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Symbios, a “social house” in Brno, aims to help young adults without adequate family situations adjust to everyday life. From Novinky.cz.

Imagine that you’ve just turned 18. You don’t have a caring family, work experience, or a solid education. Maybe you don’t know how to shop at the supermarket, how much bread costs, or how to pay bills.

You’ve never seen someone bake a chicken or make potato soup; maybe you don’t know how to heat up a sausage so it doesn’t crack. All that was done for you until now by “aunts” – educators from the children’s home that you now have to leave because you’re of age.

It’s clear that starting out in life will be harder for you than for a young person who has the support of a loving family, including financial aid if need be until he can stand on his own two feet. This was the situation for former children’s home residents who now live in the Symbios social house. There, at least temporarily, they’ve found a helping hand.

Eight students from Brno universities – aged 19 to 28, four men and four women – live in the house. The young adults from children’s homes have the same gender distribution. A room in a 2+1 apartment (two bedrooms and a kitchen) costs 3,000-4,000 Czech crowns ($120-$160) a month, significantly less than the average in Brno, the Czech Republic’s second-largest city.

Eighteen- and 19-year-olds from children’s homes find, among other things, something in Symbios they weren’t used to: their own room, where they can close the door behind them.

“There are no mixed couples in the flats; two boys or two girls always live together. It just arranged itself that way – we’ve had no requests in this regard,” says project manager Marketa Mikulicakova. Eliska Kucerova works alongside Mikulicakova, as a mentor. Residents go to her for advice or perhaps just to pour their hearts out. “I think they feel a sense of calm here,” says Kucerova. After all kinds of life’s ups and downs and turbulences, they can stop and take a breath, she says.

“They know they have a place to live, they’re safe, and in the next room there’s a roommate they talk to when they feel like it,” Kucerova explains. Although she’s there for everyone, it’s mostly the young adults from children’s homes who come to her for advice. “Students more often consult with their parents.”

A Sympathetic Ear

Sometimes residents just want to chat, share what they did well at work that day, or what nice thing happened in their personal lives. The mentor also can guide them when looking for a job or applying for social benefits.

“It’s not that easy to find good, affordable housing,” says Symbios resident Lucie Pohlotkova, who recently left a children’s home. “It’s very nice here; the student I live with is fine, the other residents too; we all know each other. If you have a problem, you can turn to the mentors or the project manager.” Pohlotkova already has a job, as an assistant in the Brno nonprofit IQ Roma Servis, which works with Roma youth.

We’re talking in the small kitchen, where you’ll find everything you need for everyday cooking: a modern stove, electric oven, refrigerator with freezer, and a microwave. There’s a room on each side; Pohlotkova lives in one, her student roommate in the other. The apartments are newly renovated; the first residents moved in last summer.

Everyone outfits her own room; furnishings were not included. This helped the residents learn all kinds of things – for example, how to make furniture from pallets or which Facebook group might offer an armchair for free.

“Until recently, I didn’t know anyone from a children’s home; then I came here and I know eight such people, each from a different children’s home, which of course is a powerful experience,” says resident Patrik Kubat, a doctoral student in economics. “When you get to know their stories, listen to all they’ve been through, it will affect and change you,” he says.

Psychology student Magdalena Matyskova also praises the unusual coexistence. “Thanks to having a roommate from a children’s home, I’ve learned to appreciate things I had taken for granted before, like a family you could go home to at Christmas. Also, Lucka is partially blind, so it’s a lot more difficult for her when it comes to finding a job, for example.”

Matyskova also was attracted by getting to live with people her age, and that everyone knows one another. “It’s super. Where else do you have that? I used to live in a shared, walk-through room; it was miserable.”

The architecture of the house suits its purpose, contributing to the atmosphere. You can socialize on the shared balcony; in the common area on the top floor you might show photos from your travels or have a birthday party.

The apartments were filled within a few weeks, but there is vacant space in the basement with potential. A cafe is planned there, which could be a place for some of the residents to work.

Rules Are Rules

The ability to have stable housing and social support should help young adults along their road to adulthood, which includes responsibility. Everyone must follow so-called black rules that, if violated, carry the risk of eviction.

Taboos include hard drugs and inconsiderate behavior toward others. Attendance at community meetings is mandatory at least once every two months as is, of course, payment of rent. This can be postponed twice if difficulties arise.

If someone has a problem with following the rules no one will blame them, but they must leave the house.

“I like being responsible,” says resident Michal Capek. “When I left the children’s home, they directed me to a so-called halfway house. But there they take care of you similarly to a children’s home, and there are also stricter rules. A person doesn’t gain much independence. For instance, there are rules about what time you have to be home, and when to get up in the morning. Someone always has something to say about how you should be living your life. I wanted to take care of myself more and not let myself be ordered to do so many things, which is why I like this project.”

Not too many opportunities exist for young people leaving children’s homes to gain a foothold somewhere and to learn independence. There are about 30 halfway houses in the Czech Republic.

“There tends to be a stricter regime in those, more like the regime of a children’s home,” says Mikulicakova. “And they’re far from being able to accommodate everyone.”

Within a few months of living together at Symbios, the children’s homes alumni and the students forged strong friendships. One spent Christmas with a family for the first time, when his new friend invited him home for the holidays.

The lifestyles of young people in school and those in the workforce tend to be different, but this doesn’t prevent them from having a beer together.

“It’s not hard to find a topic to talk about; we both watch movies and series,” says student Patrik. “I often find his observations from the hairdressing field, in which he works, interesting. I’ll tell him about school; we learn something from each other’s worlds. We already have mutual friends. And when my roommate was supposed to go on a business trip by plane for the first time, he was scared; I was able to calm him down.”

Although the residents’ accounts sound mostly idyllic, some issues can lead to disputes. For instance, the question of whether and where smoking is allowed. Non-smokers didn’t like smoking on the balcony, so after a debate and a vote, it was democratically decided that smoking would be limited to a designated area.

The quarantine brought about by the coronavirus epidemic has had a negative effect on community life. The students mostly went home to their parents. The foster home alumni had to stay and spend all their time at home. With one exception, they worked in services that shut down.

“If one of us got sick, the whole house would probably be infected soon,” says Mikulicakova. “We live here together, and social contact can’t be completely avoided.” Abiding by health recommendations goes without saying, she adds.

Viennese Inspiration

The inspiration for Symbios was Vinzirast house, a similar project operating in Vienna [where formerly homeless people live alongside students]. The nonprofit organization EkoInkubator is behind the financing of the Czech variant; the Brno-center district provided the building.

Children’s homes directors helped find suitable candidates for renters. “We asked that they not be people already well-equipped for independent living; we’d have nothing to pass on to them,” says Mikulicakova. “On the other hand, we weren’t prepared to accept applicants with a problematic, criminal past, because working with them requires special expertise.”

Most students learned about the project at school. They sent a resume and a cover letter and clarified the rest during a roughly hour-long interview.

“We didn’t want people for whom the main motivation was a good price for rent. Not everyone is well-prepared for living together with people from different social backgrounds. When the capacity was reached we stopped accepting applications, so we didn’t have to reject many candidates.”

The first friendships were formed during the five-day introductory visit that followed, and those who wanted to live together paired up. The organizers accommodated them; there have been no instances of roommates not hitting it off. They are to spend at least a year together, but the program expects stays that will last multiple years.

Barbora Cihelkova is a reporter at Pravo, a Czech daily newspaper that runs the online news site, Novinky.cz, where this article was originally published. Cihelkova has written often on educational themes in the Czech media, including many years at the daily Lidove noviny. Reprinted with permission. Translated by Dasa Obereigner. The article has been slightly edited to fit our style.