This article was first written for the international reporting class taught by Dinah A. Spritzer for NYU in Prague.
While a 25-year-old Yveta Kenety was standing in the kitchen watching her mother cook a traditional Czech stew, her mother finally said aloud what Kenety suspected for a long time: “You are Roma.”
Learning the truth of her identity did not come as a surprise. Throughout her childhood, Kenety was raised in a racist, anti-Roma, or anti-gypsy, Moravian town in Czechoslovakia, and often questioned her ethnicity because she never knew much of her father’s background. Her father grew up extremely poor as a foster child in a Slovakian town, where he never finished his high school education and left Kenety’s home when she was only 10 years old.
Without knowing her true heritage, Kenety felt lost. Her father never admitted his ethnicity because he believed she would be ashamed, as he was all his life. “It was more like a big relief,” she said, “to get the last piece of puzzle into my history because there was a black hole there, an empty space, and I filled it.”
Today in the Czech Republic, there are about 250,000 Roma, over half of whom did not continue on to secondary education, one-fifth live in poor-quality housing, and 58% are at risk of poverty, according to the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency. For Kenety, the best way to change those figures is through better education and strong shared connection throughout the Roma community.
The Roma people migrated to Europe from the Indian subcontinent over 1,000 years ago. Their history of persecution dates back to the Byzantine Empire in the 13th century when, according to historic records, they were viewed as satanic wizards, and have since been the target of anti-Roma laws throughout Europe’s changing empires.
Shortly after 95% of the Roma population in the Czech Republic were murdered during the Holocaust, Czechoslovakia fell under Communist rule in 1948, where Roma underwent forced sterilization and forced attendance at special schools for children with disabilities in the 1980s and 1990s.
Although segregated schools have since been abolished in the Czech Republic, Kenety says there is still a big concern with segregation. “We have the issue of special schools where 90% of Roma were sent during Communism,” said Kenety. “But these schools, because they were mainly Roma kids, now are normal elementary schools, but 100% Roma.”
Denisa Makova, a Roma university student, knows Kenety through her work with a Roma scholarship program and believes that education is an integral aspect of creating a positive future for Roma. “I think it’s very important to have some compulsory class about minorities in the Czech Republic,” Makova said. “Students will know that people are different, not only like Czech, Czech, Czech.”
When she was younger, Makova faced racism from her peers and was called a gypsy publically.
Anti-Roma sentiment is spread far beyond the former Eastern Bloc. “The majority [of Roma] should be delivered back to the borders,” said former French interior minister Manuel Valls. “We are not here to welcome these people.”
In addition to anti-Roma sentiments and inadequate access to quality education, Roma face poverty and poor-quality housing, much like Kenety’s father did growing up. These conditions stretch across Eastern Europe.
In Romania, Constantin Moldovan and his family live in a deteriorating two-room house located in an area that is highly prone to landslides, making their home a constant danger.
“But what can we do?” Moldovan told BBC. “The local authorities aren’t interested in giving us any help.”
Outside of the Czech Republic, Kenety says that she can only think of countries where it is worse for Roma and none that are better. “I really don’t think there is a country in former Eastern-Central Europe that would be doing great,” Kenety said.
She never wanted to identify herself with the Roma community because she had no positive relationships with any Roma people. She refused to let herself think about being a part of the Roma community. “If I had the suspicion, I would push it back in my head,” Kenety said.
But, what once was a source of shame transformed into her passion. Two weeks after her Roma identity was revealed to her by her mother, Kenety decided to attend a weekend retreat for young Roma from the Czech Republic in a cottage in the middle of nowhere. “I was very unsure because I had never met a single Roma person before in my life,” said Kenety. “Most people here haven’t, which is very sad.”
That weekend was the most influential weekend of Kenety’s life. It made her feel like a part of a community she had always been too fearful of to embrace as a part of herself. “Those weekends helped to understand the Roma identity, to not be ashamed of having this heritage.”
Once she returned home, she began volunteering with the Roma Non-Governmental Organization that led the retreat, which she later became the head of. The NGO works specifically with young Roma students to go on weekend retreats with other Roma students to connect and feel accepted. It is only a weekend, yet students leave every retreat crying because they formed such strong bonds with each other.
Kenety dedicated much of her life to working with young Roma students at the NGO, along with another organization which provides scholarships to Roma students called ROMEA. She has transferred her love for working with young Roma students to working with American college students at New York University in Prague as the Assistant Director for Student Life, where she still finds a way to create programs that connect American students with Roma students.
One of the driving forces behind Kenety’s work is how her father never felt a connection to the Roma community. “He died being ashamed of being Roma,” said Kenety. “He didn’t see anything positive about it. He never experienced anything positive about it.” If there’s one thing she wants Roma teenagers to experience at the events held by the Roma NGO, it’s a feeling of belonging and acceptance.
Roma have struggled for decades in the Czech Republic, and Kenety is working to create a better future for the Roma community. She believes that helping Roma youth feel unashamed of their heritage will lead to positive change throughout the Czech Republic and all of Europe.
“It’s on us. We have to change our mind, all of us. Not only Roma, but majority of Czech people. But I believe one day it will be better,” said Denisa Makova.
About the author:
Caroline Weinstein is a student at New York University studying Politics and Journalism. Originally from Marietta, Georgia, she currently lives in New York City and spent the last four months studying in Prague, where she caught the travel bug and has a love for learning about different cultures. She has previously written for Washington Square News, and worked on news-gathering at NBC New York.