Kumar Vishwanathan - an extraordinary decision to join homeless Roma

Kumar Vishwanathan

In July 1997 floods swept through the city of Ostrava in the east of the Czech Republic. The entire district of Hrusov was devastated, leaving dozens of Roma families homeless. At that time Kumar Vishwanathan, a young physics teacher from India, was working at a school about sixty kilometers away in Olomouc. In the wake of the floods he made an extraordinary decision that completely changed his life - to help the homeless Roma families by moving in with them into their emergency accommodation. Five years later Kumar is still working with the Ostrava Roma. Here he talks about that decision.

"There was a moment in my life when there was a kind of vacuum, and it was in 1997 when I decided to leave my job as a teacher of physics at the English Gymnazium. I wanted to do something which has got meaning, because I lost all sense of purpose. And that vacuum was filled by a decision to do something which I had never done before, the decision was a response to the floods in Moravia, and the decision was to help a group of Roma who were flooded and who were not just victims of the flood, but they were also victims of the surroundings, of a neighbourhood which did not want them and didn't want to help them. I went through a moment when I felt I knew exactly what to do. I knew that the best way was to go and live with the people, stay with them.

I also remember the first evening, when there was just one family who decided to move in that very evening, and I also moved in so there were just two in the whole cabin. I never went in my life through anything like this. It was very powerful when this Roma family, a young family - the lady was physically disabled - she had a superb voice, and she rolled up a piece of newspaper and held it up as a microphone. Her husband took this guitar and they started singing. Oh, it was very, very powerful. And there were the kids there - and these people invited me to share dinner with them. It was a really powerful evening. And the voice of this lady, who was holding a rolled piece of paper - I hadn't gone through anything like this before. That moment confirmed my decision to not give up those mad ideas and run away. I decided to stay there."