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Ondrej Gina
Biographical Details:

I was born on August 9, 1951 in Rokycany, where I finished elementary school, I learned bricklaying for three years in Plzen; in 1971 I entered the military service, and after the army I worked for twenty years as a coin roller at ZBC Hradek in Rokycany; from 1990 to 1992 I was a deputy in the Czech National Council, until 1997 a member of the government of the Czech Republic's Council for Nationalities and the coordinator of the Working Group for Concerns of the Roma; at this time I'm working as a reporter at Romano kurko in Brno; I'm now preparing the realization of a project for the training of Romani activists in cooperation with the Roma Regional Participation Program Open Society Institute Budapest.

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In your opinion, how well informed is the Czech public about the Roma minority?

From practical experience I can say that the lack of objective information on the Czech public's side about the Roma minority creates the majority of problems in relations and coexistence between these ethnic groups. The Czech public has hardly any knowledge of the history of the Roma except for basic information about their origin and arrival on the European continent. What's more, this information is often distorted, slanted and not objective. The basis of this condition in the non-existence of information in the school system about national minorities living on the territory of the Czech State. Czech kids in school don't learn anything about the fact that living with them here are Jewish, German, Polish, Hungarian, Ukrainian, Romani, Slovak and other children who have other than Czech nationality. Czech children don't learn about how cruel life is and has been for Roma, they aren't getting any objective information about why Roma are so backward in education and why they have such a different way of life. They don't learn that there once laws in force that allowed Roma to be killed without punishment, they don't learn that during WWII the Czech State was the only one in Europe to build special concentration camps for Gypsies at Lety u Pisek and Hodonina u Kunstatu, and that the majority of the interned Roma, among whom were many children, died. Czech children don't learn in school about how the communist regime attempted to decrease the birth of Romani children, so Romani women were sterilized, that Roma had to abide by special laws and edicts in their lives under communism, and that even now there is a law that harshly affects many Roma in their daily lives, that in the Czech Republic there are people who hate Roma and are trying to wipe them out, etc.

So Czech children don't take into their lives any information or familiarity from school about who the Roma are, on the other hand they only learn what is commonly handed down about Roma - this is largely negative and subjective, and is the basis on which Czech children form their attitude towards Roma, which is usually unfriendly or even aggressive. Much of the media help to form this negative attitude by publicizing information and news that discredits the Romani ethnic group as a whole and creates an unfriendly social atmosphere against them. This atmosphere often conceals the real causes of the tragic status of the Roma in society, as well as the culprits responsible for it. So, in my opinion, the Czech public is not sufficiently and objectively informed about the Roma minority and it's necessary that it get all information about everything connected to the status of Roma in society, and that the facts are made public about how Roma lived in the past, and live now in this country.

What do you think the attitude of Czech society is towards the Roma community?

If I were to characterize this attitude with only one word, then I would use the word NEGATIVE. I can say from experience that this attitude is on display in a whole range of forms, in various situations and levels of intensity. There are Czechs who don't "perceive" Roma until the moment when they are in some way "affected" by them in their personal life. Up to that time they are indifferent to everything having to do with Roma, to everything the Roma mean and stand for. Their indifference means a refusal to concern themselves with matters in connection with Roma and this attitude can't be considered as positive.

Another form of the attitude of many Czechs toward Roma is displayed in the hypercriticism in which they virtually reflect a feeling of superiority with elements of intolerance. These people refuse to accept objective causes for the problems in the lives of Roma, which they expect to confirm their opinions and notions about life in this country. If Roma don't strictly comply with their opinions and demands, they are, according to them, commiting actions which are in variance with the interests of society.

A appreciable part of the Czech public forms its relationship and attitude toward Roma on the basis of ideas about the inferiority of Roma, as well as on common prejudices and stereotypes. They see Roma as "parasites", they refuse to have any contact with them and they are advocates of a harsh approach toward the whole ethnic group. Their negative attitude toward Roma goes into the upbringing of their children and creates the typical negative mindset in this attitude.

A special group in Czech society are the nationalists, chauvinists and racists holding an uncompromising and aggresive attitude in relation to the Roma. This part of Czech society create and hold racist ideas and ideologies. It's an extreme form of the NEGATIVE attitude of parts of the Czech public toward Roma.

Finally, there are the people who in past years have been able to learn to see the world around them as it actually appears, to understand the real contents of such values as humanity, justice, equal rights, and democracy and to try to orient their deeds and actions according to these values. I'm happy that the number of such people in the Czech Republic is increasing, and that they don't base their opinions, relations and attitudes toward Roma, Jews, Vietnamese and members of other nationalities, ethnic groups and races on stereotypes, prejudices and racist ideologies.

What is your opinion on the suppression of manifestations of racism in the Czech Republic?

This problem has been on display in the Czech Republic in an open form since 1990 and the Czech State has so far not sufficiently come to grips with it. Many things have been neglected and much time lost, for which dozens of Roma have paid with their lives. State institutions and competent authorities have yet to explain why and how this failure occured and so far no conclusion or consequences have been drawn from the responsibility for human lives frustrated, people crippled and material damage caused. I see in this the inconsistency in punishing racism in the Czech Republic, but also a danger for Roma, because racists interpret this inconsistency as "silent" tolerance and support. The development of events induced many Roma to solve the problems of racism, discrimination and violence by leaving the country. The Czech State realized the untenability of this situation, when there were killings of members of the Romani ethnic group for eight years on its territory and extremist groups of residents calling for the genocide of the Roma, in the middle of civilized Europe. Under international pressure, the Czech State was forced to deal resposibly with manifestations of racism and take measures to combat them, as they are bound to do under the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Racism. The activity of authorities charged with sentencing in cases of racial violence committed on Roma was intensified, though latent racism and discrimination survives that shows up in daily Romani life in the areas of unemployment, social status, access to housing, taking advantage of the right to all positions and access to all services established for the public,and education; in other words the areas that can be affected by their abilities and resources. Events has gone so far that Roma wanted to solve their problems with racial violence and discrimination by leaving the country. By doing so they made it absolutely clear that the prosecution of racism in the Czech Republic on the state's part is insufficient and it must be said that local governments in particular have not properly taken part in the prosecution of racial discrimination.

What is your opinion on the position of the Roma in the Czech Republic?

It comes out of the fact that the status of Roma in Czech society is a result of and harkens back to their historical standing, which is today as it was in the past, on the margins. Roma form the weakest group of residents with the least inclusion in society, a great lack of education and training, a very low standard of living, a poor state of health, a short middle age, a large economic and social dependence on the state, and an unclairified situation within its own ethnic group and its perspective. This condition is very difficult for the state, as well as the Roma themselves, to solve. The state has to search for possibilities and means to resolve the problems, which aroce in the distant past and have accumulated over a period of hundreds of years and dozens of generations. The Roma are losing hope and faith in improving their position in society, and with this they are losing the will and ability to face existing problems. The change in the social situation caused a disorientation in their real lives, but most of all in their "inner world", in which their ethical, social and cultural values and to a certain extent even economic rules had always worked. Among many Roma there occurred a loss of the most basic elements of their identity, ROMIPEN, and from there fell into a schizophrenic position: not yet integrated into the majority society and losing contact with the Romani ethnic group. As an example of how considerably this problem can affect someone, I give you a young Rom who's grown up in an institution and after leaving it, he has nowhere to return to and fit in. The majority society rejects him, and he's not able to regain contact with the Romani ethnic group and become a member of it. The situation of such people is fraught with problems and conflicts with a society that rejects and condemns them.

In your opinion, what do Czechs most often hold against the Roma?

- inability to assimilate

- parasitical way of life toward the majority society

- committing crimes

- overall backwardness

In your opinion, what do Roma most often hold against the Czechs?

- racism and discrimination

- crimes committed on Roma

How do you see the future of the Roma in the Czech Republic?

The Roma are entirely dependent on the evolution of Czech society, because they don't have the necessary participation in deciding what happens in society and how it develops. The Roma aren't represented in the authorities and institutions that predetermine, create and direct the evolution in society. I assume, however, that the Czech Republic is trying to support democratic development in society, that it will become part of the European community and this will enable it to reach the point where it functions as a real state ruled by law, with a mature democracy, where even Roma will form a respected part of the populace with equal rights. On the other hand, the Roma themselves must find the strength to influence their future in their own interest and in harmony with the interests of the majority society, and it has to understand the necessity of changing its simple lifestyle and at the same time it must try to preserve its identity and expand on its cultural heritage, including its mother tongue, because without these foundations there can't be a future for the Roma.

What do you think are the possibilities of mutual coexistence of Czechs and Roma?

Here I'd like to emphasize one very important matter. The Roma do not have a problem with the Czechs. The Roma are not trying to win concessions from the Czechs above the laws already in effect, they're not striving for separation, they're not requesting autonomy, and they're not provoking conflicts and unrest. It doesn't matter to the Roma that the Czechs have a different color skin, that they have a different culture, customs and traditions, or that they speak a different language and have a distinct lifestyle. The Roma do have a problem with their own economic, social, and communal standing, living conditions, and limited possibilities to change them. The Roma demand the human and civil rights that belong to them as they do to the other citizens of the Czech State. The Roma expect respect from the Czechs and not only tolerance, they demand redress of wrongs of the past and will defend themselves from new wrongs, and they want emancipation and reject assimilation. If the Czechs are able to understand these facts and if they find the will and readiness to help the Roma overcome the consequences of what was inflicted on them, then the mutual coexistence of Roma and Czechs can begin to be accomplished in a humane and civilized way.

Have you considered leaving the Czech Republic at times? If yes, for what reason? If no, why?

Since 1984, I've applied myself to trying to help the Roma in solving their problems in the Czech Republic. In 1990, I became a representative on the Czech National Council for the Civil Forum [original umbrella group for opposition to the Communist government in the first free elections] as a member of the Romani Civic Initiative political party. To this day I'm attempting to continue in this work, and I devote all of my strength, time and energy to it. I can say that I know the substance of the problems that have to be solved and in a definite way, and to a certain extent I've managed to positively influence at least partially some of the many problems and their solutions. Frequently, however, I've found myself in situations where it's not possible to do anything to prevent tragedy. There have been times, in meetings with Roma, where I've been asked: "Gina, how many more of us are they going to kill ... why won't you do something with them ... what will become of us ...?" I wasn't able to answer these questions and when I repeated them at the relevant places, I also didn't receive any answers. And another tragedy followed. In these moments I felt powerless and fell into resignation like many other Roma, but I also realized that some day the patience of these people wil be exhausted and then something horrible could happen. When I first came across the news of Roma leaving for Canada, I was surprised by the strength of their decision, when they didn't hesitate to sell the roof over their head for the price of a airline ticket for their family. Those who didn't realize what that means, then I'm not surprised that they don't understand the seriousness of the situation, because the Roma in this way "vented" excess pressure, they at least for a time gained the illusion of a possible solution and if they chose violence, then the peaceful departure from the country is certainly a much lesser evil. At these times, when I learned of another tragedy or found out how hopeless it is to negotiate with officials, the thought would always come to me, that, really, the only thing remaining to Roma in this country is to leave and I wanted to join those who left. So even I am one of those Roma who thought about leaving the Czech Republic because of racism and discrimination.

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