Czech NGO director says politicians’ rhetoric about ‘unadaptable’ Roma is dangerous, some non-Roma refugees from Ukraine are said to be aggressive towards local Roma here

“At the start of the war, I came across a Roma refugee family from Kremenchuk, in the Poltava region of central Ukraine. They are four sisters with their children, the men of the family are fighting at the front. It was very difficult to accommodate the family somewhere even if the girls are in high school and one is even in university,” said the director of the life together NGO, Kumar Vishwanathan, for the Czech television channel Prima CNN News in an interview about Roma refugees from Ukraine.

The family lived in Vishwanathan’s own office for a time, before moving to a monastery in Ostrava run by the Redemptorists. “This Kremenchuk family has a total of 11 members, and seven of them have already found a job. They are fantastic, one of these women was once a chef in an Israeli hotel. My secret dream is for the family to open a restaurant in Ostrava with Ukrainian and Roma specialties,” he says.

The refugee center in Vyšní Lhoty, where Life Together works with Roma refugees from Ukraine, has already seen 2,500 of them pass through, but suddenly there are only 200 to 250 living there. Some have returned to Ukraine, others have traveled to Germany, others are elsewhere in the Czech Republic – estimated at around 7,000 people in total.

Vishwanathan, who teaches at the University of Ostrava in its Critical Social Work course, brings these students, some of whom are foreign nationals, to the refugee center twice a week. “They are Spaniards, Portuguese, Koreans and a Ukrainian. When these pupils play spontaneously with the children, they make me happy because the small Roma children adore them completely. The Spanish students even raised 2,000 euros for them through their alma mater. We bought them medicine, balls, marbles, shoes and underwear. However, my dream is to start a choir in the camp and rotate them to perform in front of people all over the country. They sing incredibly well,” he explains.

Vishwanathan criticizes the approach taken towards Roma refugees both by part of Czech society and by some of their fellow refugees from Ukraine who are not Roma. He considers dangerous the rhetoric publicly used by politicians calling refugees “unsuitable Roma”, such as that used by the regional governor of Moravia-Silesia Ivo Vondrák (ANO).

“In March, several groups of Ukrainian Roma were accommodated at the expense of the refugee facilities, ie the Ministry of the Interior, in Ostrava. As long as the state paid for the Roma [refugees], the regional governor did not care, in fact these conditions suited him. From April 1, however, accommodation for refugees must be paid for by the regional authority, and Vondrák was unable or unwilling to accomplish this task successfully. He got rid of the problem in a rather ugly way, treating all Roma refugees with the same brush, alleging that they were destroying hotel residences, or stealing, and that they did not appreciate the help that they were receiving. By alleging that the Roma refugee community as a whole is committing crimes, he has caused immeasurable harm to all respectable Roma, like the Kremenchuk family I am talking about,” says Vishwanathan.

The director of the NGO considers that the worst solution is one where one chooses the isolation of refugees instead of their integration – and where one builds large refugee camps, like those in Syria. Like Roma citizens of the Czech Republic, Roma citizens of Ukraine are not themselves homogeneous.

“The Roma refugees explained to us that there are about five groups of Roma in Ukraine, just like here in the Czech Republic we have Vlax Roma and Rumungri,” says Vishwanathan. Some “majority” Ukrainians, as he calls them (i.e. non-Roma Ukrainians) came to the Czech Republic with ideas about the Roma that are the same as those that once prevailed in the former Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic in the 1990s, and the director of the NGO talks about the complaints he receives from Roma inhabitants of the Muglinov district of Ostrava.

A large community of Roma residents lives in this neighborhood, and there is currently a large group of Ukrainian refugees who are not Roma and who have been granted temporary protection. “The local Roma tell me that the [non-Romani] refugees from Ukraine behave aggressively towards them. In stores, for example, they automatically cut in front of local Roma women online, shoving them around and vulgarly insulting them. People from the Roma community have already told me that they are losing patience and have to resolve conflicts. “Our guys are going to beat them soon,” I heard them predict. Nothing like that can happen, I’m just giving you an example of how things are. Ukrainians sometimes bring here interethnic conflicts that we have long resolved in the Czech Republic. Therefore, we need to communicate more about these things with the Ukrainian majority itself. Explain to them that we are a little further here,” says Vishwanathan.

Currently, most Roma refugees in the Czech Republic come from the Transcarpathia region of Ukraine, where there are areas similar to those in eastern Slovakia. “However, not all of them are among the poorest, many Carpathian Roma have worked in Slovakia or even in the Czech Republic, like members of the majority society in this region of Ukraine. Many only speak Hungarian due to this region’s historical affiliation with Hungarians. Someone always speaks Russian, sometimes even Slovak. We are able to come to an agreement with them”, explains the director of Life Together.

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