A Visit to the Czech Republic

I have a title for the new play, ‘A Kiss and a Candle’, we have most of the creative team on board and are about to move into the next phase of development which will include bringing actors into the process to develop the form of the show. So what have I been doing to support the creation of the play so far?  I will re-wind to the first few weeks of August, when I was looking back over the workshops, doing research to aid understanding of the many issues raised.

I was researching the character created by the Czech/Roma women, and came across a moment in history where Roma people were rounded up and sent to concentration camps during World War Two.  Out of approx. 8,000 Roma people only 583 returned to the Czech Republic. I then learnt that there was a commemoration event taking place on the 19th August at the Hodonin Camp in the Czech Republic. One thing led to another and the next minute I was on a plane flying to Prague and travelling to a place called Brno, which is home to the Museum of Romani Culture, where I would travel with people from the local community to the concentration camp. I was to be there for five days and wanted to make the most of my time, so before travelling I was very fortunate to have made contact with the organisers of an event called the Ghettofest, who had organised a festival earlier in this year to bring together both the Roma and non-Roma communities for the first time. It was held in the ‘Ghetto’ which is an area where the majority of Roma people live, and a place that the majority of Czech people don’t. Two thousand people came, and it was a 50/50 combination of both communities. When I met the organisers they said even though it had been a huge success there is uncertainty about whether they will be able to get the funding for next year. Apparently the Czech people don’t think there is a problem with discrimination or racism against the Roma people, so why support an event that brings both communities together?

On the Saturday I met with a Roma family who lived in the Ghetto. They had moved to the Czech Republic over 20yrs ago, just before the ‘Velvet Revolution’, when it was still under communist rule connected to Slovakia (Czechoslovakia). Zdenva is the proud mother of seven children and thirteen grandchildren. She moved because they had lost the home her husband had built with his bare hands and had nothing.  When she arrived she had three jobs, now she has no work, and neither do her children. She repeatedly said how life was better under the communists, people had work. Under Communism, the Roma people may have had jobs, but they were also forced to assimilate, if travelling was part of their heritage, then they had the wheels cut off their wagons and if having children was part of the culture then women were sterilised, without consent. 

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Painting capturing Romani Culture

In 1990, after the Velvet Revolution Czechoslovakia became the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The then Czech government aligned itself with the UK and Margaret Thatcher and started on the road to privatisation. This led to a period of change for the Roma people and from what I understood from talking to people, this meant fewer jobs, less housing and more conflict between the Roma and Czech people.  (See Amnesty International’s latest Report on the Czech Republic for more details.)

Before meeting Zdenva and her family I was told that a hangover from Communism is the fact that Roma people are now reliant on welfare and aren’t motivated to ensure their children go to school and wait and expect to be helped.  But I was also told that it’s hard to be motivated when you are discriminated against on a daily bases with no hope of change. Zdenva told me she had ensured her daughters went to school and yet they can’t get work. I asked about the discrimination the Roma people experienced and she said ‘they’ won’t employ you, they won’t give you a job, once they know you are a ‘Gypsy’ they say ‘I’m sorry I can’t take you’.  Even those that might want to be supportive feel that if their neighbours were to find out they had given a ‘Gypsy’ work then they would stop trading with them, so then they would struggle to feed their own children, and on and on it goes. Zdenva and her daughters said please tell people we want jobs, we want to work. There is also a real issue about housing, families rent from private landlords who charge huge rents.  The government pays 60% of the rent and families have to pay the rest, they do this by taking out loans from the landlords and when families can’t pay the loan their water or electricity is cut off. There are numerous ‘Bar Herna’s’ in the Ghetto, slot machine/gambling, and Zdenva says this is where her husband spends his time, no longer building houses just mounting debts.

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An example of a Bar Herna

Zdenva also talked about the Czech Republic, the economy and how she felt sorry for the homeless people (not Roma but Czech) and that they sometimes come into the Ghetto asking for food and this woman, who has no money, gives them food. She cares for her fellow human beings but it doesn’t feel to me that this care or humanity is mutual, well not from some countries within the European Union.

My visit on the Sunday to the concentration camp cemented my understanding of the discrimination of the Roma people. There were two camps during World War Two for the Roma people, Lety and Hodonin. After the war Lety was turned into a pig farm and Hodonin had, until quite recently, been running as a holiday camp for young people.  During WWII 1,300 Roma people, men, women and children passed through the Hodonin camp, with 863 being sent to Auschwitz, men women and children.  One of the speakers on the day said ‘this started with a small hatred’.  

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Commemoration Site at Hodonin

Before going to the Czech Republic I had asked the worker with the Roma women (herself Roma) why the women and their families move to England, asking if it was for economic reasons, and she said ‘it’s for happiness’.  The Roma people, not only in the Czech Republic but more recently in France and other European Countries, are experiencing discrimination on a huge scale, and I’ve heard it said that it’s getting worse. They are discriminated against because of the ethnicity, if one person does something that means ‘they’ are all the same. 

During my holiday recently in Greece holiday-makers discussed the ‘Gypsies’ that are now visible on the Greek beaches, saying ‘they shouldn’t have so many kids if they can’t look after them’. Another said ‘they come here looking for work; they should stay where they are’ (these Romani people were in fact Greek/Roma). The fact of the matter is that Greece is in crisis and the Romani people are on the bottle of the pile. To make matters worse Roma people in Greece struggle to get their identities acknowledged, they can’t get ID cards (the majority can’t read or write, have no birth certificates and don’t have any forms of documentation) so cannot prove they are in fact Greek and without ID cards they’re not entitled to housing support, healthcare or schooling.  In France hundreds of families were deported in July, en masse back to Bulgaria and Romania. These people are EU citizens, however they’re treated as one mass of people who are a problem, sent onto buses and back to where they came from.  What does all this echo and what are we doing to the Roma people? 

I went to the Czech Republic with the intention to better understand the reasons why the Roma people might move to England and I felt I gained an understanding, and this understanding scares me, and it should scare us all.  I think we need to ask ourselves why do people (we) move?  Some people move because they can, if you are part of the European Union, then we can all move freely (the motivation was to support free trade without borders.) If you lived under the weight of discrimination the Roma people experience, can’t get work, your landlord exploits your vulnerability, your government aids and abets your persecutors, then wouldn’t you want to move?

So is England a good place to come?  Do we open our arms and welcome new arrivals? In 2008 numbers of people forcibly uprooted by conflict and persecution worldwide stood at 42 million. In 2009 30,675 applications were made in the UK including dependents. 28% were granted asylum, humanitarian protection or discretionary leave to remain.72% were refused.

This moves me on to other groups we have worked with, those that have claimed asylum and have failed. These people are destitute (if single), which means they have no money, food or shelter. Whilst they try to find a way to challenge the decision and/or understand what, if anything, is the next step to be taken, they are destitute (unless they agree to leave, and many can’t agree because their country isn’t stable and/or there are protection issues) and so it goes on. I sat the other day and watched men and women queuing to be given £5 per week (which is given to them by a local charity). I recently spent one to one time with one of the women (who’s destitute) to further understand why she came to England. Her story is complicated and horrific, and she failed in her claim. She can’t prove she is a lesbian. She’s femme and has been on the receiving end of people assuming that if she didn’t play with an action man or climb trees when she was young then she’s not a real lesbian. I didn’t climb trees or play with action men, I liked the Barbie dolls and my mother’s shoes, but I’m a lesbian, go figure! 

There is a real culture of disbelief within the asylum system and amongst decision makers. The evidence gathered suggests that most people claiming asylum are assumed to be lying and that they need to be caught out on that lie. This is something which has been documented time and time again and an issue that needs to be tackled. The United Nations Convention on Refugees was written in 1951 after the Second World War, because of how many countries failed to give asylum to Jewish people fleeing for their lives. The world is complicated, we have people fearing for their lives for complex reasons and we need a system that is fair, one that is compassionate, one that, if it was us who needed care, or our children or parents, we would want. A culture that is kind and caring, one that is understanding and humane. An example of this is a story I was recently told about a young woman, who had travelled from the African Continent and who was homeless and destitute. The woman found what she thought was a safe place but was soon kicked out on to the street once those who had given her shelter became aware of her sexuality.  A car passes by and an older couple stopped and offered her a ride, food and shelter. They looked after her and made sure she really was safe. 

So what is this play going to be about?  I have been encouraged by some professionals and research to celebrate integration, the fact that the general public do open their arms to new arrivals (not everyone of course) but it happens.  And maybe we need to also be looking at telling those people that we vote into parliament, those that make decisions on our behalf, that we, the general public, don’t want an unfair asylum process, one that sees people humiliated or discriminated against. I’ve not mentioned the Romani/Travellers in this blog, but not unlike a lot of what has been said in relation to the Czech/Roma, they need to keep the wheels on their vans, and to have a heritage and lifestyle choice that brings them happiness and freedom to roam (I would argue). This play will demonstrate the complexities of the world we live in, the strengths of those that face unimaginable hardship and the humanity that we have in us all.  

As you can see, spending time in the Czech Republic particularly with Roma families has deepened my understanding of this culture and the problems they face on a daily basis and as I turn my attention to a few days of research and development with the creative team for the play, I hope these thoughts, feeling and injustices can be of use in the development of the show.