Kumar Vishwanathan: building bridges between communities in Ostrava

Kumar Vishwanathan, photo: CTK

Kumar Vishwanathan is originally from southern India. He was leading a quiet life as a teacher in a provincial Czech town when in 1997 disastrous floods swept through the eastern part of the Czech Republic and changed his life for ever. Quite spontaneously he decided to help Romany families who had lost their homes in the industrial city of Ostrava near the Polish border. He thought he would stay for a few weeks. Eight years later, along with his wife and small son, he is still there, working untiringly to build bridges between Roma and non-Roma communities. It was in acknowledgement of his work in Ostrava to combat social injustice that the American ambassador in Prague presented him on Friday with the second Alice Masaryk award to mark Human Rights Day. David Vaughan reports

Kumar Vishwanathan,  photo: CTK
There was a loud cheer from Kumar's many friends, both Roma and non-Roma, who had made the long journey from Ostrava to Prague, as the ambassador announced the award.

Among them was Renata Gaziova, whose family was one of many, made homeless by the 1997 floods. She became desperate after being moved to five different temporary flats. At the time local authority was reluctant to re-house what they saw as problem "Gypsy" families. Kumar remembers the atmosphere:

"There were 27 Roma families and nobody wanted them. Everybody began signing petitions against them. They were considered to be almost evil. I just came to the conclusion that maybe it was necessary for somebody - a calm and cool kind of person - to be there to ease the tensions and to start working to help the people."

Kumar began to work painstakingly, talking with the homeless Romany families whose lives he was literally sharing as he moved into temporary housing with them, and trying also to communicate with often deeply suspicious local officials. His commitment had a snowball effect as other people - both Roma and non-Roma - joined in and gradually the work began to bear fruit. The climax was a unique housing project, now known as the "Vesnicka souziti" or "Coexistence Village".

American ambassador in Prague William Cabaniss awarded Kumar Vishwanathan,  photo: CTK
"It was an idea that was born back in 1997 out of this frustration that the flats were not there. And the Roma said, 'We can build our own flats.' That was the idea, and then they said, "Even if it's the best kind of flat, we don't want to live alone. We would like to live with the majority, we would like to live with the white families.' So we sought poor white families, who were interested in going into this project, who had nowhere to live and were hit by the floods themselves. These poor white families were also extremely marginalized. Then they started working on this project."

Renata Gaziova was involved in the project from the start. She lives in the village, and has no doubts about its success.

"Life is good there. There are ten Roma, ten mixed and ten non-Roma families. In the three years we've been there I've never known us to have any conflicts. It's super"

And Kumar adds:

'Coexistence Village',  photo: CTK
"The basic significance is that Czechs and Roma can build together something not just of great beauty, but also great value. They can live together having lost everything in the floods. They built the houses themselves, they took part in the construction. Today they take part in the maintenance and in managing things to some extent, and I think it's just a proof that Czechs and Roma can live together. The fundamental problem in the "Coexistence Village" is not Czech-Roma coexistence, but economic. People don't have work, because it's Ostrava, and I think that is the fundamental problem which the people there have."

In some ways the village may sound like a dream come true, but as Kumar hints, the reality is a great deal tougher. There are no statistics showing unemployment levels among Roma in Ostrava, but the figure is probably well over fifty percent; many still feel isolated and alienated. But by now Kumar is supported by more than forty fellow full-time workers, who are confronting problems as diverse as the tensions that many Roma experience with the police, and the disproportionately high number of Roma children sent to orphanages.

"Sometimes you have to shout out, 'Hey, this is wrong, you shouldn't be doing this.' There is no time to waste and you have to act straight away. You have to put yourself between the brute force and the victim to whom it is directed. I feel that sometimes you just have to do it like this. But you have to do it gently. It's a question of mediation, getting people to understand each other, different points of view. I think that's the fundamental approach that I'm for."

I'll leave Renata Gaziova with the last word:

"What Kumar's doing is great - for Roma and non-Roma. He is fighting for Roma to gain their rightful place alongside Czechs."