Voice of Roma
2001-2002 London Project with Romani Asylum-Seekers
As an expansion of Voice of Roma's field of service during the 2001-2002 academic year, Board member Petra _afá_ová spent nearly a year in London, UK, where she implemented a multifaceted program aimed at helping Romani asylum-seekers and refugees in matters of law, education, and basic needs. Because she communicates most easily with Roma from the former Czechoslovakia, she worked primarily with families from that area, although at times she interacted with Romanes speakers from other areas as well.
Roma who migrate, or attempt to migrate, from seemingly "civilized" nations such as the Czech Republic and Hungary are escaping lives of little or no economic opportunity, rampant discrimination in all areas of life, as well as fear for their safety and existence. Voice of Roma's London project was touched by people whose frustrating and tragic stories could fill several books. These accounts, for the most part, have one thing in common: they testify to the apathy, law-breaking and hostility on the part of those in authority, be they policemen, judges, doctors, or "educators." If a Rom has been the victim of a hate crime perpetrated by a group of skinheads, a mob of locals, or even by the police, in no way is he guaranteed "equal protection under the law" in the countries of Eastern Europe.
The British government, for understandable reasons, cannot grant permanent asylum to every Romani applicant who knocks on the country's door. At the same time, it has an obligation under international law to consider each asylum-seeker's case individually, as well as to treat every applicant with basic respect. In this the government has failed, since Roma and not only they are summarily dismissed as economic migrants, detained and treated like criminals, and many children are denied schooling for periods of a year or more. The general lack of information about problems faced by Roma is in part due to the fact that they have no national territory to call their own, and thus no highly influential group of political representatives to advocate their rights. Voice of Roma has been publicly speaking out against these violations of human dignity, joining forces with several Romani organizations in London and elsewhere in order to protest the poor treatment of Roma in their countries of origin as well as in the United Kingdom. To increase awareness of current Romani human rights issues, several Voice of Roma members and friends attended demonstrations, appeared in the media, gave talks and took part in public forums such as the Camden Town Hall Refugee Week program.
Petra spent her time in London as a full-time volunteer, and much of the assistance provided during that time was on an as-needed basis: e.g., translating documents, helping families navigate the health care and benefits systems (most asylum-seekers cannot work legally), mediating between parents, pupils and schools to resolve academic and social problems, locating relatives abroad, etc. There were, however, more structured aspects of the project (in addition to the political activism mentioned above), namely English instruction, tutoring, and casework on asylum applications.
Finding a Safer Home
The percentage of Romani asylum-seekers in Britain who are granted Exceptional Leave to Remain or Refugee Status is miniscule, despite that fact that many of the applicants clearly satisfy the primary requirement for asylum, i.e., "a well-founded fear of persecution." First applications are always refused, the "reasons" being their purported fabrication of events, the absence of institutionalized racism in the country of origin, lack of documents that had been impossible to obtain precisely because of the institutionalized racism, and other points of doubtful integrity. However, asylum-seekers who can show that they were targeted because of their political activities have a higher chance of being successful in one of their appeals, as do those who file a "compassionate grounds" Human Rights Appeal and happen upon a sympathetic adjudicator. The Voice of Roma worker strove to help lawyers make stronger cases for a number of Romani clients by
- translating documents and interpreting at appointments and hearings, including the correction of potentially destructive mistranslations by careless government interpreters
- providing lawyers with background information and sources relevant to Romani human rights issues, thus clarifying the context of clients' testimonies
- interviewing clients and producing more effective applicant statements
- working with asylum-seekers on strategies for great success at appeal hearings
Not surprisingly, some applicants are so demoralized by the asylum process that they fear every upcoming interrogation by government employees and even in lawyers' offices, and mentally relive their traumatic experiences (police beating, death threats, rape) in part because they are subjected to repeated questioning, often while being labeled as liars. The VOR volunteer gave emotional support where needed and encouraged asylum-seekers to put their full efforts into their appeals.
Speaking the Language
Many Roma who come to the UK, especially children and young people, pick up English skills in school, from friendly English-speakers, or as a result of finding employment where verbal communication is not an immediate requirement. The rest, of course, need some form of learning assistance if there are to become self-sufficient in British society. Voice of Roma offered a free English class in North London that took place four times a week. Each session lasted two hours or longer and included reading, writing, games, songs, role play around themes pertinent to asylum-seekers, and a homework assignment. The primary language of instruction was English, but Czech and Romanes were used as appropriate to provide vocabulary lists and to explain grammatical concepts.
The project also included a series of field trips in London, aimed at cultural enrichment as well as practicing English comprehension and speaking skills. "Days out" involved extended and where possible interactive visits to several museums and an art gallery, sightseeing, outdoor concerts and other events. These trips were especially popular with young people (those who had a place in school as well as those who were waiting for one), most of whom had had little opportunity to travel outside of their North London neighborhoods.
For some Roma who could not come to the regular English class, Voice of Roma provided written materials and small-group or private instruction. House visits were helpful in getting absolute beginners started by giving them a glimpse of English grammar, basic vocabulary, and tips on reading common words. A few such students needed some initial encouragement before they felt ready to start learning more from their children or friends. They could also be assisted in finding and applying for places in public English courses, and some of those who could not begin attending classes before the end of the academic year were able to register for 2002-2003. Several students are doing vocational training along with their English courses.
In addition to the obvious benefits, learning English can help applicants make a more favorable impression on their asylum adjudicators, and some students were more diligent in their efforts when the teacher presented this as a motivating factor. If and when all appeals fail and the family is deported, there is always the hope that, wherever they end up, they can find employment based on their knowledge of English.
Success in School
Perhaps the most rewarding part of the project, and one with a far-reaching impact, was helping children with academic skills. Regrettably, this could only involve a small number of children on a regular basis, but the project was greatly enhanced by the addition of two volunteers, Sabrine and Stephanie Waismann. These young women made it possible for tutoring sessions to take place in large households where several pupils could benefit from one-on-one or small-group work at the level appropriate to their ability. The main focus of the sessions was to improve reading proficiency and to teach basic literacy, which was invaluable to children who were not being given enough individual attention at schools and thus found it difficult to overcome the language barrier.
The children's efforts were rewarded with books (and other attractive items one particularly studious boy received Petra's laptop computer), and most began to enjoy reading on their own after gaining the necessary tools and confidence. They responded very well to being allowed to learn at their own pace, as well as to reading and writing about what interested them.
A Drop in the Ocean
The London project as a whole was conceived as a ray of hope for members of the local Romani community from encouraging young people to dream of better jobs than their parents could (or could not) get to helping the heads of families believe that they are able to provide for their loved ones. The story of one teenage Rom_ori whose family, as it happens, benefited from all major aspects of the project may serve to illustrate its meaning:
_aneta Oláhová* is an orphan who came to the UK with her older siblings to join her uncle's family. Some of her relatives were persecuted by skinhead gangs for speaking out in favor of basic human rights. When she was six, like 75-80 percent of Romani children in the Czech Republic, she was placed into a school for the mentally retarded, even though she is quite obviously a gifted girl. A few years later, on her way to school, a neighbor attacked her for no apparent reason. He smashed her head on the sidewalk and broke her nose. She had a concussion and had to recuperate in the hospital. The man was not incarcerated; in fact, there was hardly a sentence. He was fined the equivalent of fifteen dollars for his crime.
After she made remarkable progress in English as a result of her eagerness to learn in Voice of Roma's language course, a school placement was finally arranged for her, in large part thanks to the London project. She is excited to be in school again a normal school this time although the project workers had to counsel her in order to allay her fears of being beaten there. _aneta is looking forward to finding a good job somewhere when she finishes her studies.
Finally, a translated excerpt from one of the dozen or so letters written by people whom the London project assisted:
"I'm writing to tell you that we're doing well, I'm going to school and learning English and how to use the computer. I already understand my schoolwork. We live in Liverpool now, it's pretty nice here. ... Hanka* says hi, she goes to school now, too."
This young lady's family was one of the lucky few who have been allowed to remain in Great Britain.
Petra Safarova would like to thank Matthew Gelbart as well as her London friends and fellow volunteers for their support in carrying out this project.
* Names have been changed to protect privacy.
Excerpts from statements made by Romani asylum-seekers
from the former Czechoslovakia
(all names have been changed)
"We left the Czech Republic because our family was being constantly attacked by skinheads and the children didn't want to leave the house. In March of 1999 I picked up Anna from school and on the way home we were attacked by skinheads. They pulled her hair and knocked her to the ground. The doctor treated her for scratches to the face. I told the police, they told us it's none of their business, and that if we're not happy we should go move to England. ... My brother was kicked unconscious in 1998 and had to be in the hospital. My mother told the police, but they didn't cooperate and refused to write a report. My other brother, Josef, and a few of his friends were attacked at a dance club in July, 1999. Someone hit him in the arm with a baseball bat and he had scratches on his face and leg. We didn't tell the police. Two of my sisters were attacked by skinheads in April, 2000 when they were coming home from a funeral. We were all shocked, but no one went to the doctor or the police; they came straight home. One of the skinheads told my sister that she's a black swine and never should have been born. Another time, a skinhead put my five-year-old son into a dumpster. When I started yelling at the skinheads, one of them hit me in the face and called me a black swine. Other Czechs saw it and didn't do anything. ..."
"...Some skinheads beat up me and my friend in the summer of 1999. I had to have a bandage put on because my arm was injured. The police said they would investigate, but I haven't heard anything from them so far. In the fall of 1999 I started to work as a trash collector. I had to leave that job because the other employees would yell insults at me and threatened me with physical harm. In February 2000, a bunch of skinheads threw me into a truck. And there were other things, too... Skinheads beat up my uncle and me about seven years ago, and my sister and me the year after that. ..."
"... For example, when I was ten some guy slapped me across the face. He said my family should go back to where it came from because we were unwanted people. When I came home, everyone said I should be glad I'm in one piece. ... When I was 18, I went to work at the same place as my father. They didn't know he was my father. They didn't want to talk to him because he's black [has dark skin]. As soon as they found out I'm his son, they stopped talking to both of us. ... About half a year after I started working on the construction site, two policemen came by and put me into their car like a bag of trash. There was a young lady sitting in the front. After about five minutes they asked me if it was me [who did it]. When they realized it wasn't me, they threw me back out on the road. They kicked me, beat me and said, "You're just lucky it wasn't you, you black snout." Whenever anything bad happens, they automatically think it's a Gypsy. The police interrogate us and beat us without any reason or proof. ... One time in 1993 or 1994, when I went to the [government] labor office to look for work, and I noticed that I had a C for Cikan [Gypsy] next to my name. I know other Roma who saw the same thing when they went to ask for work. ..."
"... In 1997 or 1998 someone threw a Molotov coctail into our friends' house because they're Roma. The mother and daughter were at home and suffered burns on their bodies. ... During Bozena's second year in school, we got a call from the school that we have to come and get her right away. What happened was that the children were making fun of her, they pushed her to the ground and she broke her wrist. She was afraid to go to school after that. We were really scared because all the insulting teasing had turned into physical harm. ..."
"I belong to the Romani ethnic group in the Czech Republic. My husband is also Romani and we have two daughters. The Czechs have always discriminated against Roma; they think we're inferior and that we're all criminals. For years we have suffered persecution because of our ethnic origin. My family lived in Ceska Lipa, which is about ten percent Romani. The Czechs are always making problems for us; they throw rocks at us whenever they feel like it. Our children are discriminated in school and aren't allowed to play with the white children. As long as my children have been in school, I've been taking them there in the morning and picking them up in the afternoon. From the beginning of 1998, two Czech men would always yell insults at me when I took the children to school. I felt humiliated every time it happened, but I never reacted to it. Sometime in May of 1998, these men sexually assaulted me in the park. One held me down while the other one assaulted me. And so they took turns. I screamed, but no one came to help me. When they stopped, I went to the doctor to get help, but he refused to treat me because I'm Romani. He called the police and told them what happened to me, and they told me that they can't help me and that I deserve what happened to me. I had to leave the hospital without being treated. I had to treat myself at home. The contraception I was using meant that I couldn't get pregnant. I was traumatized from the assault and became very depressed. Before this attack, skinheads had stabbed my husband on two occasions because he is Romani. The police refused to investigate either incident. Life became unbearable for us in Ceska Lipa, so we decided to move in with my parents in Zahradky so we could get away from the people who were hurting us. Zahradky is a little village, and often had to go back to Ceska Lipa to get groceries, and the skinheads kept attacking us either verbally or physically. Whenever I see skinheads, I think of the assault I experienced and sometimes it makes me hysterical. To this day, whenever my husband touches me in a sexual way, I draw back because it brings back bad memories. I often fell into depression because of the emotional pain and shame I felt because of the rape. ..."