Gypsy dreams
Macleans, 1997

As she rolled on the dirty floor of a Prague train station last November, fending off blows from neo-Nazi skinheads, Karolina Banomova cried out for help. No one responded.

Eventually, the battered 25-year-old student made her way back to her home in the northwestern Czech town of Usti nad Labem to nurse her cuts and bruises. It was then that she decided to start a new life in Canada, a country she perceived as "a land of peace." Banomova sold her gold necklace and other belongings for a plane ticket to Toronto.

She arrived in May as a visitor at Pearson International Airport, intending to claim refugee status, but backed down when she faced Canada Customs officials. "They were white," she recalls, sitting in the Toronto office of immigration lawyer George Kubes. "I assumed they wouldn't want to look at me because I am dark-skinned." Instead, she went to a refugee shelter and heard about Kubes, who later filed her claim.

Banomova's fear of white officials came from a lifetime of prejudice that she has endured as a member of the stateless Roma and Sinti nation, known throughout the world as Gypsies. Originally from India, the Gypsies number about 12 million worldwide, and migrated to Central and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages.

Historically, they have lived in poverty at the margins of society and have long been persecuted as vagrants and criminals. Hitler's Germany exterminated 500,000 during the Second World War, leading politically sensitive postwar Europeans to use only the formal terms "Roma" and "Sinti", never the more derogatory "Gypsy."

In Prague the polite term is Romani, although not everyone uses it. "They are overtly discriminated against," says Prague human rights worker Jud Nirenberg. "Many firms make it a stated policy not to hire them."

The plight of the Czech Republic's estimated 300,000 Romanis was dramatized for Canadians last week when immigration inquiries suddenly skyrocketed in the wake of a documentary about Canada's refugee process that was broadcast on Czech television on Aug. 6.

By the middle of last week, 350 people a day were calling the Canadian Embassy in Prague to ask about seeking asylum. "Normally, the number is zero," chargé d'affaires Terrance Mooney told Maclean's.

At home, Canadian officials found themselves countering reports of "planeloads of Gypsies" descending on the country, according to René Mercier, a spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

Mooney said the 30-minute TV broadcast-which profiled Banomova and a few other Romani families in Toronto, seemed to have given many callers the impression that Canada has a special program for Romani refugees and would even "give them plane tickets or the money to buy them."

But Canadian officials, he added, had already noticed an increase in the number of Czech nationals claiming refugee status on arrival in Toronto, ever since a prior-visa requirement was waived in 1996, as it was for Canadians visiting the Czech Republic.

Particularly since early June, the numbers of Romanis seeking asylum in Canada appeared to be on the rise, Mooney said, and the phenomenon seemed centred in certain Czech towns. Canada has so far made no moves to find out if scam artists or people smugglers are at work in those towns, leaving such questions to the Czech police. "We have no evidence of it, but we strongly suspect it," Mooney said.

Lawyer Kubes, who emigrated in 1968 from what was then Communist Czechoslovakia, said his Romani client list had reached 40 by August, up from just five last January. "I have been getting dozens of calls daily," he said. "I could have 30 more cases next month."

As media coverage of the Nova TV documentary's aftermath picked up within the Czech Republic, a heated domestic debate erupted about the country's treatment of its largest visible minority.

Czech President Vaclav Havel labelled as "racist" an offer by officials in the town of Ostrava to buy tickets to Canada for local Romanis. "I see that two groups live here, Romani and white, who do not fit together and do not want to live together," said the town's mayor. "It's not racist, just the opposite. We want to help the Romani." The deputy chairman of the far-right Republican Party also chimed in, saying he was pleased the TV report had "revived in Gypsies their nomadic past, which once upon a time, unfortunately, also brought them to our country."

In an effort to quell rising ethnic tensions, Czech Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus held an urgent meeting with leaders of the Romani community, where he promised to improve housing and employment opportunities and fight discrimination.

That satisfied Romani leader Emil Scuka, who then urged his people to stay in the country.

The controversy is an embarrassment to the Czech leadership, whose nation has already been granted a place in NATO and is lobbying hard for inclusion in the European Union.

The Czechs argue that they share Western Europe's culture and values, including a concern for racial tolerance and equality. But a series of scandals over racism against Romanis had raised serious questions about that commitment even before the issue spread to Canada.

In the spring, lawmakers' debated revoking parliamentary immunity after a nationalist MP escaped prosecution for hate-mongering, despite calling Romanis "unusable waste that must be eliminated or recycled."

Then, the government's Council for Nationalities admitted the police and courts had been "careless" in initially acquitting 15 skinheads who in 1993 chased a Romani teenager into a river, where he drowned.

There has been a steady rise in violence against Romanis since the fall of communism in early 1990, up to 20 attacks a month in 1996. "In a democracy," says rights activist Nirenberg, "those who hate Roma feel more comfortable acting it out." Meanwhile, an estimated 10,000 to 25,000 were left stateless due to a new citizenship law passed just before the "velvet divorce" that separated the Czech and Slovak republics on New Year's Day, 1993.

Throughout Prague, Romanis can be seen standing around tram stops smoking cigarettes or crouched in front of shops begging for money. While the country as a whole has near full employment, the Romani population experiences jobless rates higher than 50 per cent. And Romanis have always been linked to crime in the public's mind.

Indeed, the derogatory word for them, cigani, has become virtually synonymous with petty crime, much as the pejorative term "to gyp" evolved from Gypsy in English. The situation is little different in neighboring Slovakia, which has an estimated 400,000 Romanis, or, for that matter, in countries as far west as Britain and Ireland.

In Germany, where tens of thousands of disenfranchised Eastern European Romani migrated after 1990, officials have already had to deal with a version of the refugee question now facing Canada. Amnesty International in 1992 confirmed 20 major incidents in which Romanian townspeople burned Gypsy homes and chased away the inhabitants.

But in late 1992, Bonn deemed Romanian refugee claimants, most of them Romanis, to be "economic" rather than "political" refugees and gave Bucharest a $20-million "reintegration" package to take them back. Then, tough new border measures allowed Germany to send many others back to Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

In Prague, the outlook for Romanis remains bleak. Jirina Olehlova, 38, was trained as cook but never found work in her field. "I was told by many restaurants that they wouldn't hire dark-skinned people like me," she says. She survives as a cleaning lady in Smichov, a poor suburb. Fourteen-year-old Sarka Demeterova dreams of being a teacher. But, like more than half of the Romani children in Smichov, she attended a school for physically and mentally disabled children, which did not qualify her to go on to high school.

The Solidarity and Tolerance Movement, a local activist group, says 75 per cent of the students in "special schools" are Romani children sent there because they speak non-Czech dialects or because they showed behavioral problems at conventional schools.

"I want to continue my education," Demeterova says with downcast eyes. "But I don't know if I'm smart enough." According to the 1991 census, just one per cent of Romanis had completed high school. With so few options, even a television glimpse of Toronto can be highly enticing.

Yet the numbers coming to Canada are still relatively low. Although Citizenship and Immigration does not keep statistics by ethnic group, it documented 189 refugee claims filed by Czech citizens in 1996, which have risen to more than 400 so far this year. The number that reached the Immigration and Refugee Board last year was 144, out of a total of 26,000 claims from all over the world.

A number of the Romani, say officials, withdraw their claims and go home. Banomova is not one of them. She misses her parents in Usti nad Labem, but is optimistic about her life in Canada. Her sister has joined her, as has her-seven-year old daughter. Banomova now takes English classes twice a week and hopes one day to find work as a flight attendant. Failing that, she will take "whatever job is available." Above all, she hopes to set up a Canadian association to help fellow Romani refugees start a better life.

With Nomi Morris

Back to top ->