Bridging The Culture Gap

By Angeli Primlani

Photos by Julie Denesha

Hauling his backpack through Ostrava's main station on a snowy, smoggy winter afternoon, his dark hair peeking out from under a ski cap, Kumar Vishwanathan looks like any South Asian college student in the world.

He is late, and out of breath from running. "We're preparing to take some of the children to the mountains and there's just so much to do," he says.

But Kumar is not a student. He has come to take us to Unimo bunky, the temporary shelter on the edge of Ostrava where 25 Romany (Gypsy) families, displaced by last summer's floods, now live. Articulate, cheerful and unfailingly polite, Kumar has recently found himself in the challenging position of bringing the community's white Czechs and Romanies together through a mixture of endless energy, diplomacy and pure will.

Unimo bunky is a two-story structure of corrugated metal that looks like a tool shed with barred windows. The ground around it is a mixture of gravel, snow and mud. Approximately 80 people live in the bunky. It was originally intended to be inhabited for a month or so by the refugees. Kumar hopes to have everybody moved into apartments by spring. "Now we have to survive the winter," he says.

Kumar Vishwanathan, 34, is from the town of Kerala in south India. He met his Czech wife, Ladislava, while studying at the Pushkin Institute in Moscow. The couple married and moved to Olomouc six years ago, where Kumar worked until this year as a physics teacher. He says he was beaten up by skinheads once, but after a while, the community has come to know and accept him. "It's a small town," he says smiling. "I have more Czech friends than friends from anywhere else."

Last summer, when floods hit Moravia, he and Ladislava read stories in the Czech press about Romanies looting a school in Ostrava. They felt the reports had been exaggerated. Angered by the accounts, Kumar traveled to Ostrava to try to discover the truth for himself. In the process, he met with members of the Romany community, social workers and town officials. Now, funded by a potpourri of private charities including Soros Foundation and the Foundation for a Civil Society, Kumar commutes regularly to Ostrava where he lives during the week in Unimo bunky and acts as a combination liaison, fundraiser, organizer, mediator and social worker.

To establish order in the crowded emergency accommodation, Kumar first had to convince members of different Romany clans to work together. The residents of the bunky are all members of the same Romany cultural group, the Rumungri. They break down into several clans, which Kumar compares to medieval noble families.

"Most of the people you see [begging] in the square are from [another] group of Romanies, the Vlasske or Olasske. It's a group within that group that picks pockets and join gangs ... and it's not all of the Vlasske by any means," says Kumar. The Rumungri, he adds, are more settled and not known to generally engage in antisocial behavior.

When it was announced that a group of Romany refugees would be moving into the shelter, the Romany residents of Na Liscine, a neighborhood on the edge of Ostrava, put together a petition to keep them out.

According to Petr Vanek, head of the Lord Mayor's office in Ostrava, unforeseen problems occurred when, ignorant of clan differences, city officials housed members of different Romany groups together. "We were just concentrating on saving people's lives," he says. "The police had to go into one shelter because one group [of Romanies] was stealing from the other."

Inside the flimsy corrugated building it is surprisingly snug. There are two floors, each containing 12-16 very small rooms. Toilets and washrooms are communal, with a long trench-style sink and a washing machine that often doesn't work. The toilet stalls are locked, with each family having a key for its stall. "This gives them some sense of privacy," said Kumar. All the cooking is done on hot plates in the rooms.

We are greeted in the hall by Pavel Mercinko, a compact, burly man wearing a white tank shirt that shows off the huge blue-green tattoos on his upper arms. "You are friends of Kumar?" he asks. It is all the introduction he needs. "He's a very good man," he says. Mercinko invites us in and presses on us more coffee, beer and tea than we can possibly drink. His room, like every other personal space in the bunky, is absolutely spotless.

A pair of guitarists, Josef Krostan and Gejza Balaz, join us. They and some of the children of the bunky treat us to an impromptu concert of Romany and Czech music as we spill out in the hallway under the hanging laundry. A slender, dark boy says to us in English, "Hello, my name is Roman. How are you?"

Roman studies English at a community center established by Kumar and the residents of the bunky to reach out to the Romanies already living in Na Liscine. The center offers singing and dancing programs, preschool training, Czech and English classes, mediation for medical services and legal advice. Classes are free and the teachers all volunteer their time.

Mercinko and other residents all say they are looking for work, but there isn't any to be found right now. "The [economic] situation is so bad. Companies are not in a good position and they aren't taking people," says Krostan. His brother Jaroslav says that he hopes that he will not have to move into a group of apartments with only Romanies. "Not all Romanies are the same," he says. "My wife and I like our peace and quiet."

Balaz, one of the guitarists, holds neither a Czech nor a Slovak passport. Kumar helps such people through the minefield of paperwork created by the 1993 citizenship law. To qualify for Czech citizenship, applicants must produce proof of Czech residency prior to the split of Czechoslovakia. Families who had lived in the Czech lands for generations became stateless overnight because of a lack of proper documentation. Some who were able to prove a Slovak connection were able to get Slovak citizenship, but many remain without a legal residency in either country.

Even employers willing to hire Romanies will not give a job to someone without papers. Without citizenship, they are not entitled to any public benefits. Some companies hire stateless people as day laborers, but the pay is unsteady, and not all employers are scrupulous about paying.

"[These people] are completely open to exploitation," says Kumar. "They have no redress, no medical care, nothing."

We go with Kumar and his friend Honza Effenberger to Privos, a devastated neighborhood in Ostrava. It's an ill-lit, garbage-strewn place. The ground-floor windows are dark and empty. The glass is broken. The paint on the walls is stripped away to bare brick well over our heads, showing where the water level was. Yet families have moved back to Privos. There are children playing in the street and lights shine in the upper floor windows.

"This is a Romany ghetto," says Effenberger. "The city moved all the Romanies from the center to here, because this is the lowest grade of apartments and they can convert apartments in the center into offices and make a lot of money."

Effenberger teaches at the Cirkevni Basic School, an elementary school established by a group of concerned educators specifically for Romany children. Effenberger had previously been a teacher in the state Special School system. "We realized the majority of children didn't belong there," he says. "They deserve a normal school."

An estimated 80 percent of all Romany children are placed in schools for the mentally retarded because of problems they encounter in the first year of basic school, usually because of language difficulties.

"For example, a Czech child might know that a baby cow is a calf, but a Romany child might not. Maybe their parents know the words [for cow and calf] in Romany," says Effenberger. "The entire education system assumes this kind of basic knowledge. Even the textbooks are written that way."

The Cirkevni school offers programs for dyslexia and other learning disabilities. About 10 percent of the students at the school are white Czechs. The classes are integrated, and the students get along well together, says Effenberger. But they do not associate with each other outside of school. "They live in different neighborhoods," he explains. "You won't see them kicking a football around together." Kumar, who speaks several languages, teaches English at the school. He also makes it his job to see that the children who are enrolled in the school attend classes, sometimes walking them there himself.

After having served as the liaison between different Romany clans and groups, the next step in Kumar's plans is to bring the Romany and Czech communities together. He is taking the children from the bunky on field trips outside Ostrava to give them an experience of the world outside the Romany community. There is a vacant lot between the Romany neighborhood of Na Liscine and a nearby white Czech neighborhood. In the spring, Kumar plans to build a playground here so children from both groups will have a chance to meet socially.

He also invites journalists and students from Ostrava University to stay in the shelter, offering non-Romanies the chance to meet Romanies in a nonthreatening situation.

Kumar is cautiously optimistic about the future of Czech-Romany relations in Ostrava. But two of the volunteers who work with him disagree.

"It's getting worse," says Marcela Kozusnikova, a student in the Social and Health Faculty at Ostrava University. "There is a lot of prejudice here. Some people have never met any Romanies so they judge people based on prejudice. Most of the [non-Romanies] have had some kind of bad experience. They don't know it's really just a small group causing the problems. The rest may be poor, but they live like modest people."

Her fellow student, Dasa Zdrazilova, is also pessimistic. "Children learn prejudice from adults," she says, "and you can't change adults."

Kumar, however, remains undaunted. "Something happened during the floods," he says. "There is a current that I think is gaining strength. There are sensitive people who want change and who are looking for a way out of the current situation. If you can only help one child, it's worth it."

This feature first appeared in The Prague Post Wednesday, January 21, 1998