an activist would have the right to complain, provided he still feels it is reasonable. [...] After one year in such conditions I will ask him the following questions: [...] What part of the planted produce ended up reaching the activist's table? Do you have a dog or another animal? Do you have tear gas or a knife in your pocket? [...]

Below are some of the comments to the SME.sk article (SLO) about ENAR.

mar9:

I also have a fence around my house. Does it make it a concentration camp? Does this gentleman know the difference between a concentration camp and a fenced-off ground? The answer is simple – the former has watch towers and guards. [...]

PanoramixPN:

I fully agree that there is racism in Slovakia. What I disagree with is the statement of who the victim of that racism is. The victims are white as well as the integrated Roma, who the state does not protect from criminal activity of the non-integrable part of the Roma community. [...]

thomas9:

Obviously, Lacko knows nothing about concentration camps, otherwise he would say that Gypsies in Slovakia are quite well compared to the Czech Republic or Hungary, where some of them are getting killed or burned. [...]

Zix.exe:

[...] I'm of mixed ancestry, and from the first look people think I'm from some [wild] tribe, but I've never encountered racism when I was searching for work, not even at any office, it is simply nonsense, and also the Gypsies I know, they live as normal people [...]. Of course, somewhere at a bar or at a disco, it happens that people have prejudices, but let them stare and talk, who cares… [...]

Could someone explain to me WHAT Slovakia owes to the Gypsies? WHAT Europe owes to them? Whose fault is it that they live like animals? More Jews died in World War II, and no one is giving them anything. [The Roma] have been here for hundreds of years already, they did not come here yesterday, and they still live this way.

As I've already said here, I have Gypsies in my family, but I do not understand how they can live this way, in that dirt, without schools, what kind of life is it?

My grandmother had her own house, a garden and was keeping animals, my grandfather played music at dance parties and they had as much money as the “whites.” My grandmother had four children and all attended school in the capital city, which cost a lot at the time. [...]

[...]

And, because I'm genetically half-Gypsy, I'm interested if the pro-minorities gentleman would like to pay my mortgage, car leasing or whether the state would buy me land and a house [...]. [...] I work like crazy [...] for 500 euro, and no one comes to my door – just to those who in their lives have never worked [...]. [...]

anfield road nema rad cenzuru:

If in this complaint France's deportation of foreigners will also be noted, then I don't see a problem with Slovakia also being mentioned.

Timmy_A:

I think that such accusations will make this hatred deeper rather than soften it.

xeon:

The next thing about Gypsies would that the “whites” would not give them jobs. The situation with employment in Slovakia is bad (the further east, the worse). It did happen to me once that I had to sign up at the [unemployment office]. I was visiting that place for about two months until I found a job (that I still have after many years). Every visit to that office was the same – sign it here, here and here … unfortunately, we have no job … come sign again in two weeks. Just once it was different – when I was signing the papers [...] a Gypsy woman broke into the room with her husband and started hitting the table: “Give me a job! I want work!” The officer told her what she was telling everyone else – that, unfortunately, there was no work. After that, the Gypsy [told] her husband to “shoot it with the camera. They do not want to give me a job – discrimination! We're going to England [to seek asylum]!” I felt like a participant of a reality show.

rippen:

Slovaks=racists
I don't believe this – even at dance parties, Gypsy music is being played and Slovaks love it and dance to it.

zmok1:

Most Slovaks have nothing against orderly Gypsies… And the biggest fun is that aggressive, asocial parasites spit not just upon non-Gypsies, but also on other Gypsies who are well-behaved and socialised. I would be glad when gentlemen and ladies from human rights organizations explain this phenomenon – are these Gypsies racists as well?

123abc:

Unbelievable. The state will build new houses for free and will move those people there who now live in conditions I would not wish even to animals. Mr. Lacko can see discrimination in it and he is even going to complain to Brussels about it.

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