Project aims to help young Roma maintain centuries-old traditions

There are frequent reports about the discrimination suffered by the Czech Republic's Roma minority: they have higher unemployment rates, leave school earlier and - in some parts of the country - they cannot walk down the street in safety. Now a new report says the country's Romanies are faced with a new threat: the loss of some aspects of their traditional culture. A European Union-funded project called "Czech Roma in the Europe of Nations" has held three meetings in north Moravia this week to draw attention to the fact that some young Romanies are losing touch with their people's traditional way of life.

Romany activists say young Romanies lack information about their traditions and almost 60% of them cannot speak the Romany language. Furthermore, most of them do not know the Romany anthem. They don't know much about the lives of their ancestors, partly because the written form of their language has been in existence for less then twenty years and there are no historical records.

In order to address this situation, a project called "Czech Roma in the Europe of Nations" has been holding discussions with Romany children themselves and representatives of the Roma community, from the Czech Republic as well as EU countries. One of the organisers, Brady Clough, a Czech-American, describes the goals of the project.

"The aim of the project is basically to show school students, younger generation of Czechs and Roma, what Roma culture is, how it has developed in Western Europe and to show essentially younger children who are still in the phase of forming their opinions on minorities and different cultures how Roma live in western Europe. What they have achieved, the fact that it is not only a question of social problems but there have been positive achievements - that is what we want to bring across here. That the Roma will value and see that they can achieve something and Czechs will understand that there are positive examples of Roma in society."

In the first part of the meeting a Czech Romany teacher explains the meaning of the words culture and nation, talks about traditions and shows the children the anthem and the flag, which pictures a wheel - the symbol of the nomadic lifestyle. In the second part of the discussion a Spanish Roma talks about his life in the EU. He stresses the importance of preserving Romany culture and tells young Romanies how they can - like him - return to their traditions. One reason those traditions have been dying out is that less than one tenth of the Roma population of Czechoslovakia survived the Holocaust. Mr.Clough explains more.

"After the Second World War, the population of original Czech Roma who lived in the Czech territories and had a traditional life of caravaning from town to town and practising different artistry work were albeit extinguished so there you have a sort of pause or break in maintaining these traditions. I think there is really sort of a dislocation between Czech Roma Culture and even Slovak Roma culture as well, because both are essentially Roma but in this situation, what is happening is that the Slovak Roma have been displaced in sense that they have come to look for work and the traditions are ruptured, the family unit is not maintained as well as it used to be say fifty years ago."

Children do not participate in the discussion as much as one might expect. The project has existed for two years and Mr.Clough believes that there has been some progress in the level of information about Romany culture, although the development is very slow. To mention a positive example - two teachers who work mainly with Romany students have learned traditional songs.