JANETTA Slepčíková, a cultural employee of the city office in Košice, leads a small Roma group called Hviezdička (Little Star). With her husband and children she lives in a flat at Luník IX, a neighbourhood with the highest concentration of Roma inhabitants in all of Slovakia. Just before her graduation from secondary school for arts her parents decided to leave the country along with the whole family; they returned 13 years later. Janetta, now trying to catch up on what she missed in her education, tells her life story.
You moved to Luník IX when you were just one year old. Why did your parents decide to move there?
Janetta Slepčíková: My father arranged to swap flats. Before then we lived in the city centre.
And why did your parents swap flats?
vJS: Because my father wanted to live close to his mother. His mother – my grandmother – lived here and they wanted everyone living together. He’s sorry now that he made such a mistake.
Tell us something about your childhood…
JS: I completed all my schooling in Luník IX. In my second year I attended a puppeteer circle with Mrs. Pastorová. I travelled a lot with her to different festivals. As a 14-year-old I attended a secondary school for the arts. In my fourth year, right before graduating, I had to leave school because my parents went abroad and they took me along.
How many children were in your family?
JS: There are six of us - three boys and three girls - and I’m the third oldest.
Were you encouraged to go to school?
JS: We were, but as I said, my father wanted to go abroad. When all of those Roma left for abroad, my parents also decided to go. My father is now pressuring me to complete school.
And what did your parents do during their lives?
JS: They’ve worked their entire lives. Mama worked and still works. She’s changed jobs a number of times. She worked for the longest time in a housing enterprise and still works there now. She’s worked for some 30 years now. My father worked in a housing enterprise, later on the rail-repair crew. And now he works at the reception desk in the city office.
So you wanted to become an actress?
JS: Yes. And now when I’m going to school, it’s hard to study because this is in fact a long time to go back to studying. After 13 years. This is difficult for me; I’m not good at remembering a lot of things.
And how did you imagine your future life, your husband?
JS: I’m able to say that my husband is more reliable than 99 out of 100. I can turn to him at any time. We’re a good fit. We understand each other in everything. I imagined that when I’m older, I’ll have a family and I’ll keep close watch over my children, so that my children would have their own place in the future.
When did you meet your husband?
JS: I met my husband when I was 18 years old. I got married at age 20.
Did you choose your husband yourself or did your parents have a say in this?
JS: No, my parents didn’t advise me at all. I chose myself.
You’ve lived here for 29 years. Are you able to compare then and now?
JS: I’ve never really thought about this, because I was so young then. I didn’t even go outside.
So how did you spend your free time and do your children have such chances to spend their free time?
JS: If we want our children to become something, then they can’t go out around here. I don’t want to offend anyone, but in fact our children learn nothing from these lesser-adapted Roma. When we were children our parents told us not to rub shoulders with, not to play with such people who destroy things or do drugs or smoke.
As a child, I didn’t go outside among these people and so I’m telling my own children the same thing. That I’m not letting them go outside unsupervised so that they don’t wander around Luník IX by themselves. Because it’s dangerous here. There used to be decent Roma people here but now they’ve all gone abroad.
Does this actually hurt the Roma, that the best of them have left?
JS: Yes, because now Roma from other places have moved here. I say that those who left, whom I knew, who lived with us, they left for a better life… We as a family once left, too, but we returned. Because my father likes Slovakia, he likes to work and so we remained here.
When you left to go abroad, where did you go?
JS: To Germany.
How long were you there?
JS: Six months and then I returned.
What did you do there during those six months?
JS: We were waiting for them to give us asylum. I was with my husband requesting asylum. We’ve not been home that long, only about five years. We tried hard in different places, but we weren’t successful.
And where did you try to get asylum?
JS: The first time I was with my husband in Sweden, and then we went to Norway where Števko was born. We were there about a year and we requested asylum. It might have worked out there, but my father didn’t want us to stay there. So we came back. Later we went to Belgium. Things were better there. The children went to school. Then after two years, we were refused. My husband said to me, “Should we appeal or not?” and I said, “Let’s go home.” So we went. Later we went to Denmark. We stayed with my husband’s sister. We waited while our residency was arranged but they didn’t give it to us. So we returned home and we’re here still. I wouldn’t go anywhere now. I prefer being here. We suffered a lot abroad, so we prefer being home. As long as we have employment, we’re not preparing to go anywhere and we wouldn’t go anyway anymore.
Can you imagine yourself running for city council or mayor here from Luník IX, where you live?
JS: I’ll tell you something. I’m going to run for mayor. Because nothing is happening; nothing is getting done. The mayor doesn’t do anything; he doesn’t get involved in anything. And he’s not battling as he should.
Have you ever tried as a family with children to move out of Luník IX?
JS: My husband and I haven’t yet. We’d like to have a family house. In the meantime, we are fine.
Do you have heat and water?
What do you mean things are fine? You live in Luník IX without water…
JS: We’re used to it.
And how do you get heat?
JS: We didn’t have any heat the whole winter.
Do you feel it’s an injustice that you are in the same boat with those who are actually damaging you?
JS: Imagine this: they didn’t want to give me a rental contract because I didn’t have a debt of 15,000 crowns paid. Then I paid and everything was fine. And then they don’t ask for anything from these people who have 500 or 600 thousand crown due. And they ask for money from me because I work.
Do you have the feeling that you as people who are employed and live in Luník IX and pay for all these things are actually handicapped?
JS: Of course. Nevertheless, my children and I don’t get any benefit from the state, those 500 crowns that others receive from the state because we are not impoverished. And similarly, no benefit for housing. Others get one, however.
Not even for meals, because your children attend a non-Roma school?
JS: That’s right. Not even for meals. Similarly, I pay the school fees. I’m not complaining about this. I’m glad that they go to school there. But these others have a great advantage. They have more from this. And they spend more from this. But I don’t even know what they spend it on. Because the state pays their rent. And when the state requests a thousand crowns arrears, then they say, I’m not giving anything because I don’t have the money. So they live for free in their flat.
What kind of future do you imagine for your children?
JS: I want them to live better. To be doctors or lawyers. This means secondary school, university. We bought a violin for my son because we would like him to become a musician. We make demands of him. When I cook, he plays for me. And sometimes this even gets on my nerves.
When you live in Luník IX, and it’s fair to say that you constantly have problems with water, gas, electricity… how do these problems impact your relationship with your husband?
JS: This is difficult. It causes me stress because he says to me “One day you’ll leave your head behind”. Sometimes when we sit in the car, I say “Good Lord, did I leave all the taps running?” I don’t even know whether the water is running. So I have to go back to the flat and check. And when I’m already down, I have to return to see whether I forgot to turn off the gas so that there’s no explosion. Because you are not safe here.
Even when I sleep at night, I think about the fact that they are drinking upstairs and drinking downstairs. And I say that they’ll forget to turn something off and we’ll have an explosion. And we’ll die for no reason; because of their neglect.
So it’s actually as if it helps keep you together?
JS: Because we can focus on something else. Now this is a burden on us. Some Roma had running water, but this was dirty.
Your children attend a non-Roma school; how do the non-Roma pupils and teachers accept them?
JS: From the beginning this was difficult. My daughter came home and always said that they scold her about gypsies.
I said to her, “You have to come to terms with this. You are a Roma girl and always will be.”
So you feel that they were aware of her identity in early childhood?
JS: It’s not necessary to immediately be offended that someone calls you a gypsy. I know what I am and I’m not ashamed of it. This is what I told my children. I always tell them that they should study and show people that they, too, are knowledgeable. And when they show that they know something, then the others will adapt more to them. And this is the truth because she says to me that she has also friends who are non-Roma.
When you go somewhere and people ask where you are from, how do they respond when you say you’re from Luník IX?
JS: Sometimes I’m ashamed to tell them. But I do tell them. For example, when we were in the bank and requested a loan. They asked for my citizens ID card and I said, “Good Lord, they won‘t give us the loan.” But they did give it to us. But these instalment loan companies, they don’t give out loans. Perhaps a lot of Roma from here got loans and don’t pay them back.
And where do you have the biggest problems when you say you’re from Luník IX?
JS: At the doctors. At the emergency room. They humiliate or tease us. Like, for example, when something happened somewhere relating to the Roma they always ask me if I know anything about this, but I don’t know anything. But I’m glad that they at least receive us there. And as long as I’ve not been examined, I don’t open my mouth; but when they finally examine me, I speak up and say “not all of us are like this.“
What should members of the European Parliament know about Luník IX?
JS: What don’t they know?
Perhaps they don’t know that some people living here have beautifully furnished flats …
JS: Maybe they don’t know. They should focus more on those people who live truly normal lives here and not throw us all into one basket.
Who in your opinion is to blame for the fact that Luník IX is presented this way in the public?
JS: I think it’s the city’s fault, because the city wanted to remove the Roma from the centre. They sent them all here and thus cleansed the city of Roma. Some of the Roma here are also from the surroundings. They didn’t know what a bathtub was, so they removed it; the radiators, too, because it was summertime, and now in winter they’re freezing. And when they gave them windows, they broke them because they didn’t think they needed them. And afterwards they complain that the mayor didn’t have the windows repaired.
So the Roma are also to blame?
JS: Yes, they are. When they announce, pay at least one thousand crowns because they’ll turn the heat off, no one pays. They say in Romani, “I’m not paying, certainly they’re just saying this out of spite.” But in the end, they turned off everything.
Do you differentiate the Roma, that all Roma are not alike?
JS: Yes. An individual Rom is not like all the Roma. There are a lot of people here who are really trying hard.
Interviews with Roma women are part of a project by the Roma Press Agency and will be published in a forthcoming book.