Racism is a problem of adults

Ingrid Lukáčová comes from Prešov and currently lives in Košice where she works as the director’s representative at a secondary school for the arts.

Ingrid LukáčováIngrid Lukáčová (Source: Courtesy of Mecem)

Ingrid Lukáčová comes from Prešov and currently lives in Košice where she works as the director’s representative at a secondary school for the arts.

What did your parents encourage you to do?
IL: Mostly to get an education. They always encouraged us in this direction. I remember how we sat together as a whole family and my mother and father would talk about who would do what. My sister should be a doctor or lawyer, because she was the smartest. She could read at the age of 5 and eventually could even handle the Cyrillic alphabet. Because I was older and was studying Russian, she learned along with me. I was expected from the start to become a teacher. My father wanted my brother to be a musician.

Why do you think you mother allowed you and your sister to study?
IL: I always say that my mother has a natural intelligence even though she wasn’t educated. She lived her entire life like modern people do. But she’s never forgotten that she is a Roma woman and lives a traditional Roma life; she keeps up traditions. Her entire life she actually worked and did so among non-Roma. She made sure that we went to preschool and to school. She learned this from her own home, because her brother also went to university, so she knew that education is the only way to change your life.

During your studies, whether at primary school, secondary school or at university were you sometimes made to feel that you are different, that you are a Roma?
IL: It can be said that perhaps I’ve been lucky in life. I’ve never had such problems. These things have happened to me, but not from schoolmates. Also, at secondary school I had no problems because I was among the best students. Again, I was the only Roma girl in the entire secondary school, and in the end I was class chairperson. My class teacher was surprised the first year that 36 students voted me as the class chairperson.

So in your opinion it’s important that a Roma mother is the one who runs the family and guarantees the education of her children?
IL: I think that the mother is the most important person. This was confirmed for me because even though I have a very educated father and I’m very grateful to him, if my mother were any different than she is, I would have never got to where I have. And that’s why I say that a Roma mother should be the foundation. We know how it is with the Roma: a man, while there was work, left the home in the morning to go and work and came home to eat and that was all. He brought home the money. And, unfortunately, Roma communities function such that the father doesn’t take care of anything.

Where is your husband from?
IL: My husband is from Michalovce. He’s a Rom, even though he doesn’t speak the language and doesn’t look like a Rom. It was a great love, because we met when we were 18 years old. But my mother immediately told him that I was going to study and simply that if he wanted me, he had to wait. So he waited, even though we didn’t even meet in the meantime. I was at university and afterwards, in June, I had a state exam and in August I got married. We later we got divorced.

IL: I was 23 years old when I got married. Within a year I gave birth to a daughter. We lived in my mother-in-law’s house. I had different opinions about life from my in-laws and so we simply didn’t get along well. And then something happened and my husband lost his job in Michalovce and we decided that we’d return to Prešov or go to Košice where there are better opportunities. So I taught at school even though I was on maternity leave and we looked for work here in Košice. For my husband this change was inconceivable. So I left. I no longer wanted to take a step backwards. I could have gone back to my mother-in-law’s house. I knew that I’d be at home, cooking, cleaning and perhaps I’d go teach non-Roma children somewhere in a village. And then everything else I had committed to would go down the drain. This was a difficult decision: career or family. I say that the Roma-ness in me triumphed.

Certainly this was not an easy time for you, but life changed for you and you are again with your husband. How is this today?
IL: I’m not sorry that I was alone for those seven years. Those years taught me to be tough, to go after my goals. And actually to pass through those difficult moments and show myself that I can handle it without some man around. But on the other hand, I have to say that we are again together. We live in a household together even though we are no longer legally married. But this is a little different in that we are a complete family. This is very important mainly among the Roma because what I say now, perhaps this will be laughable, but it’s been confirmed to me: If you don’t have a husband, you don’t have the truth. Many times, and not only among the Roma, but also the non-Roma. This means that you’re a bad woman, an easy woman or a trollop.

Does this mean that when a woman is without a husband that she loses value?
IL: Certainly. Among both the Roma and the non-Roma. It takes a very strong woman to prove that she is not this way. I’m speaking from experience.

The majority of Roma women who achieve success or have university degrees and are building their own careers, select a non-Roma partner. You selected a Rom. Did you think at all about his being a Rom or a non-Rom?
IL: I never thought about this, no. We met with non-Roma and were friends with them; our neighbours visited us at home. But we had something different within ourselves; today this is in fact a more extreme situation, and it isn’t good.
I had a lot of opportunities, mainly at university. It didn’t matter to me whether it was a Rom or a non-Rom. But there was always some barrier in me that said no. This couldn’t be. We could be friends, understand one another like a brother or sister, but never anything closer.
And again on the other hand I understand women who marry non-Roma because I studied at a university where there were Roma university students. But I wouldn’t see it as women not wanting Roma men; I see it as Roma boys, my fellow students, not one of them wanted a Roma girl. It can be said that the fact that they had an education meant that they though that if they marry a non-Roma girl they would themselves no longer be Roma. I still feel this way. Very few of these boys who completed university married Roma girls, and when they have, they married Roma girls who had an education, because there were such couples who have nothing in common with the Roma.
Roma men are afraid of wise women and don’t want intelligent women. They want women who will do what they tell them to do. Or then there are those who want non-Roma women in order to be around non-Roma. In regards to our family, there are also some mixed marriages.

What do you most encourage your daughter to do? How are you attempting to raise her?
IL: To get an education. The Roma are spoken about at home, so she knows that she is a Roma girl. We speak in the Romani language. It is mainly from me that she has a feeling for the Roma. And I think that I’ve succeeded in this. Because she’s grown up in a non-Roma environment and hasn’t lived with the Roma. She doesn’t really know their mentality aside from family. I’m trying to instil a lot of things in her, but naturally. She commonly goes with me to shows, weddings, christenings; she knows how to dance like a Roma. Simply put, she has this joy within her.

Do you think that Roma-ness, as it is, enriches people?
IL:Yes, for me certainly. We do not deny our own identity like those who wanted and have non-Roma husbands and wives. I also have friends from mixed marriages, even though they live differently. I can’t imagine being ashamed of who we are. So we don’t deny this identity, and I try to raise my daughter and eventually change also my own husband, even though this sometimes seems impossible. My husband, even though he grew up in such a family, now says that he’s sorry that he doesn’t know the Romani language. He puts on Roma music more often than I do now. I say this is because his family and parents denied their own identity. It’s interesting, though, that when there are weddings or christening, they sing in Romani and dance to Roma music. So that I say that this is renouncing and denying themselves. Because then it is shown that they are Roma. I think that this is important, and it’s a pity if educated Roma renounce their identity. But it takes all kinds of people.

We talked about Roma traditions. Which are the most important that stick in your memory? Are there actually any Roma traditions?
IL: Certainly there are. I teach them to my daughter and my husband, because he doesn’t know them. Christmas, for example. Usually we had Roma food for dinner. There has to be a bit of gója (a type of sausage), a bit of pašváre (smoked pork ribs). Not a lot, but enough so that among these foods we have our Roma traditions. We most like this; we want more than some cutlet, salad, fish and these things. After, for example, the birth of a child – a sacred picture, a ribbon, a cross, avoiding the eyes. This is something I do regularly. Then in mama’s family Roma engagements, the mangavipen (the engagement ceremony)… My cousins, when they had Roma engagements, had their hands tied together with a scarf. This is done and I always feel that this is proper… I always liked this very much.

Was love expressed in your family?
IL: This is a problem with the Roma. In our family this was not a problem when we were still together. But after my parents divorced, mama was always busy. Even though I don’t say so, she always knew how to praise us. But this was not always so. Perhaps this was because we were older… she no longer caressed us as she did when we were babies. It’s safe to say that of all of mama’s siblings—and she was one of nine children—that she was the most capable of expressing love.

It is said of the Roma that they are actually loving parents and that they are family-based, but is this actually true when we, as Roma, open this community around us such that this love is not very well expressed in these families?
IL: I say that it is hidden. Because I know that these parents certainly love their children. But they are unable to express this love. They have it encoded somehow. I, for example, am not this type.

Were they perhaps conditioned to believe that children must begin early on to take care of themselves - and so parents unconsciously prepared their children for a difficult life?
IL: Perhaps yes. When I think back, the majority of Roma spoil small children. From age one to three. And then it just stops. They no longer caress their children, they no longer express love.

We’re talking about language and education. Do Roma children require something in school that non-Roma children don‘t? I’m thinking about primary school.
IL: I studied education for grades one to four. I taught for seven years in a compensatory class, where there were Roma children and I say that this is different. It depends on the kind of community the child is from, but I always say that Roma children are different in the head from non-Roma children in that they come to a completely foreign environment which they are afraid of. They don’t understand the language of the majority and they don’t have the communication skills and have a very weak vocabulary. They understand well in the Romani language, which is their mother tongue, but some don’t even understand well in Romani. So in this way they are different. Roma children at primary schools mainly need someone who understands Romani and is a Rom and whom they can trust.

Is this a language barrier, then?
IL: Yes, but it’s also cultural. Children don’t go to preschool, so they don’t know the environment of the majority at all. They come to a completely different environment than they were taught at home. They don’t trust that environment, and they don’t understand what is requested of them.
Unfortunately, not all teachers are teachers in the proper sense of the word and a lot of my colleagues didn’t allow the children to develop further. They sat them on the last bench and they were then excluded from everything. So this is a problem and a big problem at primary schools. When, for example, I stood in for a colleague, my compensatory class was divided and I went to substitute for another teacher. Only I wanted to have my kids in the classroom, because they otherwise wouldn’t come to school. So it happened that the non-Roma children didn’t want to sit with the Roma children and cried. I filled in for an entire month. I taught them to work together so much that they played together, spoke together. The non-Roma children saw that I am a Roma woman and that I speak Romani. The relationship was totally different. All children are the same; they don’t have problems getting along. Racism is a problem of adults. Those children for that one month were able to work together. My colleagues were beside themselves: You’ve got 40 children in the class and you don’t have any problems!

How should an ideal education system for grades 1 to 4 for Roma children look?
IL: At least until four o’clock in the afternoon, with a good teacher who will have some feeling for and knowledge about the Roma, obviously a teaching assistant would be very good, if the teacher is not a Rom. The process should be all day long because the children need to be very involved in this school. They should obviously have good food, all the tools they need and be in school as long as possible. So that they can prepare and do their work.

What about those parents who want their children in a special school or in a special class, only because it is more advantageous to him or her?
IL: First of all, don’t allow it. Because parents do this, it can be said, from a certain calculation or to make things easier. There is a special school right here in the settlement or in the village, so why should I bother taking a child to a school or to the bus in the morning to go to a regular school when there is a school here in the village? We were all sent there and my child will be just fine there. And how is it possible to prevent this? I think that there should be psychological examinations at special schools, because certainly half the kids in them, I would say, don’t belong there at all.

Can it be said that with such indifference from the state towards special education and the number of Roma in such schools that the state actually preserves the problem in the so-called Roma community for the future?
IL: Yes, certainly. This is a theme which has been spoken about for a long time and nothing has been done. And as I said, still more money goes to special schools and the better prosper. I’m not saying that it’s now time to abolish special schools because there are certainly children, both Roma and non-Roma, who belong in them. But thus far no steps are being taken to prevent healthy children from going to them.

Wouldn’t it help if the Roma had their own political scene?
IL: Certainly. And I hope that this will happen and that we’ll have a good political party because without one nothing will happen. We ourselves feel this as a great need. The so-called Roma intelligentsia can have 100 university graduates, but without any political will nothing will change.

The problem is also perhaps in the fact that many of these people who formally act for the Roma and represent the Roma did not actually grow up in a Roma environment, don’t speak the Romani language, don’t know Roma history, don’t know Roma culture and don’t really have any feelings for the Roma. But the fact that they are a little bit darker means that this is qualification enough for them to be perceived as representative of the Roma community…
IL: That’s it. How many Roma live in Bratislava? Or what kind of Roma? They are either money-changing olas Roma or musicians who don’t want anything to do with the Roma. And then there is such a group who are so-called big shot Roma who don’t know the Romani language, as you said. They don’t know who they are, but they see something different behind this. Money. This should be said openly. They have no feeling for the Roma but they are in Bratislava, where everything gets done. And people who are Roma, speak the language and have this feeling for the Roma never get the positions they deserve. Or it’s not suitable for them because of the great distance and they would have to leave their family and everyone behind. So perhaps the fault lies in the fact that the largest concentration of Roma is in eastern Slovakia. And why is everything based in Bratislava?

So the office of the government plenipotentiary should be here?
IL:Well, of course. The office of the plenipotentiary, the officials, the so-called commissions which should be in every ministry? Why couldn’t they be based here? Let them be here in the east, where the Roma actually live. Let them go out into the field. Not only we, those who go into the field, but also the so-called big-shots in Bratislava who resolve issues from the table. They’ve never been to a Roma settlement. This is my opinion.

You are a member of the government council for national minorities. Slovakia was in the past often criticised specifically for not resolving the Roma problem. Has the situation changed in recent years?
IL: I have the feeling that this has shifted forward a little bit. Even though I expected more from it. But with the last government I personally didn’t have very good experiences. And it’s fair to say that we stagnated. A certain group profited from this. But in regards to education and such things, everything stopped.

The problem often arises with these strategies, conceptions, projects, the fact that we don’t know how many Roma we have here in Slovakia …
IL: We don’t know because the census functioned such that the Roma didn’t declare their national minority status. This certainly has an historical background, because we know why, and obviously many Roma declare they are Hungarians. And in such a case the majority can obstruct, saying that there aren’t many of us when in reality they know how many there are.

The fact that no statistics exist means that the number of Roma can be misused, so that when it concerns money from the Ministry of Culture there are fewer Roma and when it concerns money from the European Union there are more.
IL: This is how it works. And it will keep working like this so long as nothing changes. Everyone utilizes what they know. And obviously, as I said, the Roma are a good object for getting money and that’s why someone could enrich themselves.

If you could tell the members of the European Parliament something about the Roma in Slovakia, what would it be?
IL: I would only like to show that there are Roma living in Slovakia who keep up their culture, traditions, identity and who use their own language, that there are a lot of them, and that it’s important to tell the members of the parliament to come and look at the conditions in which the Roma live, and that they should meet with the Roma elite and not with non-Roma organizations, with non-Roma, but with the Roma who work for the Roma and want to change things in this nationality, in this nation, so that they have the opportunity to hear the Roma themselves.

If we were to meet again in five years, right here together at this table, what would you like to be different?
IL: Well, I hope that the position of the Roma will be different: that we won’t have a problem with education, we will have more educated Roma and let’s say the number of educated people we already have will equal the number we have educated in secondary schools and at university and that we’ll be able to safely say that the government helped us. And that we have a political party.

In addition to teaching for three schools in the Romani language, you are mainly active in the third sector. Why do you have this need to do something when teaching at three schools is certainly demanding enough?
IL: I started by getting involved in Roma communities. And now it’s difficult to say to these Roma women that, with how busy I am, I no longer want to work with them, when these women themselves call me to ask: When will something be done and when will we meet?

What do you actually do?
IL: This is actually the Roma women’s network, Fórum pale romňa. These are activities for Roma women from the community. We try to help them become leaders. At home, in the community. And so that they will become involved in the local elections. We’re trying to change the position of Roma women, at least in society.

Have you seen a shift in these women over these years?
IL: Certainly. These women travel outside their own home to Detva, in central Slovakia, which is something new for them. That and the fact that their husbands let them go away from home and family and children for two days. And they really enjoy it and this is normal now.

Should society know more about the lives of these women?
IL: Yes, of course. We just had a small campaign to help people know these women. But this wasn’t much. Money is required. Also for these women and mainly so that they could do in society what they do so well at home.

Interviews with Roma women are part of a project by the Roma Press Agency and will be published in a forthcoming book.

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