Memories of a Czech asylum seeker in Britain
In this edition of Czech Books we introduce a completely new piece of Czech writing. A couple of years ago in this programme we featured the Romany writer Ilona Ferkova, one of a handful of authors in this country writing in the Romani language, traditionally spoken by Roma across Europe. When I first met Ilona and her family at their home in the West Bohemian town of Rokycany, they had recently returned from Britain. At the end of the 1990s they had been among the many Czech Romany families, who had gone there to seek asylum. They spent four years living in the Kentish seaside resort of Margate, while they waited for their application to be processed.
Ilona's short stories are well known for the insights they give into Romany life in the Czech Republic today, and it occurred to me to ask her whether she would consider writing something about the family's experiences in Britain. After some months Ilona sent me two partly typed and partly hand-written manuscripts in Romani. With the help of Helena Sadilkova, an expert on the Romani language from the Museum of Romany Culture in Brno, I worked up an English translation. Here are the opening three chapters of her account, offering a rare insight into the life of an asylum seeker from within.
The rain was beating against the glass, I was sitting in the coach and heading for a new land. Why, I thought, had I decided to make this journey? Was I doing the right thing? The question went round and round in my head. I can't speak the language, I don't know the gorgers [or "gadzo" - i.e. non-Romanies] there. Am I doing the right thing? I was really scared.
And will it ever stop raining?! Thoughts were spinning in my head like mad. Yes, I'd made the right decision. Or should I have stayed? But no, I knew I couldn't! They wouldn't leave me alone. First came the foul letters, and then there were those phone calls to my husband. I couldn't go on any more. I'd told the police everything! And what did they do? Nothing! They said I should tell them who it was, then they'd be able to do something. Some good that did! I couldn't tell them something I didn't know myself!
I had a job working with Roma mothers and children. It was good work. Some people didn't like the fact that I was working at the school as a teacher. They didn't want me to be there. That's why they sent those awful letters that struck terror into me.
The coach stopped, and the gorger who was driving said, "If you want the toilet or a smoke, we'll be here for ten minutes." I was afraid to go out. The rain was still pouring down. I won't go anywhere. I'll hold out. I just want the bus to keep going. I just want to be there. I was terribly nervous. My head was aching, I wanted to sleep, but I couldn't.
The coach moved off again. Rain ran down the window, tears down my face. Was I doing the right thing?
My daughter and her family already live over there. I haven't seen them for two years. I was looking forward to seeing them, but I wanted to cry. All the good things I'm leaving behind.
When the bus stopped at immigration it was already dark. We were in England. They took us Roma to one side and asked us what we wanted. We said we were applying for asylum. They took us to another room, told us to wait there. My nerves were more and more on edge. It wasn't till after midnight that they let me through to the other side. My daughter was waiting there. I saw the big belly she was carrying in front of her and burst into tears. She has a little one on the way. She took us home to where she lived. Her two children jumped into my arms and cried.
At that moment I was the happiest person in the world. We were all together again. All my fear fell away. What about tomorrow? The thought buzzed through my head.
The second day we went out - into town. It was neither big nor small. "Margate" it was called. I could hardly believe I was really abroad, and I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw a group of Roma from back home walking towards us.
"Ahoj, ahoj!" we shouted over to each other.
"And when did you come over?" they asked me.
I asked them the same question.
"So you're here too?"
We all greeted one another, shaking hands and hugging. It really cheered me up to see someone from back home.
My girl just laughed, "I bet you weren't expecting them all to be here."
We reached the centre of town. It was very pretty. Wherever we went, the gorgers smiled at me. And I didn't know where to look first. Such lovely things all around! My girl kept shoving me along - we haven't seen this yet, we haven't seen that - come on, look over there! She was dragging me everywhere, and I kept bumping into people. I said the only word I knew. "Sorry, sorry."
My girl kept laughing that all I ever said was "sorry".
"Mum, come and look at the water. You've never seen anything like it."
And she was right. A beautiful beach, and water as far as the horizon.
"Nan, come in the water!" the children called me.
"Not on your life!"
I was scared.
"What if there are big fish in there? They might eat us."
"Come on!" They laughed at me and pulled me in.
"Wait a second. I want to see if it really is salty."
"Nan, you know it's salty!," they splashed me.
The account is unusual in Ilona's writing, as she nearly always writes in the third person. Although her stories are full of passion, humour and sometimes tragedy, there is usually a sense of personal detachment. By contrast, her description of her life in England is full of very personal detail. We return here to an extract a little further on in the account, at a time when the debate about asylum seekers in Britain had already grown into a hot political issue.
In our house the Roma all had windows on the right side looking out to the street, and beyond that there was a large park.
One day - it was Saturday morning - I hear something: loud cries coming from outside. I look out and across the street. On the lawn opposite there are two large groups of gorgers facing each other and arguing.
Of course I had no idea what they were yelling about; at the time I hardly spoke any English.
I looked around and saw that all the other Roma had joined me at the window and were looking out at what was going on. None of us had the faintest idea what was up. On the one side stood gorgers with their hair cropped short. Then there was a row of cops, and beyond them more gorgers, and some black people.
My brother went out of the door and shouted back to us,
"Hey, come on, let's go and find out what they're getting so worked up about."
We all went out and headed towards the group that seemed closer to us - by their skin colour I mean. As soon as this guy who seemed to be their spokesman saw us, he came straight up to us and shook hands with my brother and then all of us:
"Thanks for coming."
We didn't know what to shout, so we just clapped our hands to the rhythm. In about ten minutes it was all over. The cops said it was time to go, the skinheads upped and left. The cops followed them. And we stayed behind. At first we had had no idea what it was all about, but by then we realised we had been demonstrating for the rights of all the emigrants.
I'd got used to life in England. I'd begun to learn a bit of English and I was feeling good. But I was missing my mum and sister, who had stayed in the Czech Republic. For four years now, we'd been living apart.
As Ilona later told me, the decision to return to the Czech Republic was not easy, and it was something she would never have considered if she had been a few years younger:
"The older ones among us had real trouble picking up English. I just couldn't put a sentence together. The young ones found it quite natural. It only took a few weeks for them to start understanding and talking. But as for me - and my husband and the other older ones - we kept finding ourselves saying something quite different from what we wanted. The young ones could just blend in. It was quite natural for them. England gave them their self-confidence back. They felt like people again."
In the end it was Ilona's husband who persuaded her to go back, as she recalls in her account.
My husband got ill. The illness clung to him for ages and ages. He was hardly getting better at all. I was afraid that something would happen to him. The pills the doctor gave him weren't helping.
"We've got to go home, back to the Czech Republic," he told me, "I won't pull through here."
I did what he wanted. I cancelled our family's asylum request and applied to go home. I explained it all to them, that my husband was ill and that he was homesick. All the Roma tried to put me off, and make me stay. I was in two minds, but my husband's mind was made up.
The day came when we were to go home. I suddenly began to shake from head to toe. I wondered what would happen when we got home. What to expect. But I was looking forward to seeing Mum again, and to seeing my husband get better.
The return home was tough. In her account, Ilona writes of the frosty welcome they are given at the airport in Prague and how she seriously considered going straight back to England. But now she has been back in Rokycany for nearly four years. She did manage to see her elderly mother again before she died - and for this she has never regretted her decision to return. Her husband has since recovered and found work at a local factory, and they are settled again in their home town. With the Czech Republic now in the European Union, they are able to visit the members of the family who did stay in Britain quite regularly.
For the full text of Ilona Ferkova's account of her experiences in England, click here.
The text will be appearing in Romani and Czech in the next edition of the journal for Romany studies "Romano dzaniben", and extracts will be included in a forthcoming anthology of Romany writing: "Antologie romske prozaicke tvorby - Calo vodi".