The youth club “Kera” lies at a crossroads in the middle of Kecerovce, a down-at-heel village in eastern Slovakia. Just 100 kilometers from the Ukrainian border, the region still exudes an air of the Habsburg monarchy. Indeed, as we cycle through Roma villages such as Kecerovce, Western Europe seems far away to our group of 17.
In Romany, Kera means “curve”. The visitors to the one-room club are mostly members of Europe’s largest minority, the Roma. Kecerovce is home to 2,760 Roma – or “gypsies” as they are often still referred to – as well as 240 “Gadschos”, or “whites” as non-Roma are called in Romany.
As for the bicyclists, we are social workers, academics and journalists from Germany, all interested in the situation of the Roma. Year in, year out, the Roma periodically appear in Western Europe’s media: as victims of pogroms, as beggars on the streets of Berlin, as inhabitants of dirtpoor slums.
Anicka founded Kera. “Because otherwise there is no place for young people here,” said the 20-year-old Roma woman as she poured us tea. Young people like Anicka who live in proper houses in the village can meet at their homes. “But without Kera those kids from the shanty towns would just hang around on the streets,” she says.
The demographics are astounding: Forty percent of Roma in Kecerovce are under 25 years of age. In the shanty town on the village’s out-skirts, the figure is 80 percent. Stanislav Hada, 47 years of age, is the mayor of the neighboring town, Rankovce. Hada politely shows us around his village. With our bikes, we are like aliens among the derelict Roma hovels. The well from which the 600 people here draw their water is a crude, cementlined hole in the ground.
“The water is 25 meters down,” says the mayor. “The men have to pull up the bucket. It’s too heavy for women and children.” Hada, who is himself a Roma, would gladly connect the village to the water works. But it is on private land, and the owner does not want to sell it to Roma.
“My first impression was: What contrasts!” says Thomas Handrich, recalling his first visit in the fall of 2009. Handrich is the bicycle tour’s organizer. “At first they look like ordinary villages in East-Central Europe. And then, on the outskirts, often hiding along a creek bed or behind an old factory site are the Roma slums.”
But the 50-year-old professional pedagogue soon learned the reason for this state of affairs. In the 1980s, Slovakia’s communist leadership planned to build a nuclear power plant in Rankovce. Those who could afford to, left the region. The Roma who bought the empty houses had worked in the subsidized industries that did not survive the end of communism.
After 1989, most Roma lost their jobs. At that time they constituted the majority in the decaying center of Košice, eastern Slovakia’s largest city. The whites preferred the highrise buildings on the outskirts. But in the 1990s, local politicians rediscovered the old town, a Habsburg gem in the rough.
The city’s renovations meant that the residents were resettled in highrise housing estates on the outskirts. The Lunik IX, built in the 1970s, is one such housing project; an ethnic slum on the periphery of Košice, which next year will be one of Europe’s Capitals of Culture. Its original raison d’etre, reminiscent of integration projects in Western Europe, was to have a mix of workers, employees, officers and police officers together with Roma in a sort of garden city.
But with the fall of communism, many Roma were plunged into poverty. Many Lunik IX residents didn’t pay their bills; the city in turn switched off their electricity and heating. The Roma installed wood stoves in their apartments, which spewed soot across its exterior façades. Their better-off white neighbors moved away.
Today, according to the city council, there are 6,000 tenants in the complex that was originally designed for 2,400 people. Another 3,000 live there illegally. Today, all of the residents of Lunik IX are Roma.
Many Roma fiee such urban slums, moving to the countryside, where life is cheap. In addition to the high birth rate, there has been chain migration into the shanty towns. “The poverty shocked me,” explains Thomas Handrich, recalling his first visit. “But then I met a couple of courageous Roma and non-Roma who were trying to change something.”
36-year-old Yulo Pecha is one of them. “Actually, the people from here can’t hear the word ‘project’ anymore,” says the Roma social worker. “There were too many of them. And they were all conceived in offices far away and forced upon us.”
YEPP, which also supports Kera, is different. The “Youth Empowerment Partnership Programme,” financed by European and US foundations, including the International Academy of the Free University of Berlin, trains young Roma leaders.
Kecerovce isn’t the only such village that urgently needs leaders to represent its communities. In the seventh year of the Decade of Roma Inclusion, social differences between the majority population and the Roma are only growing.
One YEPP study found that the elementary school performance of many young Roma has been deteriorating. Most haven’t travelled any further than Košice. Friendships with white people are rare. On the other hand, some young Roma attend colleges and universities.
This, of course, is positive, but with upward mobility they lose touch with their community. This is what sociologists call “brain drain”. Whether in ethnic neighborhoods of New York or London, the migrant banlieus of France or the Turkish-Arab dominated districts of Berlin, anyone with an education leaves. Thus the neighborhoods remain poor and uneducated.
That is exactly what has happened in and around Kecerovce. The youth club Kera is one of the few places where the worlds of the better-off and the deprived Roma intersect. The social worker Pecha helps the group as best he can. He has the full support of the community, which for a year has been led by the Social Democrat Mirloslav Galas-Zaufal.
“We see that he can shoulder heavy problems,” said one of the tour participants about the broadchested 36-year-old. As a white, the professional forest ranger belongs to the village’s ethnic minority. Why did the Roma majority vote for him? “Miro can bring people together here,” says social worker Pecha. “There were also Roma who contested the election, but they only represented their own relatives.” Galas-Zaufal is for all citizens.
“The biggest problem is unemployment,” he says. When he took office, the Roma unemployment was 100 percent. But among the whites, only 40 percent had a job. Galas-Zaufal has launched a jobs program. 300 Roma were hired for street cleaning and building repair.
That’s all the money there is in the district’s budget. No major company in the region has survived the collapse of communism. Unemployed adults receive € 80 per month from the state. A four member family gets € 200. The employment program pays its workers € 60 a month.
Compared with an average salary of € 700, this isn’t much. “But, fortunately, not only wages and salaries are lower in eastern Slovakia than in the West,” says Galas-Zaufal, “but also the prices.” Nevertheless, he has launched a food aid program. “It’s for people who do not receive social assistance because they have no papers,” he says.
The mayor leases the Kera club premises to the local youth for the symbolic price of one euro a year. Galas-Zaufal gladly attends our barbecue, thrown by the young people from the club. We eat, drink, laugh, talk, play music and sing until late into the night.
“For me this was the best experience of the trip,” one participant said later. “It was so relaxed because we made music together and just chatted. And all the misery that we had witnessed suddenly melted away.“