What am I doing in Slovakia?

What am I doing in Slovakia?

Slovakia is a small Eastern European country, nestled southeast of the Czech Republic and south of Poland, above Hungary with a sliver of the Ukraine to the right and Austria to the left.

The main language spoken here is Slovak. The Republic gained its independence in 1993 and was formerly known as Czechoslovakia. The government is a parliamentary democracy with the President as the Head of State, and the capital is Bratislava.

St. Elisabeth’s Cathedral in Košice
I am travelling around the Slovak Republic, learning about the culture and history of the Roma people.  Romanies live in most European countries, originally migrating from India anywhere from 800-1000 years ago. Although Roma have moved to countries all over the world, each group has its own distinct culture and should not be lumped together. Roma in Slovakia are very different from Roma in countries as close as Romania.
Also, we don’t refer to Romanies as Gypsies since this term has a negative connotation. The way it is translated in Slovak means liar or thief. The term Gypsy is a romanticized and fantasized ideal that is found in popular literature and children’s stories but not so much in real life. It carries a lot of historical baggage, and my supervisors stay away from this word.
Romani girl in Rankovce
So what exactly am I doing?
I am completing a photojournalism internship that will result in an exhibit showing the beauty and culture of the Roma in Slovakia. Roma have been historically discriminated against and suffer from disproportionate levels of unemployment, illiteracy and substandard housing.
What have I done so far?
The first week and a half have been a blur. I received a quick and dirty orientation from my supervisors before they left for the United States to attend their son’s graduation from Navy boot camp, letting me stay in their flat in the middle of the Košice
This was a good growing time for me as I figured out how to navigate a foreign country while only knowing two phrases of Slovak.
My first solo day, I hopped on a regional bus to Prešov  with no plans except to get off somewhere. I was able to visit a museum with works of art from the 13th-16th century, buy a creamy cone of gelato and listen to a group of Roma men jam on acoustic guitars and violins. I headed back to Košice  visited the Cathedral in the middle of town and snapped a few photos of street performers.
Underground Art Museum in Prešov
My first weekend, I went to the tiny village of Rankovce, about an hour away by bus, to meet with my supervisors’ friend Kristen. Kristen runs a nonprofit called Hope for Roma which works to empower women through sewing projects.
While in Rankovce, I visited the Slovak side of the village made up of predominantly white ethnic Slovaks and then the Roma part of the village a little farther down. Many Roma live apart from Slovaks, sometimes by choice or income, often because of discrimination as I saw in the next few days when visiting other villages.
Girls from Hope for the Roma work on sewing projects
I was able to find a translator and interview some of the Roma families and children in the village. They were open to me and kept asking to have their picture taken. Some children wanted to have full blown photo shoots while playing at the community park. They posed like models and laughed at each others’ antics. I felt very welcome there; no one made me feel uncomfortable for being foreign.
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Kristen took me to a small bible study in one of the Romani homes where the Slovak preacher, Monica came to teach every week. Sometimes Renata, a Romani leader, teaches as well. I thought it was interesting that the Lutheran church leaders were so open to women teachers. Kristen explained to me that to be a teacher in the Slovak Lutheran church you have to go through a confirmation process. Since Renata had been one of the few to go through the training, she  was able to teach. A guitar player led the group in worship songs in both Romani and Slovak. Monica read some passages out of her Bible and the group discussed  the topics at length while children ran in and out of the house.

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The next day, I visited Pastor Monica’s church which was having a special presentation for Slovak Women’s Day and also a holiday honoring the Holy Trinity in the church. The Roma choir sang first and filled the church with their voices, guitars and drums. The Slovak choir also sang, but their songs were more standard hymns with less rhythmic guitar riffs. Afterward, Renata invited me to share some food with her and her friends. I was able to walk down to the Roma side of the village and snap some photos just as sunset was hitting the mountains and fields of the surrounding countryside.

It was a restful weekend, and I was able to learn more about the complex relationships between Slovaks and Romanies. They share the same country, but as shown by the separate choirs and villages, they have cultural and ethnic boundaries to overcome.

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