These people just don’t understand

Author: Workshop V
Location: EastWest Institute – Prague
Zuzana GaborovaLocal Project Coordinator, Stories Exchange ProjectLegal and Social Adviser, Drom CenterBrno
Last year people in Drom’s house in Bratislavska Street house could work off rent that they owed. They could contribute a certain number of hours cleaning cellars and attics etc. in exchange for the rent. The conditions were pretty bad: it was dirty work. But many of them were able to stay for one more year because they worked for their rent.
And those who participated in this way developed a different attitude toward their apartments. Now their apartments feel closer to their hearts.
The condition was that you worked for your rent plus you pay your rent on time for one year: then you could stay in your apartment. Eighteen families did work, but they did not start paying rent again. They did not believe that they could be moved out. But they finally were.
We did a lot for them. We even arranged for their rent to be paid directly from welfare, so they did not have to go to the post office. We know they have money because welfare gives them money specifically for rent. But they still did not pay and they still did notbelieve they could be moved out.
Eva BajgerovaRomany Advisor, Usti nad LabemLocal Project Coordinator, Stories Exchange Project
I’ve had the same experience as you did. I don’t know what these people think: they just don’t understand.
For example, you must have seen on TV that a housing project in Usti is evicting forty families. It’s been making headlines during the past week.
The building gave people rent agreements for a year. They moved in. For a year: they had their rent agreement for a year. And now they’re being moved out because the year is over. They do not understand that. But it’s quite normal. You have a rent agreement for a year and after a year you have to go. But these people don’t understand it.
The person who gave them rent agreements does not want to extend them because these people do not pay their rent. There is half a million crowns owed in back rent.
Some of the people living in this building had left state-owned apartments where they did not pay rent for this private building — where they also did not pay rent. So now this guy, the private owner, is going to move them out: the agreement is over. The legal situation is absolutely clear. They have no rights whatsoever.
This is a big problem. These people do not understand what law is about, You tell them it is absolutely legal: this guy is right. But they don’t understand that if they do not pay utilities they will not have utilities, and if they do not pay rent they will be moved out.
John W. ErwinProject DirectorThe Stories Exchange Project
They haven’t had any options: they’ve had no experience of acting to benefit themselves, and they don’t think they can affect their own lives by acting – or not acting. They think that nobody really means it when they say "you have to do this” because they have no experience of actually doing anything for themselves, and there’s a connection between these things. AND, conversely, if people get used to seeing that they can change at least some aspects of their lives, they can they can begin to think of an agreement as something that they can make – and keep.
And it’s not just a matter of working-class Roma. A few years ago a leading Czech expert in social issues in this country did not live up to a contractual agreement that I made with them on behalf of an important international institution.. So I went to see them and said, “Don’t you understand that you made an agreement and that you have failed to live up to it?” And this person said “No – we don’t have any experience of making agreements of this kind.”
This is not an issue that’s limited to people in Maticni Street in Usti or in Bratislavska Street in Brno. It’s a problem in the whole society: a society in which for a very long time nobody had any real control over their lives.
Let’s be clear about this. We can’t afford to to have condescending attitudes towards these people in Maticni and Bratislavska. Nobody can.
And nobody can afford to have a condescending attitude toward any of the people who lived through fifty years of totalitarianism, Who believes anything can be done if he’s never been able to do anything? So it’s reconstruction every step of the way: for Czechs as well as Roms.

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