Bela pod Bezdezem, a little town of about 8000 inhabitants, 60 kilometers north-east of Prague, looks like a quiet, sleepy place. Four kilometres further into a forest you find a rather different atmosphere - at the residential center for asylum seekers, Bela-Jezova. The remote area used to be a Soviet Army base until 1990 when it was, after refugees started coming into Czechoslovakia, transformed into a residential center where asylum seekers wait for a final decision on their applications.
With a capacity of 282, the camp is currently about half full. Most of the four-storey blocks of flats were closed after the number of Chechen refugees, many of whom came last year, began to decrease. Yet the majority of the present 140 occupants are still from countries of the former Soviet Union with an average age of 35, mainly families with children.
Forty-year-old Igor from Ukraine had been unemployed for a long time. His economic situation was so bad that he decided to try his luck in the Czech Republic, a country which is, he says, very similar to his home. Igor prays every day and believes that God will help him as well as his country, so people will live there with dignity.
The routine for adults is set around the three daily meals. In between they can use a tea room, a library, a small gymnasium, or learn Czech. According to the head of the centre Libor Tondr, they are more interested in computer courses than Czech language which is compulsory only for children.
"Children of pre-school age visit a children's center, similar to a classic nursery but all activities zero in on basic things, like keeping clean and learning the Czech language as quickly as possible so they can go to school. Children of school age go to the school in Bela pod Bezdezem with Czech children and if they are not able to communicate in Czech, which happens very often, the school opens special classes dominated by language teaching. As soon as a child is able to communicate he or she moves into a normal class ."
"I came in this country, the Czech Republic, one year ago. I stayed in prison for six months and has been in this camp for six months."
28-year-old Iraqi, Neveen Behnam from Baghdad, arrived with her two brothers, a younger sister and her 3 and a half- year-old daughter.
"I came here with a group, with mafia but I didn't know where I was. Only after I left mafia I asked police what this country was and he told me it was the Czech republic."
The journey through northern Iran and Turkey took three months. Neveen and her relatives travelled with people from Afghanistan, Iran and other countries partly by car, and partly on foot and spent a month in a room almost without food.
"I want any country in Europe because I can't stay in Iraq because the situation in Iraq is very bad. Mafia left us in this country and told us this was Europe. After some time police told me this was the Czech Republic, I said O.K. I want a refugee status. I want a country which can give me safety, asylum and mercy for my daughter and my family."
Her husband and parents are still in Iraq and would like to come to the Czech Republic once she is given asylum.
"I don't like any other country, I want to stay here. But after one year, nothing has happened. My lawyer tells me to wait. I don't know what to do because I am afraid about my husband and my mother and father because the situation in Iraq is bad and it is getting worse. Sometimes my husband tells me to come back because he wants to see his daughter. "
The whole family would like to work and earn money for little treats such as chocolate. They are all counting the days, as refugee status will allow them to work only after they have spent a year in a centre.
"This camp is very far from the nearest cities Prague and Mladá Boleslav. If I want to work I have to leave this camp. If I leave this camp I have to pay money for a small flat in Prague or Mladá Boleslav. I also have to pay for food and doctors but I where should I take this money from."
In her free time Neveen looks after her daughter, studies English and Czech which she finds very difficult. Despite that she uses a Czech name for potatoes when complaining about the repetitive menu - pasta, potatoes and schnitzels. Neveen doesn´t like refugees from Chechnya. As she says their mentality and religion are different.
"The first problem is the religion. We are Christian and all Chechen here are muslims. They don't like Christians. Once I asked a woman from Chechnya "Why don't you like us?" "Because you are Christain." She told me directly. She doesn't like Russia because all Russians are Christian. She thought that all Christians are like Russians. But I am an Arab from Iraq and that is no Russia".
The Iraqi family rarely leaves the center since the bus connection is not frequent and with an allowance of 12 crowns a day, travelling is very expensive. Neveen, who is lively and intelligent, adores Prague and like many others relies on friends who have been working there for some time. They all ask more or less the same questions about the cost of living and job opportunities in the capital. Like everyone in the camp, they complain about the time they have had to spend waiting for a decision from the Ministry of Interior.
"We try to help in those cases we consider strong, which should be decided in favour of applicants. We act for those people. We communicate with the Ministry of Interior and we try to get swift decisions. If we think that refugees should not get asylum we try to explain the situation to them so they can decide responsibly and don´t waste time waiting."
says Martin Rozumek, the director of the Organization for Aid to Refugees. Given tough new asylum procedure in the European Union, Rozumek expects only a small number of refugees in the Czech Republic in the coming years.
"Starting from the 1st May 2004 the new "Dublin instruction" which determines which state is responsible for an applicant has been applied. This means that a person who has applied for asylum in another European Union country, can´t then be part of the Czech asylum process. A lot of people who went through Polish centers last year, should now not be accepted into Czech asylum process. An application will be turned down and returned to Poland, or if he originally applied in Slovakia, he will be sent back there."
A refugee who is given asylum can live in an Integration asylum center. He will get help when looking for a job and will have time to get used to everyday life in the Czech Republic. Libor Tondr recalls
"I met people who in their country of origin used to work as doctors and they now work as doctors again, although they had to pass many exams to have their qualifications recognized by the Czech Republic. Today they are normal citizens of the Czech Republic."
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