The sun is setting over the colorful storefronts and Gothic cathedral on the main road in Košice, the second largest city in Slovakia. Slovak children run up and down the road, playing in the singing fountain which is beginning to change colors as night falls.
Slovaks are enjoying beer and wine at street cafes, and the warm breeze is pleasant and brings the scent of melting chocolate from a cafe to my right.
I turn off the square and head back to my flat, almost running into a Roma man digging in the dumpster for leftover food and scrap metal behind the apartment. Heading down another street I see the bus that would take me to Luník IX, the substandard housing Roma were forced to live in after the city government evicted them from downtown. My supervisors tell me to never visit by myself.
Every day in Slovakia, I hear casual but inherent prejudice expressed toward the Roma, often by Slovaks, but also by other Roma or even people who are supposed to help the Roma.
With Amnesty International denouncing the European Union for discrimination against minorities and publications like The Economist calling inequality Europe’s biggest social problem, it would be dishonest to say things are ideal for the Roma in Slovakia.
Roma are more than a magic culture of quaint handicrafts and haunting music. As Jarmila Vaňová, a reporter for the Roma Press Agency told me: “We don’t just sing and dance.”
I spoke with Anna Koptová — a scholar and educator who is Romani — about her work with Roma education. She served on the Slovak National Council in 1990 and is the director of the Legal Defense Bureau for Ethnic Minorities. When I told her I had read her book, she smiled politely and asked, “which one?”
Leaning in intently to answer my questions, she seemed ready to overthrow the entire educational system by herself.
“These politicians use artificial solutions when solving problems. They have no proper perspective of what it means to be Roma,” Mrs. Koptová said, as we sat at a café in the mall in downtown Košice.
She cited a recent case with a politician in Bratislava who spent thousands of Euros to build potable toilets in a Roma slum.
“Everyone spoke about how much good it would do, how these toilets would make us more cultured,” Koptová said.
“This is an archaic solution. It doesn’t solve the deeper problems of poverty and self-worth.”
Mrs. Koptová spoke about how after never having a toilet, the gift didn’t make sense to the community. They had no ownership of it.
“The children didn’t understand. They weren’t used to having toilets like this. They lasted a week. When the reporters returned, the toilets were destroyed. It happened like the Roma said it would.” Koptová sighed and took a sip of her drink.
“This is the naïve way that politics address social issues.”
Koptová explained that in basic social work classes, workers are cautioned to never go into an area they don’t understand and just dump resources. The toilets were like a bandage. They stopped the blood flow for an hour or two, then the wound reopened and the system continued the way it had been.
As we were interviewing, a white Slovak man came up to Mrs. Koptová and spoke to her for a few minutes.
When he left, she said, “Take this man for example. He is a highly educated teacher in my school. Recently his grandmother became very ill and he had to leave his work to take care of her.”
The teacher receives 200 Euros every month from the government to help take care of his grandmother. He wants to continue to work, but when he does he will lose the funding and will be unable to pay for his grandmother’s medical treatment.
“He has two master’s degrees, but the system has trapped him,” Koptová said.
She went on to explain the psychological depression experienced by this teacher.
“We see the same thing with the Roma,” Koptová said.“The policy that was written for and affects the Roma is causing this man to suffer from depression. The system is broken.”
Koptová was adamant that problems will not be fixed when deeper systemic and racial issues exist.
“It’s not about raising a standard of living but having an ethnic identity,” Koptová said.
“That’s why we started the [Roma] schools, it’s important to teach the children their ethnic identity.”
Many Roma have never been taught their history, a subject ignored in the broader Slovak school system. Koptová’s schools and gymnasium — a sort of training school before university — work to teach Roma children to take pride in their identity and work with the majority community.
“When the children feel like a partner with Slovaks, they feel like more of people,” Koptová said.
Negative stereotypes and misunderstanding of culture lead to an almost self-fulfilling prophecy.
“The view of the majority of Slovaks that Roma are aggressive, vulgar, abusive is projected on the Roma until both groups begin to believe it’s true,” Koptová explained.
“The politicians don’t understand that change in this country can’t come unless we can strengthen an understanding of identity.”
Koptová advocates for Roma to take pride in their culture and individuality.
“They must think: ‘I am a responsible Roma person and therefore a responsible citizen,’ ” she said.
I asked Mrs. Koptová more about the schools she ran. She is involved with a primary school in Košice and a gymnasium in Kežmarok for mostly Roma students. She spoke about the change she saw in the children as they learned more about their heritage.
“At first they asked me ‘Why are you teaching us this? Why are we learning about Roma language?’
We talk with them quite a bit so they’re able to see their strength and benefit. It’s the first time they know anything about who they are.”
As they learn more about their heritage, the children often have emotional questions and a sense of duty.
“They have this anger when they realize 100 years ago you could kill a Roma person without any consequences,” Koptová said.
“We talk about Auschwitz and they’re so angry… They’re angry with themselves, but then they realize ‘I am here, and I need to take responsibility for this.’”
Koptová’s schools teach the children about the great contributions Roma have made for European society often in the face of an unwelcoming majority.
“Our people have been unable to value themselves because they have no idea who they are,” Koptová said.
“The question of identity among themselves, to see there’s nothing to be ashamed of, that we have a deep history, we have been a persecuted nation, but we have maintained our language, is an unbelievable triumph.”
Despite the odds of being underrepresented and ignored, Roma have survived and will continue to transform.
“Many of the great nations and empires no longer exist. Although we had nothing but ourselves, we survived,” Koptová said.
In order to resolve conflicts of poverty and discrimination, educators like Anna Koptová are trying to empower children through a sense of self and responsibility.
“They must realize their own power,” Koptová said. “They must realize it in themselves.”