Toronto Star
Party time in Prague
Toronto Star, 1998

70,000 hockey fans jam square to watch glorious Czech victory

PRAGUE - Linda Pavckova crawled out of bed at 4:30 yesterday morning, donned a red-and white hockey jersey with a Czech crest emblazoned on the front and drove in the dark from the Prague suburb where she lives to Old Town Square.

Jiri Spular woke up an hour earlier, bundled his 4-year-old son into his car and drove three hours to the square from his home in the Moravian town of Olomouc.

Eva Havrankova did not sleep at all that night. She went to a pub near her home in Kolin with a Czech flag painted on her face. She left the pub around 1 a.m. and headed for Prague. The teenager walked to the Czech capital because there were no buses or trains running at that hour.

She arrived in Old Town Square four hours later, in time to watch the Czech Republic face off against Russia in the gold medal game in Nagano, which started at 5:45 a.m. local time.

The three Czechs were among 70,000 enthusiasts who packed the medieval square. Throngs of people stood together in the pre-dawn chill watching the big game on three massive screens specially erected in the square.

The crowd erupted when the Czechs won 1-0 and their exuberant hoots and hollers echoed off the Baroque buildings surrounding the square and rang through the narrow winding streets of the Old Town.

Minutes after the Czech team won the country's first Olympic hockey gold, throngs of revelers headed to Wenceslas Square in the centre of Prague. Teenagers jumped up and down, waving flags chanting, "Mame Zlato!" (We got the the gold!).

Within hours, the crowd had become the largest to assemble in the square since the 1989 Velvet Revolution.

The triumph has rejuvenated a people who suffered through a year of political turmoil, economic woes, and floods. The gold is especially sweet because it was captured by defeating the Russians, with whom the Czechs have a turbulent and often bitter history. Soviet leaders orchestrated a communist coup 50 years ago this week and sent tanks rumbling through the streets of Prague two decades later.

"We started preparing for the celebration when we beat Canada [in the semifinal]," said Prague waiter Zdenek Rava, 25. "The Russians played well but Dominik Hasek doesn't let anything in," he said, referring to the goaltender's stellar performance in the Olympic tournament, where he allowed just six goals in six games and posted two shutouts.

"We love to beat the Russians because our rivalry with them goes back a long way," he said, champagne dripping off his nose. "We deserve this."

The former Czechoslovakia won four silver medals in past Olympics. Czechoslovak teams lost the gold to the Soviet Union in three of those final matches.

"It has been a very difficult year," said pensioner Vaclav Hoker, who walked to the Old Town from his apartment nearby. "This victory is a big boost to our nation," he said while the Czech national anthem blared from loudspeakers.

Added Pavckova, 23: "This gives us hope for the future. It demonstrates that you can achieve anything if you're strong."

While Czechs drove through Prague honking their horns and waving red, white and blue Czech flags, President Vaclav Havel sent a telegram to the Czech team, which is due to arrive today.

"I rejoice with you and the whole nation at your fantastic triumph. The name of Czech hockey and of the Czech Republic is again proclaimed around the world," he said.

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Gypsy accuses 'arrogant' Canada
Toronto Star, 1997

Czech goes home after 'humiliation' by officials at Pearson airport

ÚSTÍ NAD LABEM, CZECH REPUBLIC - Milan Scuka, who has returned to his home town in Western Bohemia penniless after spending all his savings on an air fare to Canada, says he feels humiliated because he was "mistreated" by officials representing the country in which he had hoped to start a new life.

"Canadian officials were very arrogant," said Scuka, a 24- year-old Gypsy, who arrived at Pearson International Airport with his pregnant girlfriend and their two-year-old son Aug. 14, and was sent back to the Czech Republic the next day.

"They responded to our questions with one-word answers, or they didn't respond at all. We wanted to stay in Canada, learn English and lead better lives."

Instead, like an increasing number of their compatriots - also known as Roma or Romani - they have abandoned hopes of becoming Canadian citizens and must start life anew in their native Czech Republic, a country that has never embraced them.

Since the Aug. 6 airing of a television documentary which, critics claim, gave the impression that Canada has a special program for Gypsy refugees, more than 100 Gypsies have taken flights hoping to seek refugee status.

But Canadian officials in Prague said an increasing number of them are being turned back. They said at least 30 Gypsies, who arrived in Ontario seeking refugee status, were turned back last week.

After seeing the documentary, Scuka said he had grand expectations of what awaited him in Canada but he was "sorely disappointed" on his arrival at Pearson.

"I didn't want financial support," he said. "But, based on what I saw on TV, I did expect to be provided with accommodation. And the officials told me there was no free accommodation."

He also said the asylum procedure was much more complicated than he had been led to believe by the program. He was surprised when officials told him he would have to give up his passport for three months while his application for refugee status was processed.

Scuka said he could not understand how, without a passport, he could secure accommodation in Canada.

He didn't realize it would take at least three months until his family's application for asylum was processed. In that time, "our plane tickets would expire and we wouldn't have any money to buy another one."

"Romani have been treated brutally in Canada," claimed Emil Scuka [no relation to Milan] of the Romani Civic Initiative in Prague.

"It must have been the desire of the Canadian government. Some Romani have been treated worse in Canada than here," he said.

Though laws ensuring the just treatment of ethnic minorities have been established in the Czech Republic, they are not enforced consistently and, according to research, are all but useless to Romani searching for a job or an education.

There is virtually no unemployment among Czechs, but the jobless rate among Gypsies hovers near 50 per cent.

In a recent poll, 45 per cent of respondents said they would support transporting the Gypsy population out of the Czech Republic.

Western-based human rights groups have criticized poor treatment of Gypsies in the republic for years but the issue was largely ignored by Czech officials until the recent exodus to Canada focused international attention on their plight.

In recent weeks, the Gypsies' situation has become a cause celebre in government chambers, boardrooms and classrooms throughout the country as Czechs examine Gypsies' place in society and consider ways to deal with those sent back by Canadian officials.

And while Milan Scuka was contending with Canadian immigration officials earlier this month, Czech Premier Vaclav Klaus was meeting with Romani leaders in Prague.

He promised to establish a body to deal with Gypsy issues and asked the community to submit concrete proposals on how to improve Gypsies' access to education, employment and housing.

Three days later, Czech Interior Minister Jan Ruml said the return of Gypsies poses a problem which the federal government must address.

But parliamentarian Pavel Dostal argued the country's mayors, who "indirectly enticed Romani to leave this country, should bear responsibility and take care of these people," many of whom have returned penniless.

In another debate, Czech Justice Minister Vlasta Parkanova said Czech society is "facing a completely unique task which is extremely difficult and will last through generations."

Czech Senator Ludek Zahradnicek said one way to solve the problem of Gypsy alienation from Czech society was to "teach young Romani decent manners."

But focus on their plight has not impressed many of them. "They are making a big deal about it now," said Milan Scuka, who has gone back to work as a laborer.

"But when there are fewer Romani seeking asylum in Canada and the world is no longer paying attention, it will be the same crap as before."

Adds Emil Scuka: "For Romani, there is no hope for a free life in the Czech Republic. They cannot live in a country where people treat them this badly. Here, people like dogs more than Romani."
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Czech job market offers work for expatriates with experience
Toronto Star, 1995

PRAGUE - When Wing Si Luk decided to leave her job in the Toronto office of a prominent multinational corporation and move to Prague, her family thought she was crazy.

"They thought the idea was really strange," she says. "They were thinking, 'Why would you want to go there?' At home, Prague is perceived as a mysterious place."

But in the five months that have passed since she and her boyfriend, Liam Ross, arrived in Prague, Wing Si has decided that she made the right decision in moving here.

"I came here because I wanted to do something different with my career," explains the 26-year-old Guelph native, who recently landed a job as manager of corporate design services at a French-owned publication in Prague. "And there are more career opportunities here than in Canada."

Encouraged by promising economic indicators (the inflation rate at 9.6 percent is far lower than other countries of the former Soviet Bloc, and gross domestic product is forecast to grow by 4 percent in the coming year) countless foreign companies are setting up shop in this new democracy.

That creates a choice job market for candidates with work experience in the West, and is changing the face of the expatriate community.

The quintessential Westerner in Prague used to be someone who had arrived with a half-finished outline of the Great Canadian Novel in his pocket and then fell in love with the city. Now, the typical expatriate is more likely to work in the office of a foreign-owned company.

"The expat community is changing," says Canadian Vice Consul Gavin Buchan. "It is no longer epitomized by the people who came here immediately after the Velvet Revolution [in 1989] with no particular focus except a feeling that Prague was a wonderful city to live in. Now, the expats here tend to be more business-oriented."

Buchan and other observers concede that young romantics still navigate the cobblestone streets of the city's famous Old Town, and that Prague still abounds with aspiring poets and authors. But of the expats who contact the Canadian embassy, Buchan notes, an increasing number are here on business. (He estimates the Czech Republic has roughly 2,000 Canadians, but says it's impossible to determine the exact number since relatively few register with the embassy.)

"Many Americans who came here two or three years ago were young, transient and in between school years," says U.S. Consul Robert Mustain, who estimates that about 12,000 Americans currently live in the Czech Republic. "But now we are seeing people who are somewhat older and somewhat more professional."

One indication that the expat community is changing, says Mustain, is that marriage and birth registrations among Americans in this country have increased.

Nonie Valentine, an American psychologist, reports another sign of change. She used to counsel many expatriates who come to the Czech Republic in what she calls creative work.

"They had high hopes and romantic notions of living in a post-revolutionary society," she says. "But they bumped into some of the grittier realities of living here and went back disillusioned."

Now, roughly a third of her clients are "beleaguered business people" who have become frustrated with the local infrastructure. "They don't know the language, they can't communicate easily using the phone system and they don't understand the hidden realties of the business world in this country."

Valentine speculates, "the first glorious wave is kind of over. There will continue to be new blood here, but it wont be quite as idealistic and romantic as it was before. I do get a sense that those in search of adventure and romance are starting to sniff elsewhere."

Yet another sign of change was the death at the end of February of Prognosis Weekly. The four-year-old English-language newspaper had chronicled the collective experience of the first wave of foreigners in Prague.

The transformation of the foreign community is apparent to the president of Anglictina Express, Milena Kelly. The popular language school has responded to the growing demands of the foreign community by offering more Czech courses. Kelly says applications have almost doubled in the past year. And, she says, she has noticed older students in class.

"Students are more serious about living here because they have long-term commitments," she says.

Kelly adds that demand is growing for Czech classes for very young expats, the children of business people who have moved their families here.

When not working or learning Czech, many of these business people meet at stylish restaurants with names such as Monterey Mike's and Avalon.

Avalon manager Daniel Dayan says his restaurant's patrons (he estimates 50 percent are North American) are primarily entrepreneurs.

"Our business fluctuates according to their schedule," he says. "Business is slower during the holiday season when many of them go home to visit."

An upscale eatery called Potomac, which recently opened at the Prague Renaissance Hotel, promotes itself as an "all-American" restaurant.

Though Wing Si has never eaten there, she does frequent other Western-style establishments. "Half of the places I go to are Czech, but I have no idea what their names are because they all sound the same to me," she says.

However, she does remember the names of at least two of her favourite nightspots: The Roxy and the James Joyce pub.

Wing Si and Liam, who now works at the local office of an American-owned advertising agency, have much in common with the expatriates they meet at the James Joyce.

"I came here for a business experience rather than as a backpacker," Wing Si says. "And almost all the foreigners I meet are here for the same reason."

And, she says, her family and friends in Canada now understand that there is nothing strange about that.

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