Christian refugees from Iraq start new life in Czech Republic

Photo: Filip Jandourek

The first of a group of 153 Christian refugees from Iraq due to settle in the Czech Republic arrived in the country last weekend amid heightened media interest. I spoke to Jan Talafant, the head of the Generation 21 foundation which organized and is financing their relocation, about their first days in the country, the reception they received and what’s in store for them in the weeks and months to come.

Jan Talafant,  photo: archive of Generation 21
“They spent the last one and a half year as nobodies, no one was interested in them, no one was helping them and suddenly there is this media interest surrounding them…it seems like they are happy …on the bus to Jihlava they took out a guitar and sung songs and when they came to the Okrouhlík recreation centre near Jihlava they were given a meal and after that they called their friends and relatives in Iraq to say that it is good here and that they can also come.”

Are they able to communicate in English?

“One of them worked as an interpreter, so he speaks very good English, but all the others only speak Arabic or Armeik.”

Now they are housed in this recreation centre –what have their first days been like?

“They mostly rested after the long trip, but they were happy, they started cooking their own meals, the children played outside, built their first snowman here… they appear to be happy.”

How have the locals responded? How have they been received?

“The mayor of Jihlava welcomed them and the city has offered some apartments for them. There are also hundreds of volunteers calling us, offering to help, they buy winter clothes or someone came and brought a cell phone for them to use, people have been offering to help with transportation –so it is nice and we are grateful.”

They are now living at this centre where they are likely to stay for some time. Do they have regular contact with the locals that would enable them to learn the language and our customs?

“They are proud people. Most of them want to find work and be self-sufficient as quickly as possible.”

“Yes, there are two groups of people helping them. First the professional organizations that provide language teaching, help them get medical check-ups and go to different offices to register for this or that and then there are local churches and fellowships and people from them just come to get to know the refugees, talk to them and to tell them that they are welcome here. They invite them to go on weekend trips, to their homes and to let their children get to know their children, bake them a cake or show them where to get discount on children’s clothes. So that is the main difference in the help given and we hope the latter will help the refugees feel welcome here.”

What happens next? You said they are getting medical check-ups and learning Czech, but what happens in the next six or eight months?

“They will be learning Czech for the whole six months, but after two months at the recreation centre they will move to apartments close to the city centre in Jihlava, where they can start leading normal lives, go shopping, go to a coffee house, meet people, etc. ”

Will they eventually disperse around the country or are they inclined to stick together?

“Well, the state doesn’t want to create ghettos, where they would be isolated and speak only their own language, so the plan is they will go to different places, but they have their own free will, some may want to stay in Jihlava, some may want to move to other parts of the country…most of them want to find work and be self-sufficient as quickly as possible, they are proud people who want to look after themselves, so we expect they will accept work offers from different parts of the country, from big and small companies, and that after six months they will be living normal lives in different parts of the Czech Republic.”

Photo: Filip Jandourek
I understand that many of them are educated. Will they be able to find the kind of work they are qualified for?

“We hope so. The professional organizations involved will help them with their diplomas and getting their education recognized, there is a vet among them and professional drivers and I think these people will want to continue in their professions. There are also teachers among them and in the big cities there is a need for teachers of Arabic so, whatever they taught at home, they can teach Arabic here.”

Presumably the children will start school as soon as possible…

“Yes, under Czech law as soon as their parents file for asylum, the children have to start attending school. But there are various possibilities how to fulfil that requirement – home teaching, or schools can approve an individual study plan for them or temporarily set up a special class with intensified Czech language courses – there are various possibilities, but they have to be part of the Czech education system from day one.”

Have you contacted schools in the vicinity? Are they prepared for this?

“Yes, schools are welcoming them and the schoolchildren are also eager to meet them, so this will work.”

You said there was a strong acceptance of Cristian refugees in the community, do you think that the anti-migrant sentiments in this country are based on a fear of Muslims?

“We were inspired by the story of Sir Nicholas Winton who saved hundreds of Jewish children by getting them out of Czechoslovakia at the beginning of WWII.”

“I think there is a fear of Islam and in this case –because these people are Christians – that fear is largely eliminated. People think these refugees do not present a danger for them and that is indeed the case.”

Is there an Iraqi community in the Czech Republic which they could be in contact with?

“I don’t know if we can call it a community, but there are Iraqi people who studied in the Czech Republic, who married and stayed or simply decided to settle here and many have contacted us and offered to help. Some are already interpreting. We know that there are more Iraqi people living in Brno, but we do not know them and it may be a Muslim community which these refugees do not want to join.”

When is the next group coming? I believe there are 153 altogether due to arrive in several stages this year?

“The remainder of this group from Lebanon should come in two or three weeks –we are in contact with them and with the Czech Embassy in Lebanon and everything is going quite smoothly –so we expect them in the first week of February and then there will follow two bigger groups, each about 60 people, from Erbil, from Kurdistan and we expect the first one in mid-February and the second one in the first week of March.”

This is quite a challenging task that Generation 21 has taken on – in what way has it proved challenging and in what way has it proved rewarding for you?

Okrouhlík recreation centre,  photo: Michal Malý
“We were inspired by the story of Sir Nicholas Winton who saved hundreds of Jewish children by getting them out of Czechoslovakia at the beginning of WWII. Originally the idea was to influence the Czech authorities, for the Czech Republic to open its doors to some Christians at risk, but it developed into a project that is almost 100 percent financed by domestic and foreign sponsors. So, on the one hand, it is quite challenging, a lot of pressure, there are constant changes, what was certain a few weeks ago is not certain today, like 27 people were due to arrive on Sunday but for technical reasons only ten came and the others will follow a few weeks later, but it is working and what is rewarding about it is that we – and all the people involved who are helping in one way or another – feel that we are saving lives. Before the events in Kurdistan we could not claim that, but now the situation is so bad and getting worse and worse, that it is really possible that people who do not leave that place can be killed. So we are helping to save lives and that makes it meaningful. I think that is something we will remember for the rest of our lives –that we could be part of this.”

Are you hoping to take it further – to bring more refugees in, once the first group of 153 are settled?

"I would like to say yes, but at this point we just have to concentrate on getting the 153 refugees here, but Mr. Bělobrádek from the government [Deputy Prime Minister for the Science, Research and Innovation] said the government would watch this project and if it is successful and without problems then they expect it will be the first of many similar projects. So his words can open the door for helping more people. We know that Czechoslovakia received 12,000 refugees from Greece in the 1950s, and 17,000 people from Kosovo alone in the 1990s, so the capacity of our country to help is much bigger and we hope that this can happen.”

Do you feel that this experience will enrich the locals as well, that it will benefit both sides, in that Czechs will open up more and gain a better understanding of a different culture?

“We hope so. These people have a lot to give our people, show them they are people we can live with, be friends with, go to school and work with and who will give us something good.”