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For Roma, a Revolution of Expectations

In Slovakia, Roma unemployment varies from region to region. In the more prosperous west, near the capital, Bratislava, it is as low as 15 percent in some places. In the east, it is higher than 40 percent in some areas, according to a World Bank study.

"We are not going to be silent. We cannot be shoveled aside. Slovakia is going forward, and we are going backward, and we cannot accept that," Kalias said. "We are only now realizing that times have changed forever. There will be no more guaranteed jobs like in communist times. We will have to make it on our own. We also have to take advantage of the chance to speak out."


The Roma settlement of Kamenna Poruba is one of the poorest in eastern Slovakia. There is no running water or electricity in most of the dwellings, some of which are one-room huts. (Michael Robinson-Chavez -- The Washington Post)

_____Photo Gallery_____
Living in the Shadows: The 350,000 Roma who live in Slovakia face discrimination and hardship as they try to live in modern Europe.

Kalias, a father of two, added: "You might ask why don't I leave, since I could sell my house and move somewhere else. The truth is, I feel more comfortable here than among the whites. And it's not so bad. I can show you much worse."

He took a visitor to a neighborhood nearby that had no paved streets. The houses -- all shacks -- had just been flooded by a nearby stream. None had running water. Residents relied on wood for heat and cooking.

They said they survived by collecting welfare payments, selling scrap metal, harvesting mushrooms or stealing apples from a nearby orchard and selling the fruit on the street.

They complained mostly about the lack of utilities. "So we don't have jobs, but do we have to live like animals?" said Josef Tancos, who lives with his wife, his four children and his mother. "Government officials come here at election time, and then we never hear from them. Unless some Roma is caught stealing. Then everybody shouts."

Underfunded Programs

Not all Roma neighborhoods lack government attention. There are numerous municipal programs in Slovakia to create infrastructure in Roma slums. Many of them are funded by the E.U. In 1999, the government also outlined plans to improve Roma settlements, education and health problems. By all accounts, the programs are underfunded.

In the town of Huncovce, northwest of Vranov, Mayor Jusef Majercak initiated a project to pave streets and install sewer and water lines in a small satellite Roma neighborhood that lies, literally, on the other side of the tracks.

He spoke to a reporter in the presence of a Roma assistant in charge of an "activation program," a government- and E.U.-funded project to provide Roma with part-time jobs to clean streets and parks and clear gutters. "When we started this program, some of the Roma didn't know how to handle a broom," the mayor said. "For centuries, Roma have been working the land with their hands, not machines. We're in the machine age now."

His assistant, Julius Karol, agreed: "It is true. Romas would rather throw garbage out the window than pick it up and throw it away."

Some Roma sympathize with the majority view that Roma are unqualified for most jobs but say that should not be an excuse for denying opportunities to all Roma.

Hriczko, the TV journalist, attended a program for aspiring journalists when he was in high school. He was the only graduate to get a job. A private station put him on as "the voice of the Roma," he said. He left to start a Roma news service and then was hired by state television. This time, he insisted on doing non-Roma as well as Roma news stories.

"I grew up with non-Roma society," he said. "I have white teeth and a job. I dress up, so I am accepted.

"You see, educated Roma are the invisible minority within the minority," he said. "Everyone talks about the poor in the settlements, and this is a problem. But solving that problem will not solve all our problems. We must end discrimination for everyone."

Hriczko expresses impatience with Roma ethnic politics and rejects formation of a purely Roma party on the grounds that the community's vote, even if united, would not be large enough to win representation in parliament. Instead, he lobbies the government on discrimination and presses parties to include Roma among candidates for parliament.

"Mostly we have to shatter stereotypes. We need Roma in offices, in factories, in politics, on TV," he said. "It is not only the Roma who need this. All Slovakia needs this."


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