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A firsthand account of the racism facing Ukrainian Roma refugees in the Czech Republic. From Romea.cz.

After weeks of working on the front line, one has basically just two options: To completely burn out, or to become numb to some extent. The things that touched me deeply during the first days of helping refugees from Ukraine are now something that I put into an imaginary box in my head and put on an imaginary shelf.

The refugees, the photos of shattered homes or exhausted people arriving from devastated cities (mainly from Mariupol), no longer make much of an impression on me. I think that for those working in the helping professions during a humanitarian crisis, there is no other way to cope.

However, what is affecting me now is the obvious unwillingness – or at least the rigidity – of the institutions whose cooperation we desperately need, and the absolutely crazy clashes, every single day, with institutional racism. Before this, I had just heard about the discrimination against Romani people here in the Czech Republic, or read about it. Although I naturally perceived the severity of this racism, I had no idea how absurd and abominable it actually is until it began to directly interfere with my work and my endeavors to help as many people as possible. 

In recent years, Budapest has distributed about 1 million Hungarian passports to Hungarian speakers in neighboring countries. As a consequence, Romani refugees from Ukraine are currently arriving in the Czech Republic with Hungarian passports and Ukrainian ones. I have come across both politicians and state institutions making statements that are totally uninformed and alleging that such people are not “real” refugees but economic migrants and therefore this country will not aid them.

Yes, these people are refugees – they are fleeing war, and I assume that they actually do not want to wait to see whether the shelling and the street fighting make it to their towns or not. They are not reading political predictions in the newspapers about the development of the situation; they are just afraid, understandably, and they want out of there.

Horrific Detention Centers

Parenthetically, speaking as a Vietnamese woman in the Czech Republic, the cognitive dissonance of listening to people indignantly tell me about all the bad things associated with “economic migration” just adds another degree of absurdity to this situation. The Romani refugees from Ukraine are being “aided” here by the Czech state either failing to accommodate them altogether, or placing them in residential hotels in the best-case scenario and detention centers in the worst-case scenario.

If refugees leave the accommodation officially provided to them, they basically drop out of the system and no other state institution will help them find another place to live. Those centers for detaining foreign nationals are hell, though, totally. 

I am absolutely certain that none of the critics of Romani refugees leaving such accommodation could last more than two days in such a place. Once the Romani refugees from Ukraine get “stuck” like this, they de facto have nowhere to go, but they want to wait here for at least some time to see if the situation will improve.

In Brno, such families are sleeping in front of the train station, while in Prague, all people who need to spend the night at the train station are able to do so inside a parked train. (Naturally, that opportunity is offered to all irrespective of their ethnicity, but it is most frequently needed by Romani families who have fled Ukraine in particular).

This institutionalized racism condemns Romani people definitively to a fate that is pretty hopeless. A few days ago, I saw a Czech Railways conductor refuse to let an 11-member family onto a train because “they are Roma, they make a mess; they have Hungarian passports and they are not refugees.”

I saw mothers with babies in their arms quietly weeping on the platform and I had absolutely no idea how we could explain all the evil that is happening around them. They had been trying to travel to Budapest because they had been waiting in Prague for three days to register and had not been allowed to do so.

Unadaptables

This testimony is my bitter greeting to that conductor, at whom I shouted at one point, asking how she can look herself in the mirror when she wakes up after throwing a family of four babies, three toddlers, and four women off of a train. We have that conductor’s badge number, and we will do everything possible to make sure such people do not obstruct our efforts to aid groups that are vulnerable.

Daily, I hear mocking remarks from all of the state institutions, such as “unfortunately they want to remain here,” “more unadaptables have arrived,” and such. Each time those remarks are made to me in an almost conspiratorial way, because what is considered the default setting in these people’s minds is racism toward Romani people.

Combating this crazy chimera is so exhausting that at least once every shift I have to sit in silence and try to stop thinking about the absolutely easy but hard-to-process question of why people behave like this. I don’t understand it, and my heart is being torn apart by it.

I think there are no better people than us volunteers at the main train station in Prague to comment on the alleged “unadaptability” of the Romani refugees from Ukraine. During the course of one week I encounter hundreds of them, and their biggest “crime” is that they are louder than others when they call for help.

They really need a great deal of help, though – that’s why they are loud. The argument is frequently made to me by non-Roma that “They are a nomadic nation; they don’t need much, after all.”

Goddamnit, these people have come here to escape a war, so they don’t have to rot away in Ukraine. I cannot comprehend why it is so difficult for people to grasp that the impoverished want to improve their situations.

Romani interpreters have started going to the main train station in Prague, and they at least make communication easier and give the Romani refugee families the feeling that they have been better understood. We keep doing our best to take this all family by family, step by step.

This opinion was originally published on Romea.cz, a Czech-based news site about events in the Romani world. Republished with permission. Edited for length and clarity.

Translated by Gwendolyn Albert.