After spending the weekend at the nonprofit Hope for Roma in the little village of Rankovce, I hustled back to Košice to meet Kristen’s friends Kathy and Rebecca. They were going to visit the small village of Vitkovce about an hour away by train.
I loaded up with Kathy, pregnant Rebecca and her two young daughters. They’re all from the States although Kathy grew up in Kenya with her parents who were missionaries. We were going to visit the matriarch of the village, Maria, a vivacious ball of warmth and generosity.
When we got to our train stop, we took the girls’ hands and walked the quarter of a mile to the Roma side of the village. The separation of Slovak and Roma inhabitants was even more apparent here than in Rankovce.
As we hiked past the white Slovak side of the village, Kathy pointed out a home she and her husband had hoped to buy so they could live closer to their Romani friends.
I couldn’t believe the outright discrimination of the housing process in Slovakia. Kathy and John were unwelcome in the community just by mentioning the word Roma.
“We’ve tried to do different events for the children at the community center, but the village didn’t like it. We rented the center one year and had an event. The next year when we tried to hold the same event, they refused to rent to us.” Kathy told me.
We walked a little further up the dirt trail to where Roma children rode bicycles or played in the street. We entered a modest but clean home where Mrs. Maria lived and were immediately assaulted by hugs, terms of endearment and loud boisterous laughter.
Mrs. Maria is the soul of Vitkovce, with a wooden cooking spoon in one hand she greeted me with a huge hug and a sloppy wet kiss on both cheeks. I instantly felt like part of the family, and I didn’t need to understand Slovak to hear her call me “my love.”
We had a morning of cooking and storytelling as Maria instructed Kathy and Rebecca on how to make the traditional dish of boky: a mix of potato dough, meat, cabbage with a tomato paste and sauerkraut on top. Served with warm vegetable soup, it tasted wonderful.
The women gossiped and joked like they had known each other their entire lives and children ran in and out of the house. Most of the children and adults loved being photographed and a few boys asked me to take some photos of them posing by a wall.
The women discussed tutoring and literacy programs for their children. Many Roma children don’t learn Slovak until they reach first grade, putting them behind other children. The education system hasn’t done Romani children many favors and most Romani parents in this village don’t put much of an emphasis on education.
One man in Rankovce told me that his sons were made fun of by the community for wanting to finish their education before settling down and starting a family. Many Roma marry at the age of 15 or 16, and it’s a challenge to even finish high school.
The man said many Roma believe starting a family earlier will keep boys from drinking too much or joining gangs.
“If they have someone to provide for, they won’t be prey to what happens to many young men in these places.”
However, although there is an emphasis on family and communal spirit, this can have negative effects on literacy and economic opportunity. Unfortunately for even educated Roma, jobs are scarce for all Slovaks, and racism is rampant in the hiring process. For this reason many Roma wonder why they would even bother to continue their education since it won’t help them get better jobs and can deter them from starting a family.
Maria and the other female leaders of the community seemed to be interested in education especially since they received funds from the EU to teach. However, they had big concerns about jealousy between families.
“If we hire teachers, we need to have a different teacher from every family to stop jealousy,” Maria told Kathy and Rebecca.
The women talked a little more about education, laughed, cooked and revolved around Maria’s testimonies and antics.