Articles

Indian human rights defender fights to end Roma discrimination

posted Feb 25, 2012, 9:58 PM by Suresh V


Sri Kumar Vishwanathan, an Indian high school physics teacher living in the Czech Republic, was appalled after reading what was happening to the Roma in Ostrava after the huge floods of 1997. “Thousands of people lost their homes,” remembers Kumar. “For most, help arrived quickly, but not for the Roma, who had already been living in marginalized circumstances. The authorities placed twenty-eight Roma families indefinitely into asbestos covered cubicles, perhaps hoping that they would be discouraged by their deplorable living conditions, and eventually move away. The media deliberately incited tensions between the Roma and their new neighbors, presenting them not as victims, but rather as disruptive people, as criminals.”

Kumar decided to move into the cubicles himself in hope of easing tensions between both sides. Shortly afterwards, he initiated a plan to build a neighborhood of small houses for the Roma as well as for ethnic Czechs. He managed to overcome numerous obstacles and secured financing for the project from both Czech and foreign sources. In 2002, the Coexistence Village was completed, and the Roma as well as ethnic Czechs moved in. It has remained a unique success story.

In 2003, the daily Mladá fronta Dnes, a leading Czech newspaper, devoted an entire page to Kumar’s work in a series on Heroes of Our Times. Yet in the same period, Kumar was repeatedly detained by the Czech police during random controls simply because he was regarded as a Roma and because he refused to show his identity documents unless the police gave him a reason, other than ethnic profiling.

Since then, the organization which Kumar founded - Life Together – has expanded into many other areas of activity. They organize social street work and legal aid to the Roma in Ostrava, aiming to prevent evictions and defend families from having their children taken into institutional care. They have encouraged victims, who were predominately women, to speak out against violent thugs from inside the Roma community itself, who were extorting money from them. A successful project was launched to train some of these women as police assistants. They helped challenge the segregation of Roma children in special schools, contributing to a landmark judgment of the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg. Kumar was also involved in helping Roma women who had been sterilized in the past without their full consent to file complaints.

Kumar has documented instances of hate speech by local politicians who spoke of using “dynamite” or “machine guns” against the Roma. He has long feared that such inflammatory talk might lead to actual incidents of violence. Then, in 2009, came a vicious arson attack on a Roma family in Vitkov, and a toddler in the home suffered burns all over her body. The police seemed unable or unwilling to find the perpetrators. Kumar devoted himself to the cause with relentless determination, mobilizing support for the victims and putting pressure on the police to continue the investigation. Finally, the neo-Nazi attackers were found and convicted. 

Today, Kumar and his family are still living in the poorest Roma neighborhood in Ostrava, and his NGO continues to empower the Roma through his advocacy. “The local police no longer harass me because they know me well,” says Kumar. “But getting the positive message to broader society is difficult. Even today, the Czech media seem to be more interested in populist mayors who are pushing for ruthless evictions and crackdowns against the Roma, perpetuating the vicious circle of exclusion and marginalization.”

The focus of Human Rights Day 2010 was human rights defenders acting against discrimination

Europe's marginalised community

posted Feb 25, 2012, 9:45 PM by Suresh V   [ updated Feb 25, 2012, 9:59 PM ]

Opinion - News Analysis

Europe's marginalised community

By Vaiju Naravane

 

A FRESH BEGINNING: A Roma family in their house built by a voluntary organisation near Ostrava in Czech republic.

Ostrava, the Czech Republic:

This is a big day for Kumar Vishwanathan and his humanitarian association, Vzajemné Souziti, which in Czech language translates as "Life Together". His dream of a housing project for Roma gypsies and poor Czech citizens has become a reality and the first of the beneficiaries have moved in.

For several years now, Mr. Vishwanathan has been working for the rights of one of Eastern Europe's most despised, ostracised and marginalised communities, the Roma or gypsies.

The project is located in a village called Slezska Ostrava (on the outskirts of the industrial town of Ostrava near the Polish border) and provides housing in semi-detached bungalows to very poor families, both Roma and Czech, who have been living in dank, run-down houses badly affected by repeated flooding. The idea is to bring two deeply divided and mutually suspicious communities together in an experiment in "Life Together''.

The gypsies are Europe's most deprived and fastest growing ethnic minority. There are an estimated 9 million Roma in Europe, some 6 million of them in Eastern Europe. The Roma originally came to Europe from central and north-western India in three waves of migrations between the 5th and 12th centuries, reportedly fleeing religious persecution, although there is little historical proof for this claim. Most Roma have become sedentary and hardly anyone now speaks Romani, supposedly a dialect of their original Indian tongue.

 

Twenty-two-year-old Katerina Hodostova has the thick, dark features and stocky frame characteristic of the Roma. "Never in my life did I think I would live in a house like this. A room for the children, one for my husband's mother, one for us, a proper living and dining, even a garden in the backyard. We pay a rent of 2,300 kroner. In our old house in Hrusova which had damp patches, leaky taps and shared conveniences, we paid 4,300 kroner plus the heating. This is all thanks to Kumar's association,'' she says.

Eva Burova, a social worker with "Life Together" told The Hindu: "Ostrava has a population of 300,000 people of which 20,000 are Roma. In my entire life, I have known maybe three Roma who have university degrees. They are systematically discriminated against and are seen as alcoholics, thieves, and compulsive liars. They are right at the bottom of the social scale. Our association helps them to help themselves.''

Mr. Vishwanathan's is an exemplary story of commitment and drive. After earning a degree from the Birla Institute of Technology, this native of Kerala went to the Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow to earn a degree in physics. There he met his Czech wife and after the fall of the Berlin, moved to Ostrava where she was finishing her education.

 

``My involvement with the Roma began in 1997 when the Czech Republic was hit by terrible floods. They lost their homes but received very little attention from the local authorities. I had heard so many terrible one-sided stories about them that I decided to find out for myself and for a year I lived in a cabin with them. They were suspicious of me at first. But since I was educated, I could help them make applications, deal with local authorities. I had to stay there and make myself useful in order to win trust. I worked a great deal with children and slowly my cabin became a community centre. They had nothing. No blankets, little furniture, no rubbish collection and rudimentary toilets. An entire family would live and cook in the space of five square metres — it was very dangerous. I contacted NGOs and established links with local authorities,'' recalls Mr. Vishwanathan.

The statistics for gypsies as compared to the national averages for other ethnic minorities are appalling: Their jobless rate is over 60 percent, more than six times the national average in most of Europe while their life expectancy is behind by as much as 10 years. Even today, although schooling has been compulsory for over half a century, only one in five gypsy families can send its children to secondary school. Verbal and physical abuse against the Roma are a common feature. The European Commission and the Council of Europe have both urged Eastern European Governments to uphold the human rights of the Roma. Nevertheless, they remain a downtrodden and largely despised community and although the Roma are looked on with suspicion in Western Europe too, it is in the East that discrimination and racial hatred is mostly practised.

 

The Roma, however, are beginning to organise themselves and with help from persons such as Mr. Vishwanathan, have begun claiming their rights. Many have begun to flee their home countries for Western Europe. There is now a new fear that masses of Roma will inundate the West. "The migration of the Roma will make the influx of Third World migrants to the West look like a mere trickle. Six million gypsies in Eastern Europe, most of them anxious to flee to the more prosperous West where they feel they will receive better treatment. At the moment, Western European Governments systematically deny them visas and right of entry. What will happen in 2004 when Poland, Hungary, the Czech and Slovak republics will join the E.U.? What will happen when Bulgaria and Romania become members? "We are going to see mass movements of people on a scale not seen before and these will not be welcome moves,'' says the sociologist, Judith Scott, who is preparing a doctoral thesis on the subject.

Europe is sitting on a demographic time bomb, Ms Scott says.

The Roma move on

posted Feb 25, 2012, 9:41 PM by Suresh V

VAIJU NARAVANE

in Ostrava

BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Kumar Vishwanathan in the housing complex he helped build.

PRAGUE is still recovering from the devastating floods of August and the train moves slowly, lumbering through sodden countryside to the Czech Republic's eastern border with Poland. Ostrava is an ugly, industrialised city of 300,000 the train moves slow

 

ering through sodden countryside to the Czech Republic's eastern border with Poland. Ostrava is an ugly, industrialised city of 300,000 inhabitants and even the dim early morning light does nothing to relieve its grimness.

At the fourth tramway stop from the station Kumar Vishwanathan is waiting — "in front of a branch of the Albert Supermarket," he had said. He is a personable young man with a set of sparkling teeth and thick, jet black hair. For several yearsKumar Vishwanathan in the housing complex he helped build.

PRAGUE is still recovering from the devastating floods of August and the train moves slowly, lumbering through sodden countryside to the Czech Republic's eastern border with Poland. Ostrava is an ugly, industrialised city of 300,000 inhabitants and even the dim early morning light does nothing to relieve its grimnest the fourth tramway stop from the station Kumawanathan is waiting — "in front of a branch of the Albert Supermarket," he had said. He is a personable young man with a set of sparkling teeth and thick, jet black hair. For several years now Kumar, through his humanitariaion Vzajemné Souziti, which roughly translates as Life Together, has been working for thepect of the rights of one of Eastern Europe's mdespised, ostracised and marginalisemmunities, the Roma or gypsies.

Thibig day for Kumar and his association. In a few hours' time his dreausing project for Roma gypsies and poor Czech inhabitants will eality.

 now Ku

PRAGUE is still recovering from the devastating floods of August and the train moves slowly, lumbering through sodden countryside to the Czech Republic's eastern border with Poland. Ostrava is an ugly, industrialised city of 300,000 inhabitants and even the dim early morning light does nothing to relieve its grimness.

At the fourth tramway stop from the station Kumar Vishwanathan is waiting — "in front of a branch of the Albert Supermarket," he had said. He is a personable young man with a set of sparkling teeth and thick, jet black hair. For several years now Kumar, through his humanitarian association Vzajemné Souziti, which roughly translates as Life Together, has been working for the respect of the rights of one of Eastern Europe's most despised, ostracised and marginalised communities, the Roma or gypsies.

This is a big day for Kumar and his association. In a few hours' time his dream of a housing project for Roma gypsies and poor Czech inhabitants will become a reality.

an with a set of sparkling teeth and thick, jet black hair. For several years now Kumar, through his humanitarian association Vzajemné Souziti, which roughly translates as Life Together, has been working for the respect of the rights of one of Eastern Europe's most despised, ostracised and marginalised communities, the Roma or gypsies.

This is a big day for Kumar and his association. In a few hours' time his dream of a housing project for Roma gypsies and poor Czech inhabitants will become a reality.

The project is located some miles outside Ostrava in a village called Slezska Ostrava and provides brand new housing in semi-detached bungalows to extremely poor families, both Roma and Czech, who have been living in dank, rundown, dismal houses badly affected by repeated flooding.

Twenty-two-year-old Katerina Hodostova has the thick, dark features and stocky frame, characteristic of the Roma. The mother of three, she proudly moves from room to room followed by her chattering mother-in-law and three small daughters, dressed for the occasion in their best pink sweaters. "Never in my life did I think I would live in a house like this. A room for the children, one for my husband's mother, one for us, a proper living and dining, even a garden in the back. We pay a rent of 2,300 kroner. In our old house in Hrusova, which had damp patches, leaky taps and shared conveniences, we paid 4,300 kroner plus the heating. This is all thanks to Kumar. Without him this could not have happened," she says.

The atmosphere is festive. The Roma children have rehearsed for weeks and the chief guest and visiting gentry that includes the Bishop of Ostrava, Moravia and Silesia, the local chief engineer and the representative from a Swiss charity that gave two million of the 65 million kroner it took to build the 36-home complex, are treated to an open-air song and dance number.

"It was difficult to begin. But once the Czech government and the local municipality came on board, several foundations and international NGOs gave us funds," explains Eva Burova, a professional social worker who works for Kumar Vishwanathan's association. "Ostrava has a population of 300,000 people of which 20,000 are Roma. In my entire life I have known maybe three Roma who have university degrees. They are systematically discriminated against and are seen as alcoholics, thieves, and compulsive liars. They are right at the bottom of the social scale. Our association helps them to help themselves."

Kumar's is an exemplary story of commitment and drive. After earning a degree from the Birla Institute of Technology, Pilani, he went to the Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow to earn a degree in physics. There he met his Czech wife and after the fall of the Berlin Wall moved to Ostrava where his wife was finishing her education.

"My involvement with the Roma began in 1997 when the Czech Republic was hit by terrible floods. They lost their homes but received very little attention from the local authorities. I had heard so many terrible one-sided stories about them that I decided to find out for myself and for a year I lived in a cabin with them.

"The community had sunk so low that nobody cared anymore. There were no municipal services, so garbage and junk piled up. There were social problems such as alcoholism, violence and theft. The Roma I encountered were beginning to resemble the stereotyped portrait that was painted of them.

"They were suspicious of me at first. But since I was educated, I could help them make applications, deal with local authorities. I had to stay there and make myself useful in order to win trust. I gave our community eight objectives, including internal order and care of the premises. That meant establishing a cleaning roster. The next thing was to ease tension between neighbours through discussion and negotiation. I worked a great deal with children and slowly my cabin became a community centre.

"They had nothing. No blankets, little furniture, very few amenities. An entire family would live and cook in the space of five square metres — it was very dangerous. I contacted NGOs and established links with local authorities. Finally we managed to create a team of student volunteers who helped organise the community and give it form and direction," recalls Kumar.

His thesis is that the gypsies, or Roma, were the first victims of the Industrial Revolution, which made them depart from their traditional nomadic lifestyle. Then came the Communist age when the state decided what was best for its citizens. "Traditional hierarchies were destroyed by dispersal and resettlement. The Roma had a truly functioning cultural democracy. That was not acceptable. Progressively the Roma became trapped in a system to which they were not adapted. Their children did not do well in traditional schools and they got into a cycle of rejection and fear where they could not participate in any concrete way in society. Thus they became ghettoised and marginalised. Everyone has used the Roma, exploited them, from the policeman to the social worker to the loan shark. We are in a very small way trying to break this cycle," he says.

ZUCHNICKY PAVEL

Inside a Roma household in Ostrava. Six million gypsies of Eastern Europe are desperate to flee to the West, but Western European governments systematically deny them visas and right of entry.

The gypsies are Europe's most deprived and fastest growing ethnic minority. There are an estimated nine million Roma in Europe, some six million of them in Eastern Europe. The Roma originally came to Europe from central and northwestern India in three waves of migrations between the 5th and 12th centuries. Historians of the Roma say they were fleeing religious persecution in India but there is little historical proof of this claim. Most Roma have become sedentary and hardly anyone now speaks the Romani language, reportedly a dialect of their original Indian tongue.

The gypsies have retained strong tribal and family loyalties and preserved systems of collective security that conflict with mainstream European traditions. They are known as Roma in Eastern and central Europe, Manush and Sinti in Western Europe and Gitanos in Spain and Portugal. In France they are called Tziganes, or in politically correct terms, The Travellers, which is just a polite way of saying nomads.

The statistics for gypsies as compared to national averages for other ethnic minorities are appalling: Their jobless rate is over 60 per cent, more than six times the national average in most European countries while their life expectancy is behind by as much as 10 years. Even today, although schooling has been compulsory for over half a century, only one in five gypsy families can send its children to secondary school.

In 1999 the municipal councillors of a small Bohemian town called Usti decided to erect a wall to isolate gypsy tenements from the rest of the town. The gypsies were seen as dirty, thieving, lying, good-for-nothing people from whom the town had to be protected. Verbal and physical abuse against the Roma is a common feature. Although the Roma are looked on with suspicion in Western Europe too, it is in the east that discrimination and racial hatred is most zealously practised.

The European Commission and the Council of Europe have both urged Eastern European governments to uphold the human rights of the Roma. Nevertheless, they remain a downtrodden and largely despised community.

But the Roma are slowly beginning to organise themselves and with help from persons like Kumar Vishwanathan have begun to claim their rights. For instance, although half a million Roma were exterminated by the Nazis during the Holocaust because they were seen as belonging to an "inferior" race, the Porajmos or "Gypsy Holocaust" was commemorated for the first time only in 1993, largely thanks to efforts by Church leaders in Eastern Europe.

With persistent and often flagrant discrimination against the gypsies practised not just by individuals but by local government officials and elected politicians, many gypsies have begun to flee their home countries for Western Europe.

There is now a new fear that masses of Roma will inundate the West. "There is a huge and growing problem that will make the influx of Third World migrants to the West look like child's play, chicken feed. Just think, there are six million gypsies in Eastern Europe, all of them anxious and desperate to flee to the more prosperous West where they feel they will receive better treatment. At the moment Western European governments systematically deny them visas and right of entry. What will happen in 2004 when Poland, Hungary, the Czech and Slovak republics all join the E.U.? What will happen when Bulgaria and Romania become members? We are going to see mass movements of people on a scale not seen before and these will not be welcome moves," says sociologist Judith Scott who is preparing a doctoral thesis on the subject.

Europe is sitting on a demographic time-bomb, she says. "The birth rate among the gypsies is high, several times higher than the negative birth rates experienced by most European countries. European governments are, like ostriches, burying their heads in the sand. In 10 years' time they will have a huge problem on their hands. These will be people from their own continent, citizens of Europe all, whom they will not be able to expel or deport like Third World citizens. But no move is being made to invest in education or training to integrate the gypsies, which would be the only sensible thing to do," feels Scott.

Too busy with questions of enlargement, Europe has not given sufficient time or thought to its immigration policy. Raymond Barre, economist and former French Prime Minister, said: "There are several factors at work here. First, Europe has an ageing population and in 20 years the number of pensioners will be twice the active population. People are living longer with average life expectancy for both men and women over 80 years of age, which means there might not be enough left in the pension funds when the present wage-earning generations retire. Secondly, there will be an acute labour shortage, especially in certain key, high technology or knowledge-based sectors. Europe will not have enough people to man these jobs and this leads us to a curious paradox: Europe needs foreign labour but the reaction of most governments is to tighten immigration controls. The result is Fortress Europe at a time when industry is crying out for qualified workers and jobs in certain sectors going a-begging. The third problem is that of integration of the immigrant population already living and working legally in Europe. They are often ghettoised and marginalised leading to delinquency, religious and racial intolerance and violence. In most countries immigrant populations do not have the right to vote, even in local elections, which makes for a lack of ownership, of belonging to the country of adoption. Europe must adopt a policy of selective immigration while investing heavily in training and education so that the weaker elements in its population can become positive contributors to their own well-being and to the well-being of society." 

Bridging the Divide

posted Feb 25, 2012, 9:13 PM by Suresh V

AN ARTCLE IN PRAUGE POST 

There’s a party inside the walls of Life Together with lots of kisses and hugs, much food and drink and a constant queue of people from north Moravia who know Kumar Vishwanathan. He toasts and greets the steady progression of Czech and Roma people in celebration of his 45th birthday.
But his story doesn’t start at this party in Ostrava. It started thousands of miles away from the offices of that little nonprofit in the southeastern region of India, in Kerala. It started in the tropical climate of an Indian state that adjoins the Arabian Sea. It started in a place that was then and remains a welcome home to cultural and religious diversity that breeds conflict in so many other countries in that part of the world.
Vishwanathan grew up around Hindus, Christians, Muslims and Jews, and this shaped the man he is today, he said.
He is the eldest of four — twin sisters and a brother — born to an electrical engineer and a homemaker. For Vishwanathan, the way of life in Kerala had its limitations. He found that Indian women felt safer sticking to the traditions of their parents, a boundary he wanted to push past.
After studying at the Indian Institute of Technology and Science in northern India, he decided he wanted to study abroad. In those days, he was a fan of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, so it wasn’t a big surprise when he set out to attend the Peoples’ Friendship University in Moscow.
There he continued his studies finishing up with a master’s in physics and math. When he arrived in the Soviet Union he didn’t stop trying to push the boundaries set for him, this time not by his parents or the Indian caste system but by the communist government.
Although his visa was good only within Moscow’s city limits, Vishwanathan was caught several times attempting to explore the country on unsanctioned trips. After being searched and detained, he was always released with orders to return to the city.
Breaking out
It was in Moscow that Vishwanathan went from being a quiet, introvert to breaking out of his cocoon and becoming a social butterfly. He went from having few friends to having many from Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe. One friend, in particular, became quite special. While in Moscow, he met Ladislava, or Laďka, as he calls her, who briefly studied there.
“They opened up the world to me in a very different kind of way. They opened me to their interests. Laďka cultivated my interest in art from world masters. We felt many things in common. She was also bold. I liked that,” he said.
They kept in touch, and he helped her organize student protests from time to time. Once the wall fell, they married, and he settled in the Czech Republic.
“I feel that I understand the people of Central and Eastern Europe. I feel at long last at home somewhere,” he said.
Like many other émigrés, his curriculum vitae consists of jobs not linked to his area of expertise. He raked leaves and cleared snow at a spa until he landed a position as a teacher at a bilingual British-Czech grammar school in Olomouc.
While there, he was in charge of creating a post-communist curriculum to bring the eager students up to speed with the rest of Europe.
“I am most happy that I managed to help break down stereotypes, like that physics is not for girls,” he said. “I developed a whole astronomy module based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. It inspired one of my girl students. Today, she is an astronomer.”
He taught for seven years, eventually integrating science with drama. He wrote a play, which was performed at the British Council in Olomouc and the Theater Comedy in Prague.
Then the floods came
Even with the new additions to his lesson plans, Vishwanathan was looking for a completely new challenge. The war in Sarajevo had just ended and he considered going there to teach. But, just as his routine became too mundane, fate struck and so did Mother Nature: The worst flood in 1,000 years hit Moravia.
“We had flood waters on our doorstep. But, in Ostrava, I learned that the water was 7 meters high and had destroyed a locality — Hrušov.”
Vishwanathan kept his eyes and ears on the situation. Some 400 families, both Roma and Czech, had been evacuated to a nearby school. The situation deteriorated after the authorities accused the Roma families of stealing school toys to give to their children to play with during the evacuation.
“I wanted to intervene, help,” Vishwanathan said.
With his wife’s blessing, he headed for Ostrava to volunteer. It was an emergency response to a temporary problem, or so he thought.
He started living with the Roma in the cabins made from asbestos — a cancer-causing insulation material — to help. The white community rejected the idea of Roma living among them and threatened to arm themselves against their fellow flood victims.
“I would have moved in to help anybody in such circumstances. It happened to be the Roma who needed it then,” Vishwanathan said.
While living among them, the man with the “big heart” learned a lot about issues facing Roma families. He became close to almost 30 different families. Then other volunteers joined.
“We became one big family,” he said. “Together, we overcame a lot of problems.”
After a few months volunteering, he began to earn a living by teaching English to Roma children. Laďka was very supportive, as well as the Olomouc community that raised money to help with the effort. Finally, a Prague nongovernmental organization, Nadace rozvoje občanské společnosti (NROS), teamed up with the Brno-based group, Loving Alternative to Punishment for Delinquent Youth, to provide Vishwanathan’s work in Ostrava with more fiscal support.
Since then, he’s been working with Life Together to fight for Roma equality. He has established a reputation for being a calming negotiator between the Roma and Czech communities. Not only does he work with different representatives from government and nongovernment organizations to further the cause, he brings the empathy of a teacher to an issue that’s steeped in prejudice and neglect.
“Kumar showed me a future,” said Miroslav Horvát, 27. Horvat is a Roma who grew up in institutionalized care before he met Vishwanathan. “I didn’t see any way of life. I started to work for him, and he showed me a way of life I hadn’t known.”
Vishwanathan said he can’t foretell the future, so he doesn’t yet know what the next act in his play will be. In the short term, he will continue with his passions: cycling, walking through the mountains and reading, provided he can find the time.
Since the days of his youth, he doesn’t read much Tolstoy but has grown to admire the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Boris Pasternak and Mikhail Bulgakov, who he says best describe the communist Russia experience. Beyond them, he likes writers on cultural fault lines such as Hermann Hesse and Günter Grass.
As he lifted his glass in yet another toast to the packed room of colleagues, who after several years have become close friends, it’s obvious he makes time for what’s most important: family and friends. By now, the party has been going on since early afternoon and several women are topping off the food.
“More people are coming,” one of them said.
The party wouldn’t end before the wee hours.
When asked what he would like his own legacy to be, his reply could easily be found in the dialogue on the pages of a Hesse book: “I don’t chase any legacy.”
Although that may be true, the self-described “lone walker” has helped build a bridge between two cultures and bring many people from both sides to break bread. From the smiles of admiration and respect of those gathered, it looks like a legacy might be chasing him. 

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