New School: How one NGO is helping promote multiculturalism in the Czech Republic

28-12-2003

Welcome to Radio Prague and today's special programme an extended edition of Czech Books. Today we look at what one NGO, titled Nova Skola is doing to help promote multiculturalism in the Czech Republic and we'll be talking to the outspoken and charismatic David Murphy, a representative of that organisation who feels most strongly about the importance of helping minorities in the Czech Republic. In the interview we discuss: the situations with minorities, notably the Czech Republic's largest minority the Roma, the assistant teachers programme, and an annual contest held by Nova Skola, called Romano Suno - or Romany Dream - that encourages Roma children and young adults to rediscover - and write in - their own language to express sometimes very difficult life situations but also hopes and dreams. One note: in the second half of the show we'll be reading you several entries from this year's competition, which Nova Skola publishes in book form, using all three languages: Roma, Czech, and English.

Without further ado let's go to that interview with David Murphy. I began first by asking him about the history of Nova Skola and the Roma minority.

"Nova Skola began in 1991, so it's one of the oldest NGO's operating in the Czech Republic. But, the first organisation was called MENT - which means "Man, Education, & New Technologies". MENT had a sub-section which was projects for minorities, and in 1996 this sub-section expanded to such a degree that it became its own organisation which was Nova Skola - New School. Meaning we wanted to find a new way of creating opportunities for minorities within the Czech education system, changing the education system so that it would be more open. The largest minority in the Czech Republic is the Roma minority, numbering anywhere between two hundred-and-fifty thousand to three hundred thousand people, which, in itself is a statement about the multiculturalism of the Czech Republic, when the largest minority numbers only around 3 percent of the total population."

There's a paradox which you note in both of these books that most Roma students, regardless of ability, end up going to special schools, end up being largely unemployed later on; how is this something that you deal with on a day-to-day basis?

"Our main goal is to change the mainstream education system so that it's more open to serving the needs of minority students in general. Because, if you take this "special school system", which exists as a parallel school system, this special school system was created for children with learning disabilities, or students who were mentally handicapped, or even physically handicapped; but, over time this special school system adapted to become what is cynically referred to as the "Gypsy University". This special school system was originally created to meet a certain need, but it has adapted over time to become a Romany parallel school system. Our goal is to work with the mainstream system and say 'Well, this school system can adapt as well and also change to meet the needs of minority students in the Czech Republic."

What kind of cooperation have you met with in the official schools system?

"Well there are two levels - one is cooperation directly with schools and in that sense we've had great cooperation, that the schools that we work with have a large minority of Roma or even majority of Roma students, or they are actually bearing the brunt of this wave of immigration to the Czech Republic, so they have lots of students from lots of different cultures. And, the headmasters of these schools clearly realise that they need non-standard solutions to meet the needs of their students and they're extremely open. We've had great cooperation with schools. Meanwhile, the Education Ministry has improved over the last five years, but, initially the ministry was like almost every Czech institution in as much as they really believed they knew more than we did, that they felt they didn't need our suggestions and didn't need our input, that 'why should they listen to people from the not-for-profit sector', when they're the guys at the Education Ministry, and that when they come up with a plan they'll tell us what it is. Now that's changing and they're much more open. One of the greatest successes that we've had is the Romany assistant teacher programme that has now expanded to include over 350 Romany assistant teachers working in schools with Roma minorities or majorities. That was one of our first programmes back in 1996 - creating a training programme to put members of local Roma communities into schools that are serving their communities."

One of the important aspects - certainly one of the important aspects of 'Romano Suno' - is the return to the Roma language, which Roma children have often forgotten or speak poorly. Is this something which is encouraged in the assistant teaching programme as well?

"Well, the goal and object of Romano Suno - which in English means Romany Dream - is to really promote Roma culture in the official school system. It's not only for the students who speak Roma, but also for their fellow students who might not even know that the Roma language exists. And, that's why the contest itself is not about how well you know the language, but it's about how well you can express yourself. You're not judged on your knowledge of the language, which is also a radical from the Czech school system in general - it's all about creativity. With the Romany assistant teacher programme a lot of times the Romany assistant does speak Romany and in that case will work as a classic bilingual assistant who can facilitate the learning process for students who may have problems with the language. An important point is that a lot of these students actually don't speak Romany fluently. But, they also don't speak Czech fluently and they end up speaking what is called an 'ethnolect'. An ethnolect of a combination of Czech, Slovak, and Romany. And this is the really strange and special problem the Czech Republic is facing, that when you have students learning in a second language there's a set methodology. How do you integrate a student from another culture, who speaks another language at home, into a certain school system where obviously the majority language is key. Well, these students - these Roma students - don't speak Roma at home, but they also have parents from Slovakia who don't speak Czech. They end-up speaking a combination of Czech, Slovak, and Romany, therefore they are handicapped from the very beginning. When they go home they have no one who can help them with their homework; the Czech language is an extremely difficult language. It's exacting and it is expected you speak it extremely well and basically how your key to success in school is determined by how well you speak the language, along with how well you have a command of mathematics."

That point goes a long way in explaining why under the mainstream system teachers would throw up their hands in frustration, not being able to get through and not having proper tools to being able to deal with that kind of breakdown in communication...

"That is one of the things that the Romany assistant teacher can actually solve, who understands why students may make a certain mistake over and over and over again. The teacher, having absolutely no training, especially not about Roma culture but also multiculturalism in general, won't understand why, but the assistant can step in and say 'It's for these reasons'. A classic example would be the Vlach Roma - there are three groups of Roma in this country: Czech Roma, who have been in the Czech Republic for over 600 years, Slovak Roma who basically emigrated since the Second World War, and Vlach Roma, which make up about 8 percent of the total population of Roma. Vlach Roma are extremely traditional. The girls are not allowed to show skin, and so they won't change for gym class. If you have a teacher who is either insensitive or doesn't know why the student refuses to participate, well, then you have a problem in the system. That's where the Roma assistant can step in and say 'Well, if you give the student five more minutes when the changing room is empty, they'll change. But, they're going to wear long sleeves, and they're going to wear pants."

Obviously there is racism in society and it is continuing, there is discrimination and a lot of the Roma population is marginalised, a lot of these children are coming from difficult family backgrounds and Romano Suno gives them a certain outlet...

"With the civil rights movement in the 1960s in the United States the first step was saying that 'I am Black' and Romano Suno is a small step in that direction in saying 'I am Roma, I want to learn more about, it, and I have a legitimate culture'. The majority of the children, really, you could say they're illiterate in Romany because no one has taught them. The Czech Constitution says that every national minority has a right to an education in their own language. The Roma have been recognised as a national minority for the first time since 1989 and so we're trying to encourage the use of Roma in the school system, which is the first step to recognising yourself, your origins, being proud of who you are, and then fully participating in society, being Roma."

Tell me about the guidelines that you set out for the Romano Suno contest; every year you have a different set of topics that are given.

"Every year we choose three topics and then there's always an open topic and students can write about what ever they want. In the past we've chosen topics like: my family, my pet, my dreams. One of the interesting things is that no matter what we choose as a topic, somehow we have, as a group, students who will always write about 'my dream' and they'll write about how they feel limited. That they would like to do something but in this society feel they can not achieve it. Or 'My Family': they write about how their parents felt the need to immigrate to Canada and they spent some time in Canada. One of the interesting things is that no matter what topic we choose we get a really unique insight into what's going on in the minds of young Roma in the Czech Republic. Which is one of the reasons why I think that everybody should read these books - they really give you really unique insight into what these young people are thinking."

The other aspect of the contest are the drawings, the paintings, they also speak volumes about the situations that some of these children are in. The last illustration in the book is quite chilling in a way because it's on the subject of 'My Family' and it looks like a figure in prison, or at least behind bars of some kind, so that also says a lot, doesn't it?

"A lot of the stories are somewhat depressing. One of the nice things about the illustration contest is that it's open to non-Roma as well, and we take the majority of these stories and we translate them from Romany into Czech and then we send them back to schools that had active participation in the literary contest. Then their fellow students are invited to illustrate the stories of their Roma fellow students, which is actually very interesting because for a lot of these white majority students it's the first time that they've read anything that their fellow Roma students have written. That's one of the really nice parts of the contest in the very end that we have this celebration that is a mix of students, not just Roma, we have non-Roma students who have illustrated the stories of Roma students. When you stand there and you have Roma students from the ages of six to say twenty-five-years-old, and it's a mixed group, at that moment you really feel you're making some progress in trying to open up a dialogue between these two groups. Every student who participates gets recognised for having participated in the contest."

There were some motifs I noticed that get into the stories that aren't part of the themes that are given... one of those was the 'escaped kite', which I found was really lovely. In Czech the word for kite - drak - also means 'dragon' and the children made these drawings of kites that literally looked like dragons. Then, the other thing was 'Opice Girra' - the 'Girra Monkey'. I was wondering where he came from. There was a wonderful story in there about how he helps his team - the Roma hockey team - win a match...

"Against the Czech hockey team."

"Yes."

"That's the open category. That's purely the imagination of the students who participated in the contest. The nice thing about this 'escaped kite', this kite torn loose, is that the kite travels around the whole world and sees all these different cultures and then comes back to the Czech Republic, comes back to this small house where this Romany boy is living. Which I think is a very nice analogy. That these kids have dreams and that they would also like to see the whole world. There's this myth that Roma students aren't interested in education, etc, etc, that they're lazy - it's not true. These are just normal kids who really have the same dreams as all other children. Even some of them, I think, have bigger dreams because they come from more limited backgrounds. To see the whole world. To go to a place called 'New York'. The kite torn loose is actually that child."

David Murphy of Nova Skola - New School - my thanks to him for coming in to the studio. I must say I find the kite torn loose a very nice analogy as well. Speaking of which, now let's hear some of this year's entries in the Romano Suno competition. The first story is one of those we've discussed about a monkey-turned Wayne Gretzky: Our Monkey Girra by eleven-year-old Pavel Mica, a student at the Brno elementary school in Brno, Moravia.

Our Monkey Girra

Once our parents decided that we will go to the sea on vacation. We all go into the car and went, but dad hit something in the road. Our parents didn't dc anything about it. It was a monkey. We continued on to the sea. Mom and dad went to arrange a hotel and we went for a walk. When we were outside we saw the monkey. We wanted him so badly so we asked mom if we could keep him I thought about what to name him. I thought of Girra. Girra was with us the whole week. When we went home we took Girra with us. My brother Marek plays hockey. We skate together in the courtyard so that he would skate well. We have hockey sticks and a puck and Girra played with us. I put skates on his feet and he skated with us. Girra played better than me and my brother! When there was a game our parents went to watch to see how Marek is doing. The teams FC Roma and FC Gadje played. Gadje played better than the Roma. They were winning 3:1 but they fouled Marek and he fell and broke his leg. The game was covered by television and Girra was watching. When he saw how we were playing he wanted to help us win. They put skates on his feet, a helmet on his head and gave him a jockey stick. Our monkey played very well. He could skate better than we could. He wore number ten on his jersey and he played so well that the Roma beat the Gadje 1 0:5. Girra scored a1l of the goals. Dad and mom were extremely happy that we won. Everyone clapped for us, but morn and dad clapped the loudest.

FC Roma -10:5

The next story is from Jiri Hellebrand from a special school in Vitkov - he's nine-years-old and has one wish. The entry is called 'My Family'.

My Family

My name is Jirka, and will turn nine pretty soon. I am very lucky that I live in a big family. I have my mom, dad, two brothers and one sister. They are older than I am. That doesn't matter, though. Sometimes they help me if I need some- thing, or if something hurts me. In our family we also have my grandma, grandpa, and Aunt Jitka. She is not my real aunt though but, she is with me since I was little. She is the best friend of my mom. I love her very much. I mustn't forget my dog, Dasenka. She is a dachshund. Even she belongs to my family. I can't imagine life without her. She is with me when I am sick. She comes to me and looks at me with her sad eyes. I am ill since the time I was very young. I have some problems with my kidneys, asthma and God knows what else. Because I am so ill I am not going to school very often, and I used to be very lonely. Several times I was in the hospital. My mom was always there with me. She never left me. She makes time for me. She teaches me everything, talks to me, plays with me. I know that she doesn't sleep at night and when we are sleeping that is when she is doing everything she didn't manage during the whole day. When I grow up she will not have to do anything. I will help her with everything. I would like for her to sleep well at night. She takes care of the whole family, goes to work, teaches children (my friends) and in addition goes to college. I also play with my dad. We build things from blocks, glue things and fly kites. It's a lot of fun with him. It is good that my siblings are older. All of them attend gymnasium. When I am sick they take care of everything concerning me. They also play with me. My family is really big. That's why I don't get expensive gifts like other children do, but we enjoy being together. I will have my birthday soon. I would like one gift most of all. But I know very well that I will not get this gift. I'd like to be at least a little BIT HEALTHIER; ME AND MY WHOLE FAMILY.

Certainly these stories in the Romano Suno competition can be, are often, difficult subjects. Many do describe difficult situations including drug abuse, sexual abuse, the jailing of family members. But there can be hope, as eighteen-year-old Milena Balogova from Kostomlaty writes, describing coming out of hellish teenage years steeped in personal turmoil and drugs.

I said that I would write about my life. When I was nine years old I hung out with bad kids. They were older than me. I wanted to be like them and I did what they did. I started to go out at night, to take drugs, steal cars and rob people to get money for heroin. I was eleven years old. My mom put me in reform school. After two years she took me back. She thought that they had straightened me out there. But she was blind. I started to take drugs. I thought that drugs would help me escape from this world and hide. It was true. I did escape, but to a hellish world where I was for four years. Now I am in the reform school. Three months ago I was raped. I hid the pain with in myself and made everyone around me suffer. The director of the reform school sent me home. I was home for one month and ten days. I was able to come to grips with myself. I didn't take drugs. I just thought. Now I am back in the reform school and I want to be good from the bottom of my heart. I don't want to be bad anymore. I want to live a normal life so that I would finally be happy.

Finally, let's hear a story by Matej Berko, ten-years-old, a student in elementary school in Usti-nad-Labem, Predlice. It's the story of the kite we discussed and is called 'Kite Torn Loose'.

Kite Torn Loose

There once was a kite made completely from paper. It belonged to the boy who made it. Once the boy took it outside, and then it happened. The boy started to fly it and the kite tore loose and the boy never saw it again. The kite raced around the world. It saw many countries and cities. It was even in a big city called New York. Yet, it seemed that it is falling, but then the wind changed and the kite raced back home. Suddenly, it was above the house. There were trees around the house and the kite caught on a tree. The boy saw it because he was playing in front of the house. He took it home and was very happy that the kite returned home.

For more information on Nova Skola and Romano Suno visit www.novaskola.org

28-12-2003