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African expats long for safe streets

Arriving regally on a gleaming silver motorbike, Ibrahim Maiga, Slovakia's most famous African expat, barely had time to dismount before he was surrounded by adoring young fans clamouring for an autograph. As the pop music star and actor moved through the crowd into a popular Bratislava restaurant, he was greeted cordially by the waiters, while passers-by flashed quick, shy smiles.
Maiga's very fame, while raising the profile of the black community in Slovakia, has at the same time largely shielded him from the racism faced by other Africans in this country. "Many people in Slovakia are racist, as people are everywhere, but I know that if I am out at night I have many more fans than people who would do me harm," he said while handing out photos of himself to restaurant patrons on June 20.


Angolan refugee Jorge Ventura, who arrived in Slovakia in 1994, found a job driving a truck but must still deal with prejudice every day.
photo: Vladimír Benko

Arriving regally on a gleaming silver motorbike, Ibrahim Maiga, Slovakia's most famous African expat, barely had time to dismount before he was surrounded by adoring young fans clamouring for an autograph. As the pop music star and actor moved through the crowd into a popular Bratislava restaurant, he was greeted cordially by the waiters, while passers-by flashed quick, shy smiles.

Maiga's very fame, while raising the profile of the black community in Slovakia, has at the same time largely shielded him from the racism faced by other Africans in this country. "Many people in Slovakia are racist, as people are everywhere, but I know that if I am out at night I have many more fans than people who would do me harm," he said while handing out photos of himself to restaurant patrons on June 20.

For most of the African community in Slovakia, however, racism is not an occasional nuisance but a constant struggle played out in almost every facet of life, from finding employment to being able to walk safely down the street

Sayon Camara, director and founder of Zebra, an association of Africans families formed to combat racial violence in Slovakia, says that the number of brutal attacks on the African community in Slovakia has reached an alarming level, leaving Africans frightened and desperate for answers. Sitting in his office at the Faculty of Management in Ružinov on a recent afternoon, Camara flipped through a folder of the 20 cases he has documented since January involving unprovoked assaults on Africans. Many more cases, he said, go unreported.

Camara is determined to effect change despite the degradation he says he faces everyday, including being spat upon by people a third of his age. In the past he has been attacked with a knife (he bears a scar on his thumb from this incident) and beaten in front of his office by three men while a group of 20 people stood by watching. "In Slovakia the life of a black man is worth less than the life of a dog," he said. "I don't think that 20 people would stand by and watch a dog get beaten without saying a word."

Having come to Czechoslovakia in the mid-80s as a student, Camara's story is typical of those told by other Africans in Slovakia. After completing his studies in Prague he faced the prospect of either going back to his native Guinea, where political strife promised to make his return difficult, or staying in a society that didn't accept his skin color. In 1989 he went home for seven months, but after having all his possesions stolen and not being able to find a job he returned to Czechoslovakia. Eventually he married a Slovak woman and started a familiy.

African students have a long tradition in Slovakia, starting during communism when Czechoslovakia offered them scholarships as part of a general aid programme to those parts of Africa in which the Soviet Union had influence. Most students returned to their native countries after completing their studies; those that stayed in their grim east bloc host country usually had little choice because of severe conditions at home. Camara estimates that about 500 Africans currently live in Slovakia, almost all of them former students.

The practice of giving scholarships to African students continues apace today in Slovakia despite racial attacks. According to the Ministry of Education, there are currently 25 undergraduate African students on stipendium studying in Slovakia, making up 22% of the total of number of government-supported foreign students. In doctoral programmes that number is 29, or 37% of those from abroad. Perhaps twice as many finance their own university studies in Slovakia.

Lazarus Kanhukamwe, vice-director of Solid Africa, an African student organisation based in Bratislava, said that most Africans who come to study in Slovakia are prepared for language difficulties and cold winters but are not told about how severely racial intolerance will limit their freedom of movement. "Most of us learn the truth when we get beat up for the first time," he said. Other African students, particularly those housed in the residence for married students in Bratislava's Mlýnska dolina university dormitory complex, added that their lives were largely lived indoors in Slovakia for fear of racial attacks.

Kanhukamwe confirmed that Solid Africa advises new students to move in groups, take taxies instead of using public transportation, and not to risk going out at night. Although he likes many things about Slovakia, Kanhukamwe is planning to return to his native Zimbabwe after he completes his architectural studies. "Not everyone is racist of course. There a lot of good people in Slovakia too. But as a black man I don't think I would be able to find a job here. Even as a student I haven't been able to get any practical working experience."

Neither the police nor Slovak government officials recognise racism as a major problem in Slovakia. According to Mária Čierna, spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the official attitude has its roots in the past. Racism was both fostered and kept out of sight by 40 years of communism, she said, and thus faces few barriers. "Citizens were isolated here for so many years that they are still not used to other nationalities. During communism, skinhead groups were also not as prominent because the regimes were much stronger."

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Africans in Slovakia is their optimistic, upbeat nature in the face of constant racial abuse, both physical and mental. "In Africa people are always friendly," explained Maiga. "So it is in our nature to be outgoing and not dwell on the negative."

Even when talking about the only time he was attacked, Maiga chuckled as he recounted a tale of being lured by racists posturing as fans. "I trusted them, got too close and then it was too late. I got kicked and beaten a little," he said. "But I was able to get up and run away."

At school, educators say African students are a pleasure to have in the classroom. Jarmila Kontláriková, director of ÚJOP, a school designed to teach foreign students Slovak before they apply to university, says that Africans are among the most dedicated and gregarious students she has. "African students are fast learners and always the first ones to share their culture and participate in collective events," she said.

Given this collective tendency, perhaps one of the most tragic consequences of racism in Slovakia is that it has prevented Africans from taking solace in their own company. "Right now the African community in Bratislava is not close," said Camara. "In order to develop relationships people need to be able to move freely to visit each other, and not be afraid to cross town with their families on a Sunday afternoon."

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