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Obrnice’s Second Chance

A Czech village comes slowly back to life by integrating its Roma and emphasizing education.

by Lucie Kavanova 31 March 2014

OBRNICE, Czech Republic | A winter chill hangs over the volcano-shaped hills of the Ceske Stredohori (Czech Central Mountains) about 90 kilometers (56 miles) north of Prague. Among the sharp peaks lies Obrnice, once a high-unemployment, low-aspiration village that many had written off.

 

With Roma making up 40 percent of the town’s population, many people without jobs, and racial tension running high, Obrnice had all the marks of a future ghetto a few years ago.

 

That was about the time Drahomira Miklosova was working her way up the town’s political ladder. When Miklosova moved to Obrnice in 2001 to be with her partner, her first thought was to move back out.

 

“There was such a depressing atmosphere in Obrnice that I was convinced I couldn‘t live here,” she said. But then her partner threw down a challenge. Anyone can run away, he told her. Why don’t they stay and try to change things?

 

Drahomira Miklosova has guided Obrnice from dying village to a model-town award.

 

Nine years later, Miklosova, now 61, became mayor. These days when Obrnice gets mentioned, the word “turnaround” usually follows. Miklosova has hustled for outside funding and homed in on the need to make the town’s Roma a functioning part of the community. She has given them jobs and imposed stricter controls on public housing. Most crucially, she has gotten their children into the town’s schools and made sure they stay there.

 

For her efforts, Obrnice received the Dosta! (Enough) model town award from human rights watchdog the Council of Europe last fall.

 

STEMMING THE DECLINE

 

When Miklosova moved into Obrnice more than a decade ago, she found derelict houses, no cultural center, and drunks in the streets, day or night. There was no town square, just a busy road.

 

Obrnice had experienced rapid growth in the 1970s, with the opening of chemical factories and an important railway hub. But after the political changes of 1989, most of its government-owned businesses went bankrupt. Many people left town, looking for jobs elsewhere.

 

At the same time, Czech towns were effectively evicting Roma by raising rents or terminating their leases in public housing. Many Roma came to Obrnice to live in the flats left behind after the exodus of the “whites.”

 

Within a few years, the number of Roma in Obrnice grew from dozens to 1,000. While the overall population remained steady at around 2,500 people, the town’s composition was radically altered.

 

In 2006 Miklosova and her partner were two of three candidates from the center-right Civic Democratic Party to win seats on the town’s 15-member council. They formed a coalition with a party of local businessmen, and Miklosova became deputy mayor, moving into the top spot in 2010.  

 

Miklosova holds only a high school degree, but she had managerial experience in private and public companies. She started her tenure with a broad audit and new strategic plans for the town.

 

One of the first challenges was to stabilize Obrnice’s housing situation. In many Czech towns, private investors buy cheap flats and rent them at inflated prices to tenants who are poor or have limited prospects. That often means Roma, who have problems finding accommodation due to discrimination. It’s a secure income stream for property owners, as government housing subsidies for tenants can be sent directly to landlords.

 

In some places, these entrepreneurs buy whole blocks of flats and create new ghettos. That was where Obrnice was headed 10 years ago.

 

To reduce such speculators’ grip, Miklosova convinced the Czech finance and social affairs ministries to donate three empty blocks of flats to the town. Now local officials operate the complexes, controlling who gets in and under what conditions.

 

Initially, new tenants get short-term leases, then go on a month-to-month arrangement. When they cannot pay, a social worker from Obrnice’s newly created social services center helps them examine the causes of their debts and create a payment calendar. If that doesn’t work, the tenants have to leave. Many cobble together the funds from a combination of welfare payments.

 

Then Miklosova turned her attention to the related problems of education and unemployment, especially among the town’s Roma, most of whom had only a primary-school education.

 

Obrnice hired two out-of-work Roma to help patrol the streets, calling the police when they spotted a problem. Then 80 Roma and Czechs were hired to clean the town or work on municipal construction sites.

 

At the same time, the town’s kindergartens dropped monthly tuition fees of 250 crowns and opened their doors free of charge to the children of Obrnice. Since then, enrollment has risen by about one-third, to 75, although Miklosova acknowledged that could be because of a recent rise in the birth rate. 

 

The free kindergarten costs the town an additional 800,000 to 900,000 crowns ($40,000 to $45,000) per year from a budget of 30 million crowns, Miklosova said, “but in the long term it’s well worth it if we have fewer unemployed.”

 

Like her friends, Andrea Malkosova, second from right, says Obrnice suits her. She has no plans to move away.

 

For older students, the mayor enlisted the principal of the local elementary school to help keep Roma children there rather than sending them to special-needs schools outside town. Many Romani children in the Czech Republic end up at such schools – mainly as a result of official bias, but sometimes with the consent of parents who reason that their children will face less discrimination there, surrounding by other Roma. But graduates of these schools rarely continue to high school. 

 

Miklosova got funding from the ministries of education and social affairs and the regional government to hire a Romani teaching assistant for the local elementary school and to pay teachers to do extra tutoring before and after school. Children can also seek help after school at the new social services center, for example with preparing for high school entrance exams.

 

To keep the students motivated, officials from the local office of the Czech employment agency come to the school regularly to emphasize the correlation between education and a decent salary, and to help the students figure out what professions will suit them, vice principal Vladimira Strolena said.

 

The school also organizes trips to local high schools, and invites them to present their programs to pupils at the elementary school.

 

In this way, Obrnice has managed to do something nearly unthinkable until recently in the Czech Republic: all of its roughly 300 elementary students a year go on to high school, including 120 Roma.

 

There are no official statistics, but social workers estimate that only about 15 percent of Czech Roma continue to high school and only about 1 percent go on to college.

 

Hana, a 15-year-old Romani girl who attends high school in the nearby, larger town of Most, wants to be among those who continue into higher education.

 

The daughter of an auto mechanic and a mother who works off and on, Hana dreams of being a psychologist, “to understand how humans think.” She spent a lot of time with her teachers in Obrnice after classes and used online tests to prepare for the high school entrance exams. On a mid-February day she was back at her hometown’s social service center for some physics tutoring.

 

“The laws of kinetics are giving me trouble,” she said, laughing.

 

Of the 16 pupils in Hana’s elementary school class, six of them Roma, all went to high school. She said some of her Roma classmates are studying auto mechanics, while others are preparing to study law.

 

The fact that Obrnice’s Romani children stay in mainstream schools affects more than just those students’ prospects, Miklosova notes.

 

“The non-Romani kids don’t grow up isolated from them – and thus Roma are not some anonymous mass of parasites for them, but people they personally know.”

 

FOR WHITES ONLY 

 

That much is obvious in Obrnice, where ethnically mixed groups of youngsters stroll down the street, walk dogs, hang around the local fast food restaurant, or just sit on benches.

 

Not that things are ideal here. Every fourth resident is still jobless, more than triple the national unemployment rate of 7 percent. Most houses could use a new coat of paint or shoring up, and many are marred by graffiti or broken windows.

 

And some locals remain unhappy with their dark-skinned neighbors. The tiny, smoky pub U Chuana (Juan’s Place) does not let Roma in.

 

“There are simply too many gypsies in Obrnice, and many of my customers need a place where they can forget about them,” said Pavel Zakostelsky, the pub’s 69-year old owner – and a member of the city council.

 

Zakostelsky got around anti-discrimination laws by registering his business as the club room of his chess group.

 

But there are also several renovated blocks of flats (apart from the social housing projects); a freshly painted school, kindergarten, and town hall; and a new cultural center with activities almost every day. On its tiny budget, Obrnice has managed to pay for it all with 200 million crowns’ worth of grants from the national government and the EU in the past eight years.

 

“That is absolutely unique for a town this size – a city 10 times bigger could envy them,” said Veronika Kamenicka, a social worker from the national Agency for Social Inclusion.

 

In the end, it won’t be the elderly residents like Zakostelsky and his customers who determine the success of Miklosova’s project, but the young. Some complain about the village being too small or boring, but most interviewed for this story said they want to stay.

 

“It’s quiet here. I can live here more cheaply than in Most, and there are a lot of trains and buses so I can commute to work, so why leave?” said 14-year-old Andrea Malkosova, chatting with a mix of ethnic Czech and Romani teenagers near the river.

 

ONE WOMAN, ONE TOWN 

 

Many Czech municipalities are trying to integrate the Roma, but Miklosova is Obrnice’s secret weapon.

 

“She works extraordinarily long hours, solves problems in all their complexity – and manages to get a lot of support from the city council,” Kamenicka said. “And, most importantly, she also personally treats Roma with respect.”

 

Every Sunday afternoon finds Miklosova at rehearsals for a multiethnic dance group that she founded in 2012 to perform at local festivities.

 

After rehearsals, all the Hawaiian-skirted women sit down for a glass of wine and – in what should be ordinary but in this region is anything but – the Czechs and Roma talk freely with each other.

 

Ilona, a 42-year-old Romani woman, said the group was “my first chance to really meet the local Czech women. Before we lived here in two parallel societies. But [Miklosova] started organizing clubs like this, various balls and parties where the locals meet, and the atmosphere improved dramatically.”

 

The question of what will happen when the grants run out hangs over the town. That is why Miklosova said she has tried to invest the funds “into things that will last – education, renovated houses, and streets are all things from which we can profit even if the grants dry up.”

Photos and story by Lucie Kavanova, a journalist with Respekt magazine in Prague.

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