Czech Romanies mark International Day of the Roma

In this week's Panorama, Rob Cameron looks at celebrations marking International Romani Day on April 8th. 2006 is also the 35th anniversary of the foundation of the International Romani Union, an organisation designed to bring together the millions of Roma scattered around the world.

This year marks the 35th anniversary of the foundation of the International Romani Union, an organisation designed to bring together the millions of Roma scattered around the world. In 1990, the organisation decreed that April 8th should be designated as International Day of the Roma, a day which is also being celebrated here in the Czech Republic.

The country has a Roma population of some 300,000, many of whom live in squalid conditions on the margins of society. All this week, seminars, concerts and other events are being held across the country in the run up to Saturday's International Day of the Roma. I went along to Namesti Miru - a large, leafy square in the heart of Prague's Vinohrady district - where a Romany organisation called Athinganoi was holding a series of events on Thursday to raise awareness of the day.

"My name is Gabriela Habranova. I'm the director of Athinganoi - it's a Roma student organisation whose main aim is to bring together Romani students from high school and universities to break the stereotypes and prejudice of the majority society and to show that Roma can also be teachers, lawyers or whatever else than just supporting the stereotypes."

Why are you here on Namesti Miru today?

"We want to show to the public that the Roma have some culture. Athinganoi do a number of projects, and we want to show them to people, to prevent our activities. So people can come and see, we'll also offer some food, some traditional Romani food, so people can try that as well. The main reason is that April 8th is the International Day of the Roma. We want to celebrate it not just with us, but also with the people around us."

The International Day of the Roma is quite a new holiday. What does it mean to you?

"For me, it's a great reason to celebrate. It something shared among all the Roma in the world. So we're celebrating here in Prague, also in other cities in the Czech Republic, and also Romania, Macedonia, even the United States."

Photo: CTK
Tell me a bit more about the Romani food!

"Some people claim that the Roma don't have their traditional food, but it's food that Roma brought to the Czech Republic from the countries they were travelling from. So we will offer something like "sarma" from the Balkans, it's a leaf filled with meat and rice."

Stuffed vine leaves?

"Yes! That might be the name in English. It's made by Roma women, and it's one of the favourite meals we have."

And there will be music too?

"Yes, we'll have a guitar and violin and some children will dance, but modern dance. On Thursday evening we have a concert at Matrix in Prague 3. They'll also be traditional dance, and performance by three bands."

How much interest do you think there is among the Czech public in the International Day of the Roma?

"As you said, it's a new holiday, so people really don't know much about it. And it's also within the Roma community. That's why we want to present it not only to the public, the majority society, but also to the Roma."

Let's not mince words here - relations between Czechs and Roma are not good. Many Czechs hate Romanies, don't they?

"The general feel is anti-gypsy. That's present here in the country. We can see that when Roma go to ask for jobs or enter some public places such as discotheques."

And you think events like this can help bring the communities closer together?

"I hope so. I definitely hope so."

Generally, how would you say the situation of the Roma is changing? Is it improving at all?

"Unfortunately I have to say that it's not really improving. It's seventeen years since the fall of Communism, and the situation is getting even worse. On one hand we have Roma, they are integrated into society, we have more students going to university and more people taking serious jobs and showing that Roma can do something else. But on the other hand we have Roma that are marginalised. There are newly created ghettoes, and the people are socially excluded."

A number of seminars were held this week to discuss issues such as social exclusion and racism, issues which are clearly hampering efforts to bring the Roma community closer to majority white society. Athinganoi's Michal Miko is one of the organisers.

"We wanted to focus on this problem in the Czech Republic, that there is anti-gypsism, Romaphobia, discrimination, racism. The Roma in the Czech Republic are still living in these conditions - they are discriminated against, they are attacked by skinheads. The public opinion of Roma is that they are smelly etc - the usual rubbish. Roma are good inhabitants of the Czech Republic, and I think they can be a good partner for the Czech community."

Photo: CTK
This is something have been talking about for many years, since 1989. Do you think things are getting better?

"Yes, I think things are getting better. Roma children are no longer sent to special schools, they're getting a regular basic education. More Roma are studying at university in the Czech Republic. More Roma are working in government. But the standing of minorities in the Czech Republic is still not good."

Back in Namesti Miru, Gabriela Hrabanova and her colleagues were still hard at work. In a bid to bridge the divide between Roma and Czechs, they'll be giving o ut lapel pins featuring the Roma flag - a flag of a nation of millions with no state of their own.

"This is the Romani flag. The Roma agreed at the beginning of the 1970s in England that this would be the flag for all Roma in the world."

Describe the flag to us.

"The upper part is blue, and it's blue like the sky. The lower part is green like grass, so that means the Roma are between the sky and the ground. And in the middle there is a red wheel, that's characterises the travelling of the Roma. But also the connection with India, because this is an Ashok Chakra. Ashoka was the Indian leader who united all the Indian tribes."

So we should see this flag flying around Prague in the lead up to the International Day of the Roma on Saturday.