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A FIRST-HAND ACCOUNT OF BRITISH JOURNALISTS VISITING A ROMA SETTLEMENT

An interpreter's tale about Roma migration

WE left the luxury hotel in Košice early Saturday morning and headed north in a rented Opel towards a well-known Roma settlement. The reporter (I'll call him Tim) sat in the backseat, reviewing his questions, and I sat in the front seat with a map spread out on my lap, giving the photographer/driver directions.
"We'll ask the regular things," Tim told me. "Are they going to Britain when Slovakia joins the EU in May? Alone or with relatives? How many of them?"

WE left the luxury hotel in Košice early Saturday morning and headed north in a rented Opel towards a well-known Roma settlement. The reporter (I'll call him Tim) sat in the backseat, reviewing his questions, and I sat in the front seat with a map spread out on my lap, giving the photographer/driver directions.

"We'll ask the regular things," Tim told me. "Are they going to Britain when Slovakia joins the EU in May? Alone or with relatives? How many of them?"

It was my third time translating for British journalists on assignment in Slovakia. Like the others, Tim had been sent by a London-based tabloid.

The tabloids had for weeks been writing about "hordes" of Roma set to hit Britain like a "tidal wave". The Roma would "swamp" the British social benefits system and cause who-knows-what-else damage to the country.

The demonstrations and riots by Roma last week against benefit cuts here in Slovakia had given fresh momentum to the story.

"Are more Roma going to Britain now that social benefits here are lower?" Tim asked. "And don't forget to get the total number who plan to leave the settlement."

We turned off the main road, passed a village, turned onto a dirt path, and parked by a grimy three-story apartment complex.

As we approached on foot, dozens of small children poured out of the building and swarmed at our feet, tumbling and smiling, hoping to have their pictures taken. A young man with a bowl haircut and wide grin introduced himself. (I'll call him Jožo.)

"Are you moving to England when Slovakia joins the EU?" I said.

Jožo gave me a blank look.

"England?" he said, finally.

"England," I said.

"How do you get there?"

"Uh..." I wasn't sure I heard him right. So I started from the beginning.

"I wouldn't know how to get to England," Jožo said.

"You could take a train," I said.

He smiled hazily and shook his head. "I don't know anything about taking trains."

I didn't know what to say, so Jožo and I just stood there staring at each other.

Tim nudged me.

"What's he saying?" he said. He had his pen and pad out.

"Umm... He's not sure how he'd get to England," I said.

As we talked, Jožo led us around the apartment complex, on a dirt path, towards a dozen or so huts made out of logs. The children circled our feet continuously like so many fame-hungry sharks.

"Tell Jožo the average British wage is 120,000 crowns," Tim said. "Maybe that will change his opinion about moving."

I told him.

Jožo stopped walking. "Let me get this straight," he said, getting ready to count on his fingers. "You'll give me 120,000 for three-month's work in England?"

"No," Tim said. "You'll get 120,000 for one month."

Jožo scratched his head. "Can I come back when I'm done?" he said, finally.

"Of course you can," Tim said.

"Can you give me a ride back?"

Tim started to explain that the British labour market didn't work that way, that employers didn't provide transportation for foreign workers, that foreigners had to get to England on their own, and go home on their own, and that...

"That's not what he's asking," I said. "He wants to know if YOU will give him a ride."

Tim tried not to laugh, but failed miserably. Then I laughed. Then Jožo laughed. Then the swarming kids laughed.

After we had circled the huts, Jožo brought us back to the apartment complex and inside, to his family's apartment. A big, grinning woman in a blue apron welcomed us. She was Jožo's aunt. (I'll call her Ružena.) About 10 other people lived in the apartment's two rooms. Half of them were asleep. It was early.

"These are journalists," Jožo said. "They want to know if we'd like to move to..." he looked at me.

"England," I said.

"Is it better than here?" Ružena said. "I don't wanna go if it's not better than here."

"Let's say it's better," Tim said.

"Okay," Ružena said. "I'll go." Tim scribbled in his notebook.

"Tell them social benefits for a family this size are Sk60,000," Tim said.

Ružena waved her hand. "We don't need that much," she said. "Just give us 30,000."

"Don't forget that prices are higher in England," Tim said.

Ružena waved her hand again. "Prices don't matter," she said. "We know how to make money go a long way."

Tim scribbled in his pad. The children giggled at us. Someone offered us coffee.

"We can come back when we're done, right?" Jožo said.

"Of course you can!" Tim said.

"I have to sign for my benefits on Wednesdays."

"You won't need Slovak benefits," Tim said. "You'll be paid in Britain... or you'll receive British benefits."

Jožo gave us a crooked smile - he didn't quite believe it.

"Wait a second, Jožo," Ružena said. "If this England place is so good, why don't we stay there?"

The idea moved around Jožo's brain.

"Good lord!" Tim said. "I'm single-handedly causing a mass migration to Britain."

The photographer laughed. Tim laughed. Everyone in the room laughed.

After that, the photographer took some pictures, and Tim passed around his notebook and asked everybody to write their names.

"Tell them thank you," Tim said.

"No, Thank YOU," Ružena said. She smiled radiantly, "thank you so much for telling us about this England place."

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