It’s dusk. An unknown car pulls in to the neighborhood and slowly approaches our small group talking on a tree-lined street in a neighborhood of modest wooden family homes and neatly kept picket-fenced yards. The atmosphere tenses.
“Why are they coming here?” one of the local men asks under his breath, his eyes never leaving the car coming toward us.
Suddenly I remember a reality I had forgotten while drinking tea and visiting with the locals in one of the resident family’s backyards. We are in Bedřiška, a “socially excluded community” in northeastern Czech Republic, where last year a molotov cocktail, thrown by neo-Nazis out of a car into an open bedroom window, almost killed a two-year-old Romani girl in her sleep.
The car stops not more than five feet from us, the lights stay on, the engine idles for some time, clearly putting some in the group on alert.
“They must be lost,” guesses one of the men.
Soon, a woman no one seems to know opens the car door and hurries past us without a greeting into a house a few doors down. The car drives away. Sense of relief.
The evening sky has a pleasant, summer glow, the birds chirp. A small dog accompanies us, playing with a toy. A group of teens walking toward us greets community activist Sri Kumar Vishwanathan, whom I am accompanying on his trip to Bedřiška today, with smiles.
They linger and exchange a few words about how they have been doing. Vishwanathan asks the youth if they would like a soccer field in their neighborhood, pointing at a large, lush green space on the other side of the road that could potentially be used for a field. The boys reply enthusiastically.
Vishwanathan asks the girls if they would play soccer, or what they prefer to do in their free time. The girls are much more shy than the boys and don’t provide any answers readily. But in less than a year’s time, the neighborhood should have a community center, for which they have pressed the city, completed.
The plans for the center are multifold. It would house afterschool activities for children, tutoring sessions, a meeting and performance space, and more.
As we continue our way down the street, the locals tell of a recent case when someone in the neighborhood got hurt and the police were phoned, however the phone call from “that notorious location” was dismissed as a prank call and help was not dispatched until multiple calls were placed. The ambulance did arrive on the scene, but was very delayed.
My mind is still buzzing from the neighborhood association meeting I had just attended in Bedřiška. The group had been meeting for some time to advocate for the needs of the community’s residents, but because they were not taken seriously by city hall, they decided to form an official association in May. Since then, their influence has grown, one of the members had told me.
“Now that we are official, they can’t just brush us aside. They have to listen to us,” he said.
“Bedřiška is an example of how a community can come together following a tragedy,” Vishwanathan observed. “What happened could have taken on a negative path toward destruction, or gone in a positive direction toward cooperation.”
Clearly, the latter is the case.
“We talk things through here,” explains one of the association’s leaders. “If there is a dispute among the neighbors, we try to sit down, talk and resolve it.”
“Not everyone is on board yet. But we’re working on it,” she adds.
Deescalating conflict through mediation is a key strategy the association uses to build unity and prevent dangerous situations. The efforts are made all the more urgent, considering the wounds of racist violence in this community are still fresh.
Last March, another arson attack on a Romani family’s home occurred. This time, the perpetrator was a white neighbor from across the street.
As we make our way down the road, we cross paths with a family leaving their home. “Four months ago a molotov cocktail was thrown inside this family’s house,” Vishwanathan relates. “Their teenage daughter put out the fire and saved her relatives’ lives.”
“How is your daughter sleeping these days? Is she able to sleep?” Vishwanathan asks the mother.
The mother looks down and timidly shakes her head from side to side. The truth is clear. The family is still experiencing trauma, months after the incident.
“If the fire had spread, it could have burned a big part of the neighborhood down,” says one of the local leaders. “People realized that what affects one family, affects us all. So we started working together.”
In addition to mediating conflicts and advocating for space, funding, staff and supplies for tutoring and afterschool children’s activities, the association organizes weekly clean-ups of the neighborhood. The group plans community-wide events such as movie screenings, games for children and performances that bring the neighborhood together.
The association also acts as a link between the residents and city hall when rental agreements or other legal documents and proceedings must be attended to. Sometimes archives have to be searched, letters written, errors exposed and fair treatment demanded.
In one case, for example, the association helped when a resident, who had paid all his back rent in full, was later unexpectedly alerted that he had an exorbitant outstanding debt to the city with no clear explanation of why these charges had been incurred.
The locals with whom I spent my evening also shared a story about taking a stand against a local drug dealer who ran a methamphetamine (or pervitin in Czech) lab in the neighborhood. As a result of their actions, the police arrested the drug dealer, making the neighborhood safer for the kids.
The community has a vision of creating a historical display explicating and simultaneously commemorating the neighborhood’s history, closely tied to the region’s steel mill industry. Bedřiška’s wooden homes were built in the 1950s for the steel mill workers who had moved to the area for work.
Today, the unemployment rate among the Roma in the region is high, veering between 90 and 100 percent. One of the association’s goals is to push for ways to employ the neighborhood’s residents, for instance as construction workers or street cleaners, and while we were visiting Bedřiška, an arrangement was made to begin the process with an organization which Vishwanathan recommended.
“I started activism because I have children and grandchildren here, and I want everyone here to have a good future,” a white woman, who is one of the leaders in the neighborhood tells me. “I like the Roma. We are different culturally, but as long as we can accept our differences and talk with each other openly, we get along.”
Fighting for fair treatment and opportunity, however, does not come without a price, she says.
“I have lost old friends of twenty-five to thirty years over this,” the activist tells me, describing how explosive associating across racial lines in the Czech Republic can be.
“When they said things like, ‘You are betraying the white race,'” she continues, “that had to be the end of our friendship.”
By the time our visit wraps up, it is late and the sun has long gone down. I am full of impressions. Images of resigned, dark-skinned “ghetto” inhabitants in graffiti-covered, bleak city landscapes of half-dilapidated buildings flash through my mind. Mainstream media are the modern-day myth-makers. Over selectively crafted, cliched, mass-produced myths, I prefer true stories, told by the people in the real world and in their own words.
Posted By Tereza Bottman
Posted Aug 9th, 2010