Speech by Sri Kumar Vishwanthan at European Civil Rights Prize in Berlin

posted Feb 26, 2012, 12:27 AM by Suresh V   [ updated Feb 26, 2012, 12:29 AM ]

This is the speech that my son Kumar Viswanathan gave at the award ceremony of the European Civil Rights Prize in Berlin at the German Foreign Ministry.

The prize went to 18 Ostrava Roma children- now youth- for their courageous fight against segregation and right to education. The European court for Human Rights at Strasbourg made a historical judgement that is often compared to the Brown vs the Education Board of the black civil rights movement.Please open the link below for the speech.

K.R.V Pillai

Stockholm Speech SriKumar Vishwanathan

posted Feb 26, 2012, 12:25 AM by Suresh V   [ updated Feb 26, 2012, 12:31 AM ]

Presentation by Dr. Waldo Villalpando

Presentation by Mr. Kumar Vishwanathan
Presentation by Mr. Michel Samson
Presentation by Mr. Jeffrey Kaplan
Message by the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Justice of the Czech Republic, Pavel Rychetský
Message by the Minister of Interior of Germany, H.E. Otto Shily
Message by the Attorney General of Israel, Elyakim Rubinstein
Message by the Minister of Integration of the Netherlands, H.E. Roger van Boxtel

Presentation by Mr. Kumar Vishwanathan
Vishwanathan, Sri Kumar

Some strategies for improving the relationship between the Roma and the Czechs

I  Ostrava. 

Ostrava is an industrial city in the Czech Republic, located close to the Polish border. Ostrava is known for its tough, skilful and hardworking population. However, it has recently seen the closure of all its big mines and is now trying desperately to get over the stagnation of its two giant steel mills.
Ostrava region is said to have the biggest concentration of Roma minority in the Czech Republic. They came in, r were brought in, after the Second World War, to carry out tough, unskilled, manual labour.
Ostrava is a potential flash point of Czech-Roma tension. In 1997, following major floods, the delicate fabric of co-habitation in Ostrava, was ripped at places and went through a severe test.

Three events from the history of Ostrava

On the 18th and the 27th of October 1939, after a period of humiliation followed by persecution, 1300 Jewish men, between the ages of 17 and 70, were separated from their families and expelled from the Moravian part of Ostrava to a place called Nisko in German occupied Poland. One of the first Jewish transports in Europe was from Ostrava. 1)
In 1946, following the end of the war, in a period of hate, the German inhabitants of the Silesian parts of Ostrava and its surroundings were expelled from their homes to distant Germany.
In 1993, following the creation of the Czech Republic, from former Czechoslovakia, in a period of phobia of Roma immigration from Slovakia, many Roma permanently or effectively living in Ostrava, as in other parts of the country, were declared foreigners and their permanent residence declared invalid. This shameful Citizenship act was an attempt was to expel Roma to Slovakia.
History tells us of the need to be vigilant and aware. The pattern is often the same.We see everyday prejudices of majority populations escalating to hate, persecution, expulsion or even annihilation of the minority.

II  A wounded relationship.

Sylvie is a young Czech-Roma. She and her friend Pepik had lost everything they had during the disastrous summer floods of 1997. They had been evacuated to a local school. They had to live there, together with other Roma families, for many weeks.
Their children had no toys and nothing to play with.
One day, they were accused of stealing the school toys. The media picked it up to cast a very negative picture of these families. The public started discussing which of the flood victims really deserve a helping hand. There were opinions that the Roma do not deserve any help at all.
In autumn, Sylvie and the other Roma were sent to tiny make-shift cabins in a new neighbourhood. The whole neighbourhood rose up against them, signed petitions. The municipal officials brought in police vans. It looked like a little Beirut.
Sylvie was pregnant. She was in her eighth month. One day while she was in a half-empty bus, an elderly man approached her and asked her to get up from her seat. Sylvie refused. The man said, .What are you doing here? You should be in Canada..
The air was hostile. Many Roma left the country to live in safety and dignity.

Svìtlana, Marie and Jan
I had decided, to move in, to live with the flooded Roma families, in the Autumn of 1997. Gradually, I began to get a deeper insight into their many problems.
One thing that shocked me then was the fact that most of the children were officially considered mentally retarded. My gut reaction was that they were in no way inferior to the children of a good British-Czech school, where I had taught physics for several years. Little children of six could actively communicate in two or three languages and could remember the lyrics of some thirty songs. They also had a remarkable ability to take care of one another and share things. But, as Roma children, they didn.t quite fit the Czech-centric notion of .school maturity.. Children who attend the school for the mentally retarded have practically little possibility of completing their basic schooling. Most of them end up as unskilled or semiskilled labourers on the job market. Svìtlana Kro.tenová, Marie and Jan .iga are probably among the first children to be ever moved from a school for the mentally retarded to a normal school. The transfer was made possible thanks to active support and the courage of a local head teacher- Mrs.Helena Balabanová.
All the three - Svetlana, Marie and Jan- are doing very well, for the fourth year, within a normal curriculum.

Renata lives in Hru.ov, is a single parent, a mother of two children. Hru.ov is a district of Ostrava, heavily mined, sinking for decades and badly flooded in the summer of 1997. In December 1997, the city council declared Hru.ov to be unfit and unsafe for living and decided to turn it into an industrial zone. The municipality stopped taking care of Hru.ov.
People felt abandoned. Other municipalities openly refused to accept the Roma. Some frustrated families had fled flooded Hru.ov for abroad.
Renata had worked for many years as a crane driver at a steel plant. Having run into difficulties, the plant was forced to lay off its workers and Renata lost her job. She then did a nursing course and applied for a job. She was told, .Sorry, we don.t accept gypsies..
In the summer of 1998, Renata became responsible for LifeTogether.s modest aid program for the flooded families. In 1999, together with Joseph, a retired Czech teacher, Renata founded LifeTogether.s first nursery school to offer a pre-school program aimed at overcoming the disadvantage of Roma children in meeting .school maturity. criteria. Renata is working now as a Roma classroom assistant. She has got the support of the mothers. Roma mothers. This is very important.
The municipal authorities however consider Renata, like the other Roma, to be .socially unadaptable.. She has been denied a flat outside Hru.ov for three years.
Renata is a member of the Council of Hru.ov. It was formed last summer and unites the poor Roma and the few Czech villa owners who also live there. It.s a common platform that puts pressure on the local authorities to respect the law and not ignore the problems of the people still left in Hru.ov.

I believe there is some thing like a Roma emancipation in the making, a kind of slow,sure dignified grass-root upheaval.

Katka is not Roma. She lives in a block of flats in a middle class part of Ostrava. Not far away live a few poor Roma families.
Every morning, before going to work, Katka takes her little dog for a walk. One morning Katka came to work, upset. Some of the older Roma boys had kicked her dog and attacked her.
Katka is now under a lot of pressure, from people close to her, to give up her job, stop working for the Roma. Katka has decided to stay. .It is only those boys., not everybody is like that.. She has not stopped teaching accountancy to a Roma girl in a ghetto either.
I think that there is a strong growing social impulse among the better-educated Czech youth who, a decade after bringing down the wall that divided Europe is now breaking down the narrow domestic walls of misery that divide and marginalize people at home.

III  Our Work.

LifeTogether works with the poor and needy families of Ostrava. We visit families at home. We work in the streets. Sometimes, we organise whole community gatherings to identify problems or work together in solving them- for e.g. community cleaning campaigns. Sometimes, we organise meetings of two neighbouring communities to diffuse tensions, express the problems, identify common priorities and work on the solutions. We identify active members of both communities interested in working together, organise informal local community elections and create local councils.
We have organised three local councils in different parts of Ostrava and the council members are from both communities. We work for the empowerment of both communities. This might seem paradoxical, but, vis a vis local authorities and big private housing corporations, it is not only the Roma who are dismissed away. In the past two years we have managed to open two nursery schools, a social and legal advise bureau and three community centres in the Roma ghettos to offer a variety of services.
The community centres have programs mainly directed at children and youth- games and education.
We offer emergency shelter to families with nowhere to go especially in winter. We work with prisoners who have committed crimes due to poverty and support their early family reunion.
On special occasions we also invite local policemen to do some shared activity with the Roma youth and get to know them from a different perspective.
The centres provide employment to 10 Romany men and women.. The community centres have been partly supported by European Phare funds- administered by the Prague based Foundation for a Civic Society- and the British Know How Fund. In Autumn 2000, we completed the Model house project where all the eight Roma families living in a house repaired the interior of the house that they live in. The municipality, which provided the building material, has decided to support this program to cover other houses.
LifeTogether, together with Caritas, began a social-housing project called the Common Life Village- Vesnièka Sou.ití. The idea for the village was born when it became quite clear to the flooded Roma families, after more than a year of waiting, that the municipality was not sufficiently committed in keeping its promises for an early solution to the housing problem.
Last year, at a site not far from the street that looked like Beirut in 1997, the local bishop blessed the foundation stone for the village. Thirty families are now involved in the construction of their houses. It is fascinating to see the end to a period of hate and rejection. The Common Life Village express the faith of the Romas and Czechs that they can work and live together. This project is, among others, supported by the Czech government, and by several European non-governmental organisations.

IV  The ideas underlying our work.

LifeTogether is widely known as a civic organisation that has helped, through community work, to combat intolerance and maintain social stability in parts of Ostrava. This may be true, although one never knows. However, we can only say that we are committed to respond to a range of problems as and when they appear. The problem of intolerance needs to be addressed at a local level. These are our basic strategies.
• To help improve the quality of life of the marginalized Roma families by offering a range of services.
• To identify the needs of both communities in gatherings and prioritise common problems
• To present both communities with opportunities for coming together in a non-threatening, friendly atmosphere and take part in some common activities. When individuals can meet in such a neutral platform, they often find ways to a new respectful relationship.
It is helpful, if as an outcome of these activities both communities are able to perceive some beneficial change.
• To empower both communities to solve their common problems in an atmosphere of mutual respect
• To present good outcomes to the wider public as facts. Such facts can counter widespread prejudices
• To avoid legal battles, although legal counselling is an important part of our work. To strive for a consensual solution to conflicts.

However, while working at a local level it is important to get the support and involvement of local authorities. But, sometimes it happens that local authorities just prefer to ignore or even wall awsituations are thus left to get out of control, relationships between the Roma and the Czechs can suffer. Right wing sympathies catch on. An increase of such cases might put young Czech democracy to risk.

I believe, it is crucial, at this stage, to propose mechanisms to stimulate the full participation of local authorities in solving the problems of marginalized communities. I believe, this is not just a local problem confined to Ostrava. This is a challenge that we face. How can we make local councils more responsible to ay the marginalized Roma together with their problems. When marginalised communities? 

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