Use these stories to change the world! (II)

II. STORIES YOU CAN USE
So now you’ve had a look at a few of the stories from some of the seven menus here in Stories and Responses – and you’ve typed in responses to some, and you’ve begun to talk with each other and your teacher in class and after class, and with your families and neighbors.
Now let’s start digging a little deeper into the treasure-trove of stories here.
Let’s sample a few more of the stories in each of the seven menus of Stories and Responses.
A. Being a Citizen
It might be best to begin with Being a Citizen.
Because that’s what we’ve already been doing—- and what we will probably want to do a lot more before we’re through.
It’s what we’ve been doing in thinking and talking together about what the students in Project Citizen did in Ivansice, about what Eva and David and Martin did by putting up a tent instead of a wall in the main square of Usti nad Labem, about what Hanka and Milka and Janko and the other Martin say in Terezin about opening up to each other.
Isn’t it?
What do you think?
Do you agree that opening up to each other by telling stories and asking for each other’s stories and asking questions together is at least the beginning of citizenship?
Does that make sense to you?
If you have any thoughts about that, you may just want make a few more comments after one or another of the stories.
But if you’re ready, we can look at another story.
1. Katerina: “I was a revolutionary, but I know I didn’t keep my promise”
Meet Katerina Sidonova from Prague.
“It was early in the winter of 1989. The Velvet Revolution had just got under way, and I was a student at the Pedagogical Faculty.
I remember standing on a stage in a hall full of Roma. I don’t remember the name of the town where this meeting took place. I only remember that I felt very important. I strongly believed in the victory of truth. I was a revolutionary.
It was a beautiful feeling. I thought I had the power to change anything I didn’t like. It was a very victorious and self-confident feeling. This was the Revolution.
I was speaking about the Czech school system, how unjust it was to Romany children.
‘The teachers don’t take interest in the needs of your kids,’ I said. ‘The Communists are trying to keep you as illiterate as possible. They need to keep you down: they are afraid of you because you’re too unpredictable, too free. They give you material things to make you stop thinking about freedom. They force your children to forget your language, your traditions. They want to assimilate you because they don’t understand your way of thinking, your mentality. They keep destroying your national and personal identity.
Assimilation is not what you need. You will always have a different color of skin. You will always be different. We are also different from you. And there is nothing bad about that. Let’s keep the difference. Let’s keep what is in our blood and in our souls. We can be equal even if we are different. Let’s tolerate each other.’
I paused and looked at the audience. They listened carefully. I was in a trance; it was as if I had been drugged. Drugged by faith in victory, in a better tomorrow.
After a while I started to speak again more quietly.
‘I am here to promise you that the attitude of the teachers towards your children will change. Those who will become teachers from now on will do their best to help your children. They will always tolerate their needs, their difference and their personality.’
When I finished there was a lot of applause. I noticed tears running down several faces.
The memory of this event very often comes back to me.
I know that I did not keep my promise.”
Have you ever felt like this?
Have you ever thought you were in exactly the right place at the right time, and that you could do exactly what you wanted to do, in fact to change the world?
But then, later, did you realize that you hadn’t done what you promised—-yourself—- to do?
These are very personal questions, aren’t they?
But as John the Ambassador said in the beginning, that’s just what the Stories Exchange Project is about: we tell each other about what we’ve experienced.
“We’re all a collection of experiences and things that have happened to us. Those are the things that matter the most, and if we share our pain or difficulty or things we have great love for or great experiences… an incredible network of communication will develop: real communication, not just pretend.”
But of course there are other people in our stories, not just ourselves. So what about them, the other people in your story?
Have you ever wanted to make things better for other people? Have you wanted to in the way Katerina wanted to make things better for the Roms?
Or maybe just one other person: have you ever been confident that you could make things better for one other person?
Tell Katerina, why don’t you? Just jot down some comments at the end of her story in Stories and Responses under Being a Citizen: “I was a revolutionary, but I know I did not keep my promise.”
2. Iveta: “Why should the others be denied entry too?”
Meet Iveta Dirdova from Brno.
“I’m Romany, twenty-eight years old, and I have two daughters.
I also run a group of dancers called Red Rose. A year ago this summer my grandmother registered us at Drom, the Romany cultural center. They were interested in starting a folk dancing group, and because I’m interested in maintaining Romany culture and traditions, I decided to go for it. There are forty people in the group, dancers and musicians, and it includes several whole families. We’re accompanied by my uncle and his dulcimer ensemble. And we are divided into two smaller companies: kids from six to thirteen and people from sixteen up.
Once we were performing for the Crossroads Foundation at a school in Brno. It was a two-day-long festival featuring many different dancing groups and theatre ensembles. We were scheduled to perform on the second day. While we were waiting for our turn, we wanted to watch the others perform. But some groups were reluctant to perform for ‘Gypsies.’ Under these conditions, we didn’t feel like performing either.
The girls wanted to pack up and leave. But I told them to stay. ‘We have our pride, too,’ I said. ‘We’re a competent group and we will not get into a conflict.’
Finally, we did perform. Everybody liked my uncle’s Romany melodies and soon people started dancing and singing along. We were very surprised and happy to have had a chance to show the others treasures of our culture. The message was that we are Roma and we can make a lot of fun.
But what I want most to tell you about started with bouncers denying us entry to bars and discos. When this became the rule rather than the exception, I had the idea of inviting a journalist to accompany us and see how we are treated.
My idea was to tell people what’s going on: that there is racism in this country, and that one should not pretend there is not.
I went over to the daily newspaper Rovnost and asked whether a journalist might be interested in doing some disco hopping with me some night. That’s how I got to meet Ms. Budínová, a journalist interested in Romany issues. We agreed to meet at nine that evening. Ms. Budínová showed up with a photographer. I can’t recall his name. We were seven people: three women, two men, the journalist and the photographer. We decided to go first to the Metro disco on Postovská street.
When we rang the bell, the door opened, and Ms. Budínová said to the bouncer: ‘Good evening, these are my friends, and we´d like to come in.’
‘That won’t be possible,’ replied the bouncer.
‘Why not?’ Ms. Budínová expressed her surprise. ‘I am a good citizen, and so are these people. I wanted to invite them here to celebrate my birthday.’
‘That won’t be possible,’ insisted the bouncer. ‘Roma are not allowed in here.’
‘Why aren’t they?’ she asked.
‘We don’t have to tell you.’ He was about to shut the door.
But Ms. Budinova was strong and kept the door open. She demanded an answer.’Why aren’t Roma allowed in?’
He pushed her away and banged the door closed.
So we decided to go to the police.
Just the day before a spokesperson for the police had advised Ms. Budinova that the best way to solve this problem would be to bring a policeman in too. He could investigate and find out whether the disco was full or whether there were technical or other reasons for not letting Roma in.
We decided to go to the Bihounská precinct. Even though our request was first turned down, Ms. Budínová did what the Police spokesperson had instructed her to do and finally managed to convince the policemen to give her a police escort: a young policeman. Though it took her quite a while.
We all went back to the disco. The door opened and the bouncer was visibly scared, saying that he had done nothing wrong.
The policeman asked him, ‘Why did you deny entry to people who just wanted to go in and enjoy themselves?’ And he asked the bouncer to let him in.
‘It is not possible,’ said the bouncer. ‘For technical reasons nobody is allowed in.’
The policeman wrote a report saying that entry had been denied for technical reasons. That was it for him.
But the journalist, Ms. Budinova, showed the bouncer her business card, and told him that she would write about what had happened.
He ignored her and joked about her taking a photo of him.
She decided to file a criminal complaint with the police.
We proceeded to another disco, Tabarín in Divadelní street. The journalist, accompanied by the photographer, approached to entrance first. They rang the bell and told the bouncers that they needed a reservation for a bunch of friends due to arrive later. The bouncers agreed.
Ten minutes later we arrived and it started all over again. As soon as the bouncers spotted us Roms he said the disco was full.
The journalist told him that just ten minutes ago she had reserved places for all of us.
As the bouncer moved to close the door he said: ‘Sorry. Not possible. There is no space down there.’
So that was it, once again.
We tried a couple more discos. But it was the same story everywhere: either it was full or it had just gotten smashed up by a Rom.
OK. If something like that happens, they should have a photo of the offender on them and never allow him in again. But why should the others be denied entry too?”
What do you think?
Is there anything you’ve seen happen in your town that you wished someone would report in the newspapers or on the radio or on television?
Would you think of going to a newspaper and asking them to send a journalist along with you to be a witness to something that was likely to happen again—- whether to you or to someone else?
Do you think people pay attention to what they read in the newspapers? Do they take it seriously enough to do something about it: to write to their representative in Parliament, for example?
And what about the police?
If you were a member of a minority community—- and maybe you are: if you are, this is a good question for you, isn’t it?—- would you go to the police station to get a second witness as Ms. Budinova did?
And then if that policeman didn’t do all that you wanted him to do, would you file a complaint against him, as Ms. Budinova did?
Or if you were—- if you are—- a member of the majority, would you ask the police to help, and if they didn’t, would you file a complaint?
But tell Iveta: type what you have to say at the end of her story in Being a Citizen, “Why should the others be denied entry too?”
And what questions do you have for her? Type those in too.
And talk about them, talk about all your questions with your classmates and teacher and parents and whomever you like: but keep it circulating, not only the story but also all the questions, yours as well as ours!
That way a lot more of us may get in the habit of acting upon our questions, as Iveta and Ms Budinova did: the habit of being a citizen, of pulling the levers of democracy as John calls it.
And as students in Project Citizen and the Stories Exchange Project are learning to do together.
And speaking about the police, you might want to look at two other stories in the Being a Citizen menu.
3. Kumar: “They forced me into the car and took me to the police station.”
This is about what happened to that one Indian participant in our workshops in Terezin whom we mentioned before. (You see? We promised we’d tell you more about him, and we keep our promises!)
His name is Kumar Vishwanathan. He lives in Ostrava.
Kumar’s story is also available at Home under RECENT STORIES. Click on it in either place and read it carefully—- and write to him at the end of the text in Being a Citizen.
What do you think about what the police did to Kumar – and about what Kumar did? He says, doesn’t he, after he tells his story:
“You must understand. I am breaking the law. The law in this country says that everyone is obliged to carry a document and when required by the police to show the document. I carry the document. I don’t want to break any law. But I’m firmly convinced that the practice of the police is full of prejudices which equate a dark-skinned person to a suspicious person.
If this were just my story, perhaps I would do the same, but I know that this is the story of many young people, young Roma boys in Ostrava. They are often taken to the police station, and they are treated more brutally than I was.
There are teenage boys in Ostrava who for no reason at all are taken to the police station and chained to the radiators. There are no witnesses. How do you prove that happens?
So this is a case of disobedience. I am disobeying the law. Consciously and deliberately.
I want to draw attention to a practice which is not just in Ostrava but I think in the whole country. This happens to me everywhere. It happens to me at almost all railway stations. It happens to me in all trains.
There was a period when I was working in Ostrava and I was living in Olomouc, and I used to travel between the two cities, and it happened almost once a week in trains. Policemen would wake me up in the trains late at night when I was returning home They didn’t check anybody else. They would wake me up and ask me to show the document.
Sometimes it was the same policeman who did that over and over again.
There is a big problem here. If this country is moving towards becoming a multicultural society with respect for all people, then the policemen will have to be prepared for that: they will have to be educated for that.”
Do you know what civil disobedience is?
Do you know what Kumar’s fellow-countryman Gandhi did with civil disobedience?
And what Nelson Mandela and his friends did with it in South Africa – where Gandhi had in fact had his first successes with civil disobedience many years before?
And speaking of South Africa, our friend John Shattuck was there, and in Terezin just after Eva and David and Martin told about putting up the Stories Exchange Project tent, John said this about his experience in South Africa:
“I spent a large part of the last decade as a human rights official, traveling throughout the world on missions of human rights. Probably the most powerful experience I had in terms in terms of stories of the kind that are being told here was in South Africa.
I was struck by the comments that have just been made about the tent and the stories that were told in that tent in Usti.
In South Africa I traveled widely with Archbishop Desmond Tutu who put together a project similar to the Stories Exchange Project. It was called the Truth and Reconciliation project. This was an official organized effort by the South African government after Nelson Mandela was elected President in 1993.
When the black majority of South Africa finally got their rights, the new South African government established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This meant taking a tent – like the one that’s been discussed here, the one that the Stories Exchange Project put up in Usti – , all over South Africa and inviting people to come and tell their stories.”
In Being a Citizen under Stories and Responses, you can read—- and respond to – more of what John said in Terezin: look at “Slavery was like what happened in Terezin and we’re still wrestling with its legacy.”
4. Janko: “And we want to get into Europe?”
Also in Being a Citizen you might want to have a look at a story about a Romany boy mistreated by the police.
It’s told by Janko Horvath, whom you met already talking with Hanka and Milka and one of the Martins in Terezin.
5. Lucka C: “I started to record everything”
You might want to have a look at this story in Being a Citizen too.
Lucka Conkova from Usti nad Labem (you’ll met her again too, on Maticni Street…) tells about Ms. Kondasova, who says near the end of the story—here we are giving away the punchline! – 
“When the police arrived they asked no questions and started calling me names too. When my son came down to see what was going on, they sent him away saying that it was none of his business. They were very unfriendly and they actually wanted to take me to the police station. I agreed to go, but it seemed that they were just trying to get me upset. They succeeded.
Suddenly it occurred to me that Lucka had a tape-recorder with her. I borrowed it and I started to record everything, especially the police and how they behaved to me, a Romany woman. I felt that they’d do anything to do the will of the whites.
But you’d be surprised how quickly they left when they saw the tape-recorder. They just said that they had taken down my name, and that they believed this would never happen again.”
In Lucka’s story just as in Iveta’s about the discotheque, “Why should they be denied entry too?” a minority citizen who thinks her rights are being violated thinks quickly and uses all the means at hand—- in this case a tape-recorder used to gather stories in the Stories Exchange Project!—- to protect herself.
What do you think about what Ms, Kondasova does?
Does it surprise you?
If it does, maybe you’ll be less surprised if you read her story again after beginning to get to know some other members of minority communities.
B. The Broken Mirror and The Holocaust.
Try some of the stories in two other menus in Stories and Responses here:
1. Milka: What has he left me? His name(The Holocaust)
Roms continue to suffer from the legacy of the Holocaust, the Nazis’ systematic effort to annihilate what they considered inferior races: Jews, Roms—and Slavs. You know, don’t you? that the Czechs were on Hitler’s list for eventual extinction as well, after they had served their purpose and kept the factories running to supply the German war machine.
Why do you think Milka’s father didn’t want to be a Rom any more?–- or at least wouldn’t contact her?
Do you think that you would have been able to take up normal life again easily after being in Auschwitz?
Do you understand why she wants to have word from him, even to know that he is dead?
But tell Milka: write to her at the end of her story.
2. Verka:”Even though our house had been destroyed”
Please also tell Dudi Kot’o in Ostrava what you think about her story in The Holocaust menu.
“My Romany father told me this story. He is now sixty-two.
‘I was born in Slovakia: in Snina, in Humenné county. I had nine sisters and brothers, and I was the second youngest. We lived in a house my father built.
I have very bad memories of the War. When I was six, we got transported to a camp in Dubnica nad Váhom. I remember the truck in which they took us and the tears in the eyes of my mother and sisters. I didn’t understand why they were crying.
After we arrived in the camp, they separated the men from the mothers and kids. I was very scared of the Germans and kept asking my mother what was going on and why our papa and my older brothers weren’t with us. She told me to keep my mouth shut or they would shoot us. It was only after the separation that she told me we were in a camp.
I remember we got a soup. They said there were vitamins in it and that we had to eat it. I told my mother that the soldiers were really nice to us, and my brother and I ate the soup. Then my mother put us down on the floor and we fell asleep. I’m told that we slept for three days. She must have thought we had died.
Later on, it became clear that the soup wasn’t good at all: we got bad cramps. It was a typhoid infection. Many people got it.
One day – it was close to the end of our second year there – we suddenly heard shooting and grenades exploding. We were afraid that we would get killed. Then the shooting stopped and the gates opened. Soldiers poured in and told us to run away.
Holding our mother’s hands, my younger brother and I headed for the nearest forest. We tried to find our father and brothers.
I don’t remember how long it took us to get back home to Snina.
Our house was in ruins.
My mother and sisters were crying, but my father reassured us that we would build a new house.
It was getting dark and we crawled into the ruins and went to sleep. Even though our house had been destroyed, we were very happy to be back home.’”
Some Roms, some Jews survived the Holocaust, and some of them, many of them, have told about their experiences.
But what’s the point of our asking for their stories, or in talking about their stories? We can’t do anything about what happened, can we? We can’t help the people who did not survive, can we?
Or—-
can a story, Verka’s story for instance, do something that other kinds of communication can’t do?
What happens to you when you – briefly and very indirectly, comfortably reading from a computer screen or this page – share Verka’s Romany father’s experience?
Tell Verka, tell all of us.
3. Margita:
“Who has a piece of the broken mirror?”
What happens to you when you share or at least look at the experience of the whole Romany people for centuries in a fairy-tale like the one that Margita Reiznerova told in the Romany language in a Stories Exchange Project theater performance in Prague in 1995? You can see some of this if you click on Videos here at this site.
Of course you can also find this story in The Broken Mirror menu in Stories and Responses.
The wise old Romany king says to his sons and daughters: “As long as you stay together, things will go well for you. Wherever you go, you will be honored because you will bring people joy and blessings. I have taught all of you what my forefathers have taught me, and you will value handwork and hand on your knowledge to people coming later. So value the old, wise ways. If you do not, you will have difficult lives. The worthy old mirror will remind you of the truth. Take good care of it, and be careful that it doesn’t break. If it breaks, you will forget everything that you knew and everything that you knew how to do.”
Not surprisingly, the mirror gets broken.
But with the stories and discussions of stories in The Broken Mirror we’re trying to put the mirror back together again.
5. Eva S: “Each one of us is a piece of the puzzle”
Eva Siedtmannova, a student in the Stories Exchange Project at the School of Social Studies in Usti nad Labem, uses a similar metaphor to describe the Roms themselves as part of an even larger collection of fragments.
“The problem of relations between races is very complicated, especially in our country. It’s a never-ending fight of white against black and vice-versa. Czechs suppress Roma and say that Roma are rubbish no one needs, rubbish that should be cleared away!
I can hear all the angry voices trying to justify their bright ideas. And I’m bored listening to the same words over and over again: lame excuses, slander and prejudice.
I feel differently: I don’t differentiate by skin color. We’re all people, and anyone who acts like a human being deserves to be called human. We are absolutely equal.
But society has its own ideas and is not willing to change them. It doesn’t want to see reality.
Why should it? Such opinions are very comfortable for the majority. Others have to assimilate, and if they don’t they’re condemned once and for all, for the rest of their lives!
All over the world minorities are garbage.
How can we feel superior just because there were a few more of us born? But because we are much stronger as a group, a larger number, we feel that we’re allowed to do anything!
Many white people behave worse than Roma, and how many of them are there in the world? They commit crimes but nobody condemns them: nobody is interested in the growing criminality any more. It’s not polite to mention it when white people are involved!
But is it polite to restrict minorities just because there are not so many of them? Are they inferior because their culture, their traditions and values, their opinions and attitude are different?
People are beautiful just because each person is unique, and this world is wonderful because so many different people live in it. Each one of us is a piece of the puzzle that makes up the Earth. Each piece is different and should be admired, not condemned.
We must learn to value difference. We must learn to understand each other and accept the unique character of each person.”
Tell Eva—- a second Eva! You’ll be meeting yet another – what you think about what she says?
And join Anna Chvalova in writing something to Ivana Broftova, a schoolmate of Eva’s at the School of Social Studies in Usti?
6. Ivana and Anna: “I don’t live with them; I don’t know them”
Ivana:
I’m curious about one thing: who are they? What nationality are they? Where did they come from?
There’s one Romany family in Vedomice where I live. I don’t see them very often. I occasionally see their four children. I don’t even know their names.
I think they try to look decent. The children go to school and are polite. They have a house that looks quite nice — though there’s mess around it. The garden is dirty, their dog runs wild, and the fence is broken. There are two or three cars parked in front of the house.
I don’t know what these people are like.
Perhaps they send their children to steal in shops.
But it might be the other way round: perhaps they encourage their children to study, to be hardworking, clean and so on.
I don’t know.
I don’t live with them; I don’t know them.
Anna: Ivana, it seems you would like to get to know more about us. But your point of view is similar to the views of other Czechs.
It’s not your fault. The Communist government is to be blamed for that. They never spoke about us.
It’s true that we judge people by the way they look.
But we’ve been living here as long as the Czechs have.
You can get some information about us at www.romove.cz. I wish you pleasant reading.
We live here with you. Not only Roma, but also Vietnamese, Ukrainian, Slovaks, Germans…. And we can all learn from each other and enrich each other as well.
You can write to both Ivana and Anna at the end of their exchange here—- but you may want to use Anna’s e-mail address as well:
Anna Chvalova@centrum.cz
7. Other stories
The Broken Mirror menu is full of stories that will give you a lot of information about Romany culture—- and feeling for it!
That’s the art of it, and in the Stories Exchange Project we’re into art, as we showed by calling our Terezin show-and-tell Arts of Tolerance.
Have a look at Janko’s story about his grandmother: “To retain your humanity in any circumstances.”
The story ends in a way that suggests where Janko got the clarity of purpose and moral strength which he brings to his protest against police mistreatment of minorities in “And we want to get into Europe?”
“Even though our ancestors lived cut off from the world, in a settlement several kilometers from the white villages, they always lived as our customs and our Romany identity dictate: never to lose your human dignity, your character, and to retain your humanity in any circumstances.” But of course Romany culture is far from solemn: it’s full of laughter—-especially laughter about matters of life and death.
Join Hanka Kozurikova in remembering a funny story about a very different encounter with the police than we’ve seen so far in “Unless you want to end up inside a horse.”
And don’t miss Tereza Vrbova’s story about a Czech man who discovers something very important about the Romany community: “I never saw such respect for old people.”
Finally, for the moment, meet a third Eva – as promised: we go on keeping our promises (on and on; you’ll meet her again!). In “He noticed a hand-carved violin on the kitchen table” Eva Ridajova, a student in the Distance Learning program of the Secondary Social and Legal School in Prague, tells about a discovery that a classmate makes and uses to build a strong future for Roms who remember their traditions—- and help put the broken mirror back together again.