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New Gypsy Vision for the Future

Times Staff Writer

In a neighborhood of seamstresses and upholsterers, a girl with a plastic tiara danced in the doorway of a broken house. She fluttered inside, a sparkle in the dusk, free for now from statistics that predict she will grow into a young mother married to a man with more lint than coins in his pockets.

In a second-floor apartment across the street, Berta Cervenakova wants better things for her family. Her 17-year-old daughter, Nikola, is one of 18 Gypsy children accusing the Czech government of segregation in schools. Their anti-discrimination lawsuit is part of a new strategy by Gypsies, known as Roma, to fight generations of prejudice across Eastern Europe with tactics borrowed from the U.S. civil rights movement.

“If it wasn’t racism, then why was my daughter sent to a remedial school?” said Cervenakova, sitting in a kitchen decorated with fake flowers nailed above a narrow stove. “The system failed. We want somebody to be found guilty.”

The Czech case and similar ones in Bulgaria and Hungary are testaments to the entrenched prejudice the Roma face, and also underscore the often unstructured lifestyle that has contributed to the community’s poverty and weak political voice. During the communist era, Roma benefited from a system that espoused worker equality, but they were poorly educated and unprepared for the capitalist fervor and prejudice that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“These discrimination cases are modeled after the American experience,” said Dimitrina Petrova, executive director of the European Roma Rights Center, which filed the Czech suit. Her organization is studying how blacks in the United States used the courts, including the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case half a century ago, to instigate social change.

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The aim of Roma groups, as it was for minority students in 1950s Kansas, is to win court decisions that force national governments to strengthen anti-discrimination laws.

The strategy is novel in a Europe more inclined to look to its parliaments for protections. The actions come as former Soviet bloc countries are stressing human rights and multiculturalism to meet the European Union’s membership demands.

The lawsuit against the Czech Republic, brought by Petrova’s group after it found that Roma children were 27 times more likely than ethnic Czech students to be sent to remedial schools, is the Roma’s final appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. It claims that the Czech government historically diverted Gypsies to remedial schools based on ethnicity rather than intellectual ability. The court earlier found that Gypsy students were treated unfairly but rejected the claim that the government intentionally discriminated against them.

Czech authorities have acknowledged problems in the education system and have begun to make changes.

“We are open to any kind of discussion on how to integrate Roma children,” said Ondrej Gabriel, spokesman for the Education Ministry, which has blamed the Roma for not stressing the Czech language to their children. Now language classes are offered for Roma preschoolers, and Gypsy specialists have been placed in some classrooms.

Critics say Roma are still more likely than others to end up in classes for children with learning problems.

“They just repainted the signs,” said Kumar Vishwanathan, head of Life Together, an anti-discrimination organization in Ostrava, home to an estimated 30,000 of the nation’s 250,000 Roma. “Why does the school system want to get rid of these Roma children? The school system is freezing this community and keeping it from advancing.”

Libuse Soukalova, a principal at a primary school for those with learning disabilities, said that in 27 years as an educator, she could not name a single Roma success story. In 2005, 25% of Gypsy children nationwide completed primary school, compared with 73% of ethnic Czech students. Soukalova said that each year 30 of her Roma students start a regular high school and two finish.

“Roma children don’t go to kindergarten, and their parents don’t give them much attention when it comes to education,” Soukalova said, adding that each child in her school took a psychological test to determine their aptitude. “They don’t know things the Czech kids know.”

The Roma, believed to have migrated from India more than 1,000 years ago, have long lived on the fringes of European society. Working as tinkers and musicians, day laborers and ditch diggers, they once moved in caravans through the forests. They were stereotyped as pickpockets and idlers, and often seen as more whimsical than pragmatic. The Nazis deemed them racially inferior, and killed about 500,000 Roma in concentration camps.

It is estimated that there are 8 million to 15 million Roma scattered throughout Central and Eastern Europe. The wide discrepancy in the numbers is partly because many Roma claim another ethnic or national identity to avoid persecution. In the Czech Republic, for example, the Public Defender of Rights, which investigates violations of civil liberties, said in a recent report that even after the Cold War, Roma women had been sterilized “either with improper motivation or illegally.”

The matter came to light in 2004 when 10 Roma women and girls complained that doctors had not explained the need or consequences of sterilization. The practice was unspoken policy during the communist era, used to prevent the “social risk” of high Roma birthrates. The public defender found that the attitude persists in the nation’s hospitals and that “Czech society faces the task of coming to grips with this reality.”

Roma were brought to Ostrava from Slovakia after World War II to work in coal mines and chemical plants. The sky then was a gritty vision of promise, hissing with steam, smoke and noxious scents. But these days locals sit beneath the cupola of St. Wenceslas, sipping beer and listening to the bleeps of poker machines. Few venture into the town museum where a guide recently climbed the bell tower and looked across rooftops: “Weekends are pretty dead here. Nothing works so well anymore.”

On the rim of Ostrava, beyond looted factories and a tangle of railroad tracks, Cervenakova and her daughter Nikola live in a world of cheap silver earrings and borrowed makeup. Many girls here are repeating the history of their mothers and grandmothers: receiving educations that leave them qualified only for jobs such as assistant cooks, upholsters and seamstresses, known as needlewomen.

“I went to a remedial school for nine years. The doctor told my mom I wasn’t ready for normal school,” said Lycie Gorolova, a teenager with few opportunities in a town with 28% unemployment. “There were 30 Roma kids and four white kids in my school. I’d like to be a baker or a hairdresser, but I’m not qualified. I had to choose between a cook’s assistant or needlewoman. My mom’s a needlewoman.”

Such stories swirl from porches, linger over baby carriages. Everyone here knows that years in a remedial class means a student will not get into a good high school, diminishing chances for college or an advanced apprenticeship.

Cervenakova said Nikola’s future was ruined from the first grade, when she was dispatched to a remedial school. When she returned to a normal classroom a year later, she was behind and became bitter after being looked upon as slow. She started skipping school and shirking homework. Now, at 17, Nikola is in the eighth grade. She has little ambition, except to marry.

“I just remember bad feelings,” Nikola said.

“She’s my first child,” said Cervenakova, whose husband was a driver during communist times but is unemployed today. Her other children -- two boys and a girl -- are enrolled in normal schools and performing well.

There is anger and a bit of guilt when she recounts what happened to Nikola: “I didn’t know what to do when the school people came to me. They gave me a piece of paper and told me to sign it. I shouldn’t have. Nikola is too young to know the consequences of this.”

Dusan Cervenak, a Roma, grew up in the Gypsy neighborhoods of Ostrava. He watched his friends get sent away to remedial schools. He stayed in a regular class and today is an outreach worker among the Roma. A big man with a small mustache, Cervenak said the Roma’s plight is woven with misperceptions and cultural differences that have kept the community alienated for generations.

“In the past it was the easiest solution to put Roma in special schools. Many of them didn’t speak Czech. They fell behind and weren’t good students,” he said. “But things have changed in the last few years. Primary schools now have assistants to help Roma children.”

Across town, what the coal companies built years ago is fading. Company houses have been turned into low-income apartments, and crime and drug use has risen. The sky is clear of soot but most people would welcome it if the jobs would come back and the earth underfoot would soften with the boring of a new mine.

Jiri Smelik has been principal at a regular primary school here for 13 years. The names on his enrollment roster are indicative of the changes in the neighborhood. In his early days, 8% of his students were Roma; today, 70% are.

“I don’t want to sound racist,” he said, sitting in his office at the end of a day, brooms and rakes scraping the sidewalk outside. “But I don’t believe people are always equal. I’m sorry to say it, but the Roma in general are less intelligent.”

He let his statement linger; he didn’t retract it.

Smelik said that in 13 years only about four of his Roma students had finished high school. He cited social problems, poverty, ghettos and the lack of what he called a Roma intelligentsia. He breathed deeply, trying to figure out what so far has confounded him. “I hope I can offer them a chance for a good life,” he said. “It’s quite exhausting work. You try so hard. You try 100 times and 100 times again.”

He walked down the quiet hall, jangled his keys and showed some visitors out. He locked the door and headed back toward his office.


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