You can change some things by yourself

Monika HorakovaMember of the Czech Parliament
in conversation with
John W. ErwinDirector, The Stories Exchange Project
Czech Ministry of Foreign AffairsPrague1 December 2000
Jack Erwin
The last time we were together, Monika, we were in Terezin, for the Stories Exchange Project conference “Arts of Tolerance.” As you remember, one of the participants in the conference, Kumar Vishnawathan, was detained by the local police because he fit their profile of criminal suspects. And some people went to the police station and we all talked about it.
[see transcription of ARTS OF TOLERANCE: Session 1: "Futures for the Stories Exchange Project?" Terezin, 18 September 2000 at http://pribehy.ecn.cz] Do have any comments on that, on that kind of thing happening?
Monika Horakova
I have to say that this is part of the daily reality of Roma in the Czech Republic. Kumar is not a Rom, but from India and is of the same physical type as the Roma, so he had this bad experience.
He is not the only one who experiences this kind of thing. It is true that this is happening to Roma, and we would like to do something about it. We would like to change the situation. We would like to teach people about their rights. I hope that if people know their rights, they will know how they should behave in the kind of situation in which Kumar found himself.
Jack Erwin
What about changing the attitude of the police? It’s not easy to do, of course. But do you see any progress in that direction?
Monika Horakova
I’m not sure I’m the person who can answer that question, but I do know that there are some projects for the Czech police in dealing with Roma. These projects are led by some experts from Great Britain and they try to share experiences from Great Britain in the Czech Reoublic. I hope that this kind of project will help to change attitudes.
Jack Erwin
Well, speaking of projects, you have one: you get together young Roms who are well educated. What’s going on with that? What do you want to accomplish by bringing them together? What have you accomplished? And what’s next?
Monika Horakova
I think we have accomplished a lot of things. We have brought together young Roma from the whole of the Czech Republic. I feel a power in this group, and I feel high potential for the future of the situation of Roma in the Czech Republic. Most of these people have completed their studies at university, and I feel that they are good examples not just for the other Roma but also for the majority.
Of course we would like to continue our project: we would like to keep these people together.
One important result of this project is that at the beginning of the year we are going to open a student information center for Roma. We would like to provide people with information about possibilities for studying, and we would also like to help them to find a good job. We will have a big library for the public and also for students who are doing research on Romany subjects. The center will open in January.
Jack Erwin
Great. Who’s in the group?
Monika Horakova
It’s a mixed group, from seventeen years until twenty-seven, something like that. And the group is still enlarging, because other young people want to be part of it. The members include high school and university students and students of law, medicine and at the pedagogical faculties: many different areas.
Jack Erwin
What’s the response of Czechs? Are they surprised to find that there are so many educated Roms?
Monika Horakova
When we started they were surprised, and I think that people take it very positively that they can see educated Roma.
Jack Erwin
Yes. Of course some of the members of your group have participated in the Stories Exchange Project, and we’re really happy working with them.
But what good is it, do you think, to do this: to get stories from Roma and Czechs about each other, about their experience of each other? Does that accomplish anything?
Monika Horakova
For sure. I think that if there is some problem, and you want people to understand this problem, then it’s much better to tell some stories about it than to use just cold facts.
I hope that these stories will reach people’s hearts. This is always true of stories. Using stories is the best way to educate people and to get them to understand.
Jack Erwin
How did you get to do what you’re doing? You’re a member of the Czch Parliament, a woman, a Rom, not too old: how did this come about?
Monika Horakova
Thank you [laughs].
It started when I began to work with government and I became vice-chairperson for the Interministerial Committee for Romany Affairs. At that time there were many things happening around me, especially the founding of a new political party, Freedom Union. That gave me hope, especially because it was a pro-European party. So I became a member and I ran for Parliament and was included on the list of candidates – which was a really big surprise for me. That began my real political career.
Jack Erwin
What’s been difficult about it, and what’s been satisfying?
Monika Horakova
What’s been difficult is my being really involved in political life. As many of us know, politics is not always about good things and it is not always just about doing public good. That is what was difficult for me and continues to be difficult: to see how politics really works. On the other hand, you meet good people, and you can see really hard workers in politics.
You can also change some things by yourself, which is the best way to help.
Jack Erwin
One of the ways I think that you’re helping is that you serve as a model for young people who see that it’s possible to do what you are doing. Is this something that you know about?
Monika Horakova
I hope it’s true. I don’t know if I’m a good example for other Roma, but I hope so. And I hope that this will empower them to be somehow involved in public work and in poiltics, not just on the national level but also on the local level.
Jack Erwin
Yes – and also on the international level, I think. We talked in Terezin about planning a conference responding to the fact that Czech Roma are now not only relating to the majority within this country but also are having more opportunities outside the Czech Republic as Europe enlarges.
Monika Horakova
I think there will be negotiatons between the Roma nation and European institutions and structures and I think that Roma as a nation, even if they don’t have their own territory – : I think we have a right to have our representatives in this kind of institution. It depends on our having a political will.
Jack Erwin
How do you get there from here? How can this happen?
Monika Horakova
There are some suggestions, there are some ideas about what should be done. One would be just to have an office in Brussels which would deal with Romany issues throughout Europe. You can find a good example in OSCE: Nicolae Gheorghe is responsible for Roma and Sinti issues throughout Europe. So we already have some good examples.
Jack Erwin
You’ve traveled a lot in Europe, and you’ve also traveled outside of Europe – including New York, and other places in the States, Washington and so forth. What was you experience in New York?
Monika Horakova New York is a beautiful city! And I’m looking forward to going back there, even just for a few days.
My visit to the United States was very useful for me. I had a chance to take part in a United States Information Agency program. It was about racial issues, and we traveled throughout the United States. We learned many things. And this visit inspired me for my future work back here.
The United States, especially New York, is my favorite place in the world.
Jack Erwin
Are there, should there be, opportunities for other young Roma to travel – not just to the States – and being opened in that way?
Monika Horakova
Yes, yes: this is really necessary, and not just for Roma: I think for everybody. Everybody should travel, and everybody should look around themselves when they go to another country and try to understand the different culture, different people. This will help open people’s minds. I think this is very useful for everybody.
Jack Erwin
Yes, of course – and I apologize for ghettoizing the Roma yet again when I asked the question in that way!
I thoroughly agree.
And I think that it is important to see the Romany experience in terms of the Czech experience. The Czechs were locked up by the German Nazis and then by their own Communist government for half a century, and since then some say that they are taking it out on available victims, the Roma – many of whom were brought to Bohemia from Slovakia by the Communists.
But – do you see possibilities of cooperation between Czechs and Roms?
Monika Horakova
Yes, I think so. And let me mention, for example one good project. This was also with the help of the United States: a program on how to debate.
We worked in cooperation with that program and we put together young Roma students and young Czech students and they discussed many different issues. I think this is one example of how you can move things.
Jack Erwin
Yes, and one of the most important experiences in the Stories Exchange Project is that Roma and Czechs are cooperating. They’re working together. They’re not just talking about things but doing things together.
And – Brno: as you know, we’re beginning to work in Brno. We just had a very exciting session with Romany musicians in a school. As you know, the Stories Exchange Project is working on a Romany music studio project in Brno too. So: do you have any wisdom about Brno? You grew up there. Is there anything special about Brno that we should know?
Monika Horakova
Is there anything special about Brno? I came from Brno. [laughs] Well, I like Brno. I’ve spent almost my whole life there.
I’m very happy about this music studio project. I think is really perfect. This is something that was needed a long time ago, and I would like to say thank you for this idea.
We have a lot of good musicians and a lot of good singers but you can only see a few of them in public life. And sometimes you don’t really see the best ones. I hope that this will give a chance to the best ones, not just to popular singers, and that it will try to keep Romany culture alive through some CD’s or – I don’t know what.
Jack Erwin
Yes. When we brought Romany musicians from the studio project to a school in Brno the other day, the kids were actually hearing this music for the first time, and they asked a lot of questions about it – 
Monika Horakova
Yes – 
Jack Erwin But then very quickly the conversation turned to the whole issue of minority-majority relations. It was wonderful. Hearing the music really opened the kids up, and then stories, of course with the music – 
What kind of school did you go to in Brno?
Monika Horakova
I studied psychology at the Philosophical Faculty.
Jack Erwin
I was thinking about when you were younger, but – what was your experience at university?
Monika Horakova
It was a good experience – as I think it was for other students at the university. I had a good time. And I don’t think it was difficult.
Jack Erwin
Has it helped in politics?
Monika Horakova
To study psychology? Yes, I think so. [laughs] Somehow it helps you.
Though I think that every person is a psychologist him- or herself. And when you study psychology you have the usual professional deformation and sometimes you see normal things from a psychologist’s point of view – which is not always [laughs] a good attitude.
Jack Erwin
Maybe not. But that’s gets us back – me at least – to stories. Stories are about psychology as well as situations… how people react in different concrete situations.
When you were growing up, what kinds of stories were you told? Did your parents tell you Romany stories? fairy tales and so forth?
Monika Horakova
They told me many stories about their lives and fairy tales and things like that – but I’m going to tell some of my story.
I had never been in kindergarten. I grew up with my mother, and my first experience with a big group of Czech children was when I went to first grade in elementary school. When I came there, I was really surprised by the reaction of the children. They called me “Gypsy” and “blackbird” and things like that, and I really did not understand because I had no experience of this kind of thing. So I went home and I was crying and I was complaining to my parents and I was very sad.
But then my mother did a really beautiful thing. She went to the school and asked a teacher if she could speak to the children in my class.
She came to my class and she said to all the children, “Look: she’s Roma. She’s dark. She also speaks another language. She doesn’t speak only Czech but also Romanes. She grew up in a different society, a different culture. But she’s the same girl – she’s the same child as you are.”
And it helped. From that time the problem was almost solved. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t have to face other problems, but this was very helpful.
Maybe everybody isn’t as lucky as I was. I hope that teachers will be more open to these kinds of things, and will understand what it is for a child to be a member of a different culture, of a minority.
Jack Erwin
Very beautiful.
And I must say, very similar to a story that Eva Bajgerova from Usti nad Labem tells in the Stories Exchange Project – it’s actually on our Web page — when she went to school when her son was having a similar problem with the Czech kids.
[ see " We all worked together" on this Web page in the "Learning" menu] Of course it wasn’t the teacher who took action, but your mother.
Monika Horakova
Yes –  Jack Erwin
 – and that’s a very wonderful. Because Romany parents are not able to do at lot of things publicly, so they don’t always know that they can have an influence at school. But they can, as your story proves – and Eva’s as well.
Monika Horakova
Yes, I think so. Of course it also depends on the will of teachers and other people. But they’re their children, so they should take care of their lives – in school too, where they spend most of their time.
Jack Erwin
Yes. Some people say – some Czechs say – that Roma don’t value education.
Of course there are a lot of different reasons that they say so.
But what do you think about the way a not very well educated Romany family feels about their kids’ careers in school?
Monika Horakova
I think this is a generalization, and it is one kind of prejudice. It’s true that for some Roma education is not something of value, but I don’t that this can be said generally. And the number of educated Roma is increasing, so that’s speaking for itself.
It’s true that there are people who don’t see that to be educated is the most important thing in your life but I don’t think that this exists only in the Roma community: it exists everywhere.
Jack Erwin
Your story about your mother is a gift – to us all.
Are there any other things that you’d like to talk about?
Monika Horakova
I just hope that the Stories Exchange Project will continue and other good projects also and – I would just like to say thank you for these good ideas and this good project.
Jack Erwin
Thank YOU.