Czech NGO confronts discrimination toward Roma youth
By Maggie Lautzenheiser-Page
Last summer I took part in the TOL Foreign Correspondent course in Prague. As a participant in the weeklong program, I envisioned an original story idea, organized local interviews, and wrote an article to be peer-reviewed.
PRAGUE, Czech Republic- Seeming unsure of his first-day surroundings, 9-year-old Jakub timidly tours the vibrant two-room K09 Club in his neighborhood. In addition to the modest board game selection, social worker Renata Bolechová draws his attention to two large sheets of orange butcher paper conspicuously hanging on the back wall titled "Pravidla and Právo": "Rules" and "Rights," the two fundamental elements of the club. Jakub's attention quickly shifts to the other room where two slightly older boys attempt to rap in unison with famed Slovak rapper Rytmus on YouTube.
As the three boys bond over the celebrated Romani rapper, Bolechová describes the club not only as a safe haven for neighborhood youth, but as a place to promote tolerance. "Most children here are Roma. They learn that if someone is racist towards them, they shouldn't respond with fighting, but through discussion," she says.
This is especially significant since a majority of the club members come from disadvantaged backgrounds for which they are frequently discriminated against. These conditions often contribute to behavioral problems during adolescence, perpetuating the cycle of hate between Roma and Czechs.
As part of the largest minority in Europe, these Romani youth are subject to a variety of inequities on a daily basis. Nikola Taragoš, Director of Business and Economics at Romodrom (a Prague-based non-profit fighting social exclusion), emphasizes that from an early age, like other Roma communities across the region, Czech Roma are often exposed to discrimination in four main areas: education, employment, health and housing.
For young Roma like Jakub, this can often result in being placed in a practical school- a school for children with mental disabilities. In the Czech Republic, 35% of students in these schools are Romani, even though Roma constitute less than 3% of the total population, simply on account of their poor Czech language skills.
Taragoš recognizes that there are other factors which contribute to this excessive enrollment rate. "It's easier for parents to take both their children to the same school. If the older one is enrolled in a practical school, they will automatically place the younger one in the same school."
Bolechová echoes this sentiment, "It's not a black and white problem. I see mistakes on the Roma side and I see mistakes on the side of the majority."
NGOs like Romodrom have sprung up across the region in order to help assuage hardships faced by Roma. Taragoš' organization was founded primarily to provide for socially excluded children in Prague, largely ethnic Roma, but has since mushroomed into a myriad of social programs benefiting those most marginalized in the city. From vocational rehabilitation training to prison programs, Romodrom's modest efforts to respond to the staunch adversities faced by Roma communities is just one example of a regional effort being made around Europe. While levels of discrimination vary, one thing is certain: NGOs and activists like Taragoš and Bolechová are necessary to help the next generation of Roma transition toward a more hopeful future.
*The names and ages of the children have been changed to protect their identities