Brochures for schools to help combat racial prejudice and extremism

Photo: archive of Radio Prague

In its quarterly report on national security the Czech intelligence service BIS recently warned of an alarming rise in anti-Roma sentiments among the public. The report referred to a growing number of anti-Roma marches in Czech towns and cities organized by ultra-right groups but openly supported by many ordinary citizens. There are concerns that the Roma are being made a scapegoat for the country’s social problems and that growing hostility towards the Roma minority will make coexistence even harder.

Peter Gabaľ,  photo: Barbora Kmentová
The NGO Asi-milovani established in 2010 to encourage civic responsibility targets its campaigns and projects particularly at young people. It has just finished work on a three year project –a brochure for schools called Democracy versus Extremism, which should help teachers address the issue of extremism in the classroom and encourage a lively debate among students. The head of the project Petr Gabal explains what sparked the idea:

“The idea to produce this brochure was in response to the growing popularity of the ultra-right Workers’ Party among young people. If you recall the outcome of the student mock elections in 2010, you’ll know what I am talking about. The extremist party finished third, after the Pirate Party and TOP 09, getting 12 percent of the vote. We felt this was a warning signal that young people are failing to learn the lessons of history and time has unfortunately proved us right. The number of extremist rallies is growing and people’s attitudes are becoming less tolerant and more crude.”

The brochures include a collection of essays on the subject of extremism written by a political analyst, psychologist, lecturer, former journalist and former riot police officer. Petr Gabal says the aim was to touch on as many different aspects of extremism as possible and let students reach their own conclusions.

“The brochures will be distributed among schools for free because they are covered by a grant for educational projects. There are three brochures divided up into different sections – they address the issue of where democracy ends and extremism begins, look at what incites and fuels extremist views and behaviour, covers extremist parties and movements in history and so on. There is a manual for teachers that should help them address the issue in the classroom and a sort of workshop project that will enable students to work on their own in groups, express their views and reach their own conclusions. Young people respond better to that approach than having a teacher lecture them on what they should think and what not.”

Jolana Šmarhovyčová,  photo: archive of Vzájemné soužití
Jolana Šmarhovičová heads a centre for Romany children from socially excluded localities in and around Ostrava. She and others involved in assisting Romany integration welcome the fact that racial prejudice and extremism will be addressed in the classroom. And she says it is never too soon to start.

“Racial prejudice takes root at a very early age. Children starting school see the first signs of it from day one because at our local school they have two first grades –class A where you have white children and class B which is made up of Romany children. So the segregation process starts very early on. Class A is on the first floor and class B on the second floor and the kids from class A don’t go up there. Right now we know of a case where there are two Roma kids in class A and they don’t have an easy time.”

Jolana says she made several attempts to talk the headmistress out of making this class segregation and setting up mixed classes instead. While her arguments were politely listened to, they failed to change anything. The headmistress explained that if she were to do that the parents of the white kids would take their children out of the school –as they had threatened to do, even if it meant enrolling them in one further away – and with fewer students the school would lose state subsidies. An appeal to the town mayor also failed to resolve the problem.

Meanwhile, the selected Roma kids who are occasionally placed in a regular class generally feel like outcasts and spend their school years trying to win acceptance.

“The Roma kids who are in a regular class don’t have friends. They find it really hard to integrate with the class. This puts them under immense pressure. They do their best to shine in the class in order to win acceptance, but it doesn’t help. The other kids shun them, won’t play with them and I know for instance that during gym class when they are asked to pair up or divide into teams no one wants the Roma kids on their team.”

The center for children from socially excluded localities works with kids aged 6 to 18, helping them to deal with their problems, manage their schoolwork and open up about their concerns.

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
“The kids complain about how they are treated and giving them advice is not always easy because every case is specific. But generally we tell them not to take it to heart, that the kids who insult them and look down on them are stupid and misinformed. But I think that parents should become more involved in preventing this kind of thing. For instance it would be good for Roma parents to come to parents’ meetings and talk to the other parents, explain how their child feels in the face of such insults and how badly hurt they are. Maybe some parents would sit down and talk to their children about it. It might not solve everything, but it might help a little. ”

Jolana Šmarhovičová says that in recent months things have taken a turn for the worse. Romanies are often made a scapegoat for the country’s social problems and few people stop to think about the fact that they are in the same boat, struggling to deal with the same problems. She says the growing anti-Romany sentiments among the public are naturally taking root in the young generation.

“There is a lot of social insecurity in this country right now, both among the white majority population and among the Roma minority, and people are very frustrated. They naturally talk about things at home and when their kids hear them say “Gypsies are parasites, they don’t do any work and we finance their upkeep” they pick up these views and prejudices from their parents from a very young age.”