Czechs and Brexit Britain – Part 3: Sticking together

Brexit - brexit (Foto: kalhh, Pixabay / CC0)

In the previous episodes of the Czechs in Brexit Britain series, we explored what worries the local Czech community about Brexit and the new business ties the country is trying to establish with Britain. In our closing feature we will look closer at the Czech community itself and some of the clubs and institutions that they have built in the United Kingdom.

Manchester, photo: Daniel Nisbet, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0
The Czech Republic may be a small country, but as the famous saying goes: “You will find a Czech everywhere” (Čecha najdeš všude). In Britain this is perhaps more the case than in most countries, as there is a sizeable Czech community of up to 100,000 people living on the island nation according to estimates by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Many of them choose to stick together, joining clubs and organisations that create expat networks, or help maintain the connection of second and third generation Czechs to their roots.

An example of the latter is the Czech School in Manchester, which teaches the children of expats not just the language of their homeland, but also aspects of its culture and history. Czech Mancunian Tereza Kokočínská has been an active member of the school since it got established in 2011.

Czech School in Manchester, photo: Archive of the Czech School in Manchester
“We started very basically with one section dedicated to pre-schoolers and one to schoolchildren. For the schoolkids we had a few qualified teachers, for the pre-schoolers we had some dedicated mums. I myself have two children who are now basically teenagers, but during the beginnings I was one of those who taught pre-schoolers.”

The school currently teaches around 50 children, she says. While the oldest pupils are in their mid-teens, the youngest are little more than toddlers.

“We start at 18 months. We have a small playgroup where you get the community together. You get the parents to come out with the little ones, have tea and basically talk with each other.”

“We start at 18 months. We have a small playgroup where you get the community together. You get the parents to come out with the little ones, have tea and basically talk with each other.”

Are their parents all first generation Czechs or are there also some second generation Czechs, people who have lived here all their life but still send their kids to a Czech school?

“It is a right mixture, but I would say the majority of the children are from parents who have come here fairly recently, say in the past five years or so…I think the need to get together with people from your own country and use your native language is really big, so people do that.”

Are there any kids who have said they want to return to the Czech Republic when they get older?

Lucie Slavíková Boucher, photo: Martina Bílá
“Actually yes, my son did. He is 14. He has strong bonds to his native country, he loves everything about the Czech Republic. My parents have been a massive influence in that area and he is doing really well with his language studies as well.

“He always says: ‘Mum I want to study and live in the Czech Republic. Can we move and live there? I love everything about it and want to go again.’

“I tell him: ‘Listen this is your perspective as a person who goes there on holiday, so I am not really sure how you will find it when you actually move’, but he is still adamant that that is what he wants to do, so maybe one day he will.”

Whether her son ends up deciding to follow through with his wishes or not, it is a sign that Czech schools in foreign countries may be having their intended effect, helping not just to keep expat children connected to their homeland, but also bringing them back home.

This ultimately also benefits the Czech state, as Lucie Slavíková Boucher, the chairwoman of the international NGO Czech Schools Without Borders, explained to Radio Prague in 2019.

“For the Czech Republic it is very important, because if it has a generation growing up aboard that does not speak Czech, its connection with the country will be minimal.

“For the Czech Republic it is very important, because if it has a generation growing up aboard that does not speak Czech, its connection with the country will be minimal.“

“Children will not visit the country as their homeland, but rather as tourists and the state will lose out on many people who might want to work in the Czech Republic, or create some sort of cooperation in the future.”

Czech Schools Abroad have been pushing for more support from the Czech government. For example, at their annual conference in Prague last year, they discussed deepening Czech foreign education legislature with both the Ministry of Education and Foreign Affairs.

The Education Ministry’s Programme for Supporting Czech Cultural Heritage for the years 2021-2025 does count on increasing financial support for Czech language education abroad.

Photo: European Commission
It will come in handy as right now the level of education that such schools can offer varies depending on their size and staff capabilities. Many, such as the Czech School in Manchester, are self-funded and often reliant on volunteer teachers such as those supplied via the EU’s Erasmus+ programme.

The scheme, which offers students the chance to spend a subsidised semester in another member state and teach languages, is in danger of being discontinued with Britain after Brexit changes take effect at the turn of 2020/21.

For now however, the programme is still running and the most recent addition to the local school’s teaching staff is 22-year-old Jana Mikulášková, who is studying Czech language and literature and Charles University in Prague and used the Erasmus+ opportunity to explore the UK while and gain experience at the same time.

Petr Jeníček, photo: Archive of Petr Jeníček
“I knew about [Czech schools] beforehand, because I teach Czech in Prague to foreigners living there, so I knew that there are Russian and Ukrainian schools in the Czech Republic and imagined there would be Czech equivalents abroad.”

I ran into her at another Czech expat event hosted in Manchester - a meeting of the local university’s Czechoslovak Society. It is one of the dozens of similar clubs that bring Czech and Slovak students who are studying at British universities together.

In Manchester the club was founded by Petr Jeníček, a 23-year-old student of economics who is in his final year now.

“The society started as a couple of friends who were going out for a beer regularly and we decided to open it up to other Czech students if they wanted to join us. Right now we actually mixed it up and started organising academic socials with the Czech Consulate General [in Manchester]. We started organising speeches or presentations by interesting people.

Radek Špicar, photo: Jana Trpišovská, Czech Radio
"Furthermore, we have also started working with companies in the Czech Republic who want to have student interns. So, right now, we are also organising dinners, fundraisers and other interesting events with Czech companies.”

Co-operation with the Czech public and private sector is not exclusive to the Czechoslovak Society in Manchester. Its equivalent at the London School of Economics for example organises an annual Central European Conference, which attracts important speakers, such as Senator Pavel Fischer or the Vice-Chairman of the Czech Confederation of Industry Radek Špicar.

Furthermore, such societies can also attract non-Czech and Slovak students.

At the University of Exeter, the love of Czech students for one of the country’s popular sports called Floorball created a whole new society, which has since attracted many English students to the sport as well.

Meanwhile, at Manchester University’s Czechoslovak Society, one can also come across foreign students with a Czech connection, says Mr Jeníček.

“We actually do have a couple of non-Czech or Slovak students who join us. For example, we just had a Malaysan guy join us who visited Prague and loved it so much that he tried to find out if there is a Czechoslovak Society.

“He was also interested in Czech language lessons so we sent him to the local Czech School to learn. I don’t know if he followed through or if it was just an idea, but yes, we do have foreign members as well.”

Most importantly perhaps, such societies offer comradery in what is often a new environment for Czech students, like 19-year-old Natalia Vavreková, who is in her first year of studying a bachelor’s degree in Politics and Philosophy.

“Just to have the support and talk in my language was very important at the beginning, because you are in a completely different country, culture and language environment at the start, which can be scary.”

“When I came here, having the possibility to go to someone with the same experiences, whether it was worries or what one should do [was useful].

“Just to have the support and talk in my language was very important at the beginning, because you are in a completely different country, culture and language environment at the start, which can be scary. [It helps] just to have this local support from your country.”

Asked about whether she plans on coming back to Prague once she graduates, she says she would like to, although she would welcome some more incentives for Czech students to do so.

Whatever ends up happening, it should be said that the Czech Republic does not suffer from the levels of brain drain as some other Central and Eastern European states. Czechs “do not belong among the most migratory nations in Europe”, says the country’s Ambassador to the UK Libor Sečka. Those who do return to their home country give back a lot, he says, because they profit greatly from the opportunities and skills that can be learned in Britain.