One cold December night

Eleven years ago, I made a documentary about Romani children facing racial segregation in the Czech school system. At the time government statistics admitted that upwards of 70 percent of Romani children were channeled into schools for the mentally retarded, called “special schools”, where the curriculum and facilities were severely limited. Along with two American students, I followed three children for an entire school year and interviewed a host of other children, parents, teachers, human rights workers, educational experts, school principles and government officials.

The children we chose to follow were chosen more or less randomly. They were simply the kids who were the most open and friendly and willing to commit to long-term involvement with the film. There was nine-year-old Karel, who was from an area where the local government was building a wall to separate the Roma from white residents, and fifteen-year-olds Anezka and Pepino, who were friends who lived in a children’s home. All three of them were exceptionally bright kids who had been placed in the special school more or less automatically when they began first grade. Karel lived in a low-income housing project with three siblings and a single mother. Despite the claims of government officials that parents get to choose where their children go, Karel’s mother had never been offered a choice and had no idea she could choose. In the course of the film, she found out that she officially could switch Karel to a better school and because he was very bright and motivated to learn, she tried to, but she was shamed, intimidated and threatened when she went to the educational offices to force the issue and was eventually coerced into signing papers that would seal his fate in the segregated schools.

Anezka and Pepino had no parents and their state guardians had made the decision for them, but they did have a teacher at the special school, who was kind and motherly toward them and who believed that their placement in a special school had been a mistake. She had them tested and found them to be of above average intelligence. She began to spend after school hours tutoring them in some of the subjects they would have learned if they had attended a school for normal, white children. In the end, she advised them to try to break through a historical barrier and become the first children from the special schools to attend high school. A new law had been passed that made that at least a legal possibility, if not a practical probability. Despite a three- or four-year lag in their education, they passed the entrance exams to attend a very competitive high school, the only specifically Romani high school in the country. They struggled to keep up with their classmates but survived in the rigorous environment and graduated. However, given the shackles they had started out with, they were not able to fulfill their dreams of studying law. Pepino was accepted at a pedagogical university. Anezka, who was generally the more eloquent of the two verbally, was not. Neither had any further support from family or other adults. Their motherly teacher had died and they were completely on their own after the age of 18.

In any event, we made the film eleven years ago. When we finished the film in the summer of 2000, I had very few options for distribution. I made a few attempts to find a distributor but I really didn’t know how to go about it and the film business seemed completely closed to penniless independents. Film festivals and distributors alike demanded fees of several hundred dollars just to submit the film and I did not have enough for more than one or two such attempts. My greatest hope was the One World Film Festival in Prague. It was in the Czech Republic after all and was one of the top human-rights-oriented documentary film festivals in Europe. I also knew an American who was on the selection committee. So, I submitted the film there in the fall of 2000 and received an official letter confirming receipt of the film.

Months passed and I received no reply from One World. I did, however, become a stringer for Business Week and The Christian Science Monitor in Kosovo and Macedonia, during a short conflict there starting in March 2001. As a result, I did not pester One World for a reply. I was in and out of a war zone every couple of weeks for half a year, often with only a few days respite between jobs. I only vaguely registered that the film festival happened and my film was not in it and I had never received a rejection letter. Some time after the festival, I ran into my acquaintance from the selection committee on the street. Amid the pleasantries, he asked, “Why didn’t you ever submit your film to us? I really think it would have had an excellent chance.”

Perplexed I assured him that I had submitted it and received confirmation that it was in the selection process. He said he would have seen it, if it had been submitted. After some investigation, I was told that the film had been unfortunately “lost” in the office before it could be sent to the selection committee. By this time, I knew my chances of getting the film distributed or broadcast significantly abroad were miniscule, and my newspaper career was taking off. I resubmitted it to One World the following year but this time I didn’t even receive the first official letter. There was simply no reply.

I am a fighter. I don’t do well at choosing my battles. But this was one occasion when I did. I knew I couldn’t fight the entire racist Czech system single-handedly. At the time, the racism in the Czech Republic was so blatant and overt that politicians and officials could say that “Most Roma simply are mentally retarded,” or “They are genetically deficient,” without any consequences. I knew that even if I fought over the “lost” DVDs at One World, another reason would be found to reject the film. Ours was an ultra-low budget operation. I had good semi-pro equipment from a grant. That was all we had. We had travelled by train, slept on kitchen flours, barely eaten. I had bought tapes on my half-time local reporter’s salary. There were certainly some technical deficiencies in the film and, if I forced the issue, it would be rejected on those grounds, even if similar films were accepted. Every black person in America knows that story.

I chose my battles and let it go. I fought for my newspaper career and travelled to the Balkans, Ukraine and Ecuador, rather than distribute the film. Nine years passed before there was a public showing of our film in the Czech Republic. A friend of mine ended up in charge of a documentary series at a small artsy cinema and I convinced him, over many coffees and phone conversations to show the film at the end of 2008. He had never seen his cinema so packed. There were people sitting on the stairs, on the backs of seats, on the floor. And since then, there have been six other public screenings, all resulting from contacts made during that one first showing. I was delighted, though there was a bitter aftertaste. It had taken so many years. Now, although the film can be shown at last, it is considered old. Unfortunately, it is not considered outdated. That is because the situation with the racially segregated schools has not substantially changed. The European Court handed down our equivalent of Brown v. the Board of Education three years ago, demanding that the Czech Republic desegregate the schools. In response, the segregated schools were renamed from “special schools” to “practical schools” and everything else remained the same.

I have vaguely stayed in touch with one of the kids from the film – Pepino. I have tried to contact the others but without success. I have many times, over the years, invited Pepino to visit my home. I also invited him to come to the more interesting film screenings with me. He has always promised to visit my home, but never has, and he begged off the film screenings due to his own embarrassment and shyness. He said he does not like being identified as one of the kids from the “special schools”, even if he was eventually vindicated and now is studying at university to get his teaching license.

But he got in touch with me himself this fall and so, when the largest humanitarian and human rights organization in the country, the People in Need Foundation, which runs the One World Film Festival, planned to screen the film as part of a special event to reopen the bogged-down political discussion about school integration, I asked Pepino again. Would he come? I thought the event might result in some useful contacts for him, some opportunity to continue his studies or maybe even a contact that could eventually lead to a job at an NGO, doing some of the civil rights work, he says he has always wanted to do. He spent the entire week before the event going back and forth about it and changed his mind several times even during the day of the screening. By the time, he showed up I was exhausted just from the process of reassuring him and assuring him that he did not need to come to please me but only if he saw some opportunity in it.

The organizers had agreed to meet with Pepino before hand in order to advise him about his future in NGO work, but when we met, they sat us down in a very noisy café and commenced to talk among themselves. They almost entirely ignored Pepino and I, and there was no meaningful discussion of his future prospects. I should have been forewarned by that. I had significant hopes for this screening, because the organization is the most politically influential in the country and because the film was part of an official political event to try to restart the process of desegregation. There were supposed to be a lot of civil society people, educators and officials in attendance.

The moderator was an editor from the country’s primary right-wing intellectual magazine. That did not immediately send up any red flags for me. Despite their rabid stance on things like the war in Iraq and the economy, they generally are so internationally focused that they can’t afford to be racist against the Roma. Pepino and I watched the screening together, the first time we have ever watched the film in the same room. We whispered and shook with silent laughter as we reminisced about various people, incidents and technical disasters that had come up along the way. Finally, the lights came up and the panel of experts who had been invited to discuss the film stepped up to the podium. Even with my healthy bit of cynicism, I was still shocked. They were all white.

I had simply assumed that People in Need, the largest human rights organization in the country with contacts to every NGO in every corner of the land, could get a qualified Romani speaker. But they didn’t, for whatever reason. They had five white panelists – a couple of educators, a government official and one of their own field workers. Before I had even caught my breath from that unpleasant surprise, the moderator took the microphone and introduced the panel, me and Pepino. As an introduction to the debate, she said, “As you saw in the film, this young man is an exception. He was obviously mistakenly channeled into the special schools and he was capable of much more, including university studies. But now, let’s turn to a discussion of those children who are truly in need of special help.” And the debate was off and running.

There followed two hours of very dry, theoretical rhetoric about Individual Education Plans for children with disabilities, teachers assistants, the lack of adequate funding and exactly how to interpret various regulations at the Ministry of Education. The implication was that the concern is over children with real disabilities. The consensus was that Romani children are either slightly mentally disabled in general or so severely socially disadvantaged that they cannot attend regular schools without extra funding and special pedagogical assistants. There were longwinded monologues on the reasons why integration cannot go forward without further funding and how the brightest of the nation’s children could be drug down by an influx of the disadvantaged and disabled.

There was really only one panelist who dissented at all that I could tell, a mainstream school principal, and she did so in a very circumspect way. From the outset, she declared that she wasn’t qualified to discuss the film. She recognized that the film was about Romani children, not disabled children, and she said her school had never had a Romani student. She had been invited to the panel because her school was well-known for successful integration of disabled students but not of Romani students. She diplomatically countered the long diatribes on the need for further funding and special programs with short and concise statements, “If you want to integrate, integrate. At our school we have several children with disabilities in each class. We don’t receive extra funding and yet our math results are among the nation’s top ten. Part of that is the atmosphere and philosophy of the staff. Part of it is because we believe in peer teaching, where a student who understands the material, assists one who is struggling. In this way, both learn more.”

But even that school principal could not bring herself to say the word “discrimination.” Even those members of the audience who timidly tried to argue with the panel did not use such a word. Whenever someone touched on the thorny issue of Romani children being automatically and systematically channeled into the special schools,, they called it “the Strasbourg issue.” They were referring to the European Court decision, handed down in the city of Strasbourg, that had demanded that systemic racial segregation stop. The Czech state had also been ordered to pay financial compensation to the 18 children who were the direct plaintive in the case.

All in all, there was very little real debate. The moderator rarely allowed questions or comments from the audience. There was scarcely time for more than half-a-dozen audience questions in the two hours, because after each question, the moderator asked each of her five panelists to comment, which they did at length, repeating themselves over and over again. Always the refrain was that, the children in the special schools need special help and extra funding. If there are a few children there who could handle regular school, those are exceptions and mistakes in the system, not the norm. One psychologist in the audience went so far as to say that 25 percent of the children in the special schools had never been diagnosed with any learning problems. He was one of those who talked about “the Strasbourg issue” and made other veiled references to discrimination. Finally, toward the end of the debate, he and one other audience member managed to bring up the issue of the economic impact of segregation on the entire society. He had to jump in out of turn with his booming voice not needing a microphone, and I appreciated his attempt. He explained how keeping a portion of the population less educated than they could be and thus less employed than they could be will necessarily drag the entire economy down. It is a point I have been repeating over and over to the Czechs for a dozen years.

Half way through the debate, I worked up the courage to raise my hand to ask a question. I was afraid to do so, because I had been told by the organizers, that it might be appropriate for me to speak but it also might not. They said they might call on me. Pepino, seeing that I could not make eye-contact with the person handing out portable microphones, because of my weak eyes, decided to help me and got a microphone passed to us. For the last half-hour, I held the portable microphone and waited to be given the floor. The panelists droned on with their same old message after every audience comment and then just when I thought I was up, the moderator said, “Well, we really are out of time now. Thank you all for coming.”

Here’s what I would have said, “I don’t want to discount the importance of the discussion of the education of disabled children at all. In fact, I am legally blind and I was among the first disabled children to be integrated in my area of the United States, so this issue concerns me a great deal. But as a journalist, I cannot help but ask, how many of the 70 percent of Romani children who attend these ‘special schools’ need any special attention at all? How many do you think are mistakes and exceptions like the children in my film? I have to tell you that we did not choose them because they were smarter than the other kids. They chose us, because we worked with the kids who hung around us a lot and committed to letting us hang out with them for a year. If they were put into the special schools by mistake, then how many mistakes do you think are being made?”

It was the first time that I was present at a screening of my film and no one came up to me afterwards asking for copies or offering more screenings or just wanting to make a contact. Even at my previous screenings in the Czech Republic, there were people who wanted to talk to me. This time, everyone shuffled out and I got the feeling that no one even wanted to look in my direction. I can’t be sure of that, of course, not with my eyesight, but I saw a lot of the backs of people’s heads.

As we hurried out into the December night, hoping to catch our trains home, mine to the south and his to the east, Pepino told me that one of the panelists who had most vehemently defended the segregated system had come up to him after the film, while I was in the bathroom, and asked to shake his hand because he had proved himself worthy of education in the regular schools. Pepino didn’t seem to like the connotations of the comment, but he said he had shaken the man’s hand anyway.

I was feeling as close and comfortable with Pepino as I ever had. Things had been pretty awkward in the run-up to the screening. I got the feeling that Pepino didn’t understand my motives in being involved with Romani civil rights at all. From his perspective, I was an outsider, someone who could only be involved if I had something to gain for myself. When I told him three years ago, that I was going to adopt a Romani child, he was silent for several minutes. It was a struggle for me to let the silence be, not to break into it with justifications and explanations. I just waited for him to comment, but he never did. Over a few phone conversations recently, I had tried to open some real communication between us.

I had, for instance, told Pepino that what had been done to him, the way he had been shunted off into the special schools, was a crime, that it is recognized as such internationally and that he has no reason to be ashamed. It is the Czech society and government that is shamed by it. I had realized that there really wasn’t anyone who would have told him such things. Given how much he had struggled, I had for a long time, simply assumed that he knew these things, but recently some of his self-loathing comments, had made me realize that he had not been told anything. He had had no Romani parents or mentors or teachers. He had been in a Czech children’s home and a segregated school run by Czechs. Then, he had been in the Romani high school for a few years, but he had been among those Romani kids who had for whatever reason avoided the special schools. He and Anezka were the first Romani kids to get into secondary school from the special schools.

Leaving the film screening, I wanted to tell him more. I wanted to tell him that I want to stay in touch with him because Shaye and our next child will need to know Romani people. It could be particularly helpful to them to know Pepino, given his experiences. I wanted to explain that he could make a difference, could strike back at the system in a very positive way by mentoring such kids. But we were out of breath and out of time. As we approached the subway, Pepino refused to buy himself a ticket because he said we were in too much of a hurry. He would just risk getting slapped with a fine for riding illegally. I protested weakly but he quickly swept me through the entrance to the station. I had my disability card, which gives me free subway rides, and that gave me an idea. I took my white cane out of my purse. I carry it mainly for times when I am walking on city streets alone and I have to use it to navigate murderous traffic situations.

“Here,” I said, sticking my cane out in front of us and grabbing his elbow. “No ticket inspector will stop you, if they think you’re guiding a blind person.”
Pepino started laughing in delight and I burst out, “What a wonderful way to defeat the gadzo system.” Gadzo is the Romani equivalent of gringo or honky, a sometimes insulting, sometimes simply factual, sometimes humorous term for white people. I thought it was funny, but Pepino’s laughter changed, sounding a bit shrill and forced.

“Hey, I can say gadzo too now, can’t I? If my family is one-third Roma now,” I said. And at that Pepino’s laughter died, as if I had turned off a switch. I had said something wrong, but I couldn’t get him to tell me what.

As far as I could tell, it might have had more to do with the issue of adoption than anything else. When we arrived at the train station, I had just missed my train and had to wait an hour for another, so Pepino waited with me and we talked more. I asked him what he thought of us adopting a Romani child and he said, “Of course, it’s great. What would be a problem with it?”

“Well, it is a bit controversial in America, white people adopting children of other cultures. Some people say it is a racist plot to wipe out the children’s cultural identity.”

“That’s ridiculous,” he said. And then he hurried off, looking for a place to buy cigarettes. That was the way it was every time I mentioned anything to do with adoption during that hour. He always answered blandly and then found a reason to break off the conversation. After a few more progressively milder attempts, I gave up.

The difficulty of breaking through Pepino’s shell and the general feeling of being held at arm’s length by Romani acquaintances combines miserably with the depressing lack of real understanding of the issues among my educated and self-described “anti-racist” white friends. I can quite easily understand why people say adopted children of color feel constantly trapped in the middle and rejected by both white society and their birth culture. I slept poorly that night and the next day I could barely move. I felt like all the exhaustion of the past year was piled on me all at once and a few times I suddenly burst into tears while folding laundry or doing the dishes. I struggled to remind myself that this was simply the emotional and physical toll of the stressful day before – the heaviness, the depression, the despair.

When I held Shaye after her bath that night, I noticed how our skin tones are becoming even more different. Mine is even paler in the winter and hers is becoming slightly darker as she grows out of babyhood. Thinking of how terrible the “debate” after the film had been, how these were the “progressives” and reformers of this country, the people supposedly most friendly to the Roma, I was seized with terror for her and I crushed her against my chest. How can one send a child out into a world like that? It would be like tossing them into a swimming pool that you know is ice cold… and shark infested.

I clung to one bit of solace. Maybe, just maybe, any part of this alienation, dislocation and despair that I undergo, will be some part of it that Shaye will not have to suffer as she grows up. I don’t know if that is true but I can hope.



5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lindsay
    Dec 07, 2010 @ 18:56:08

    I really enjoyed the copy of the documentary you sent me. In fact I even used it with a couple of my classes at the end of the last school year: and it sounds like they had a more intelligent debate about it that your audience did. Perhaps that is where the hope lies; in the next generation, not the current one.

    Hope you are all well and staying warm 🙂



    • ariefarnam
      Dec 08, 2010 @ 08:00:30

      Hi Lindsay,

      Yeah, I think the generation is the main difference. I’ve had much better reception with student groups as well. I just didn’t realize how far behind the progressives of the older generation are.

      We’re staying as warm as we can but getting around without a car has become a bit rugged in all this snow.



  2. BopBop
    Dec 07, 2010 @ 23:35:09

    Another excellent post! Good job. I’m sorry this continues to be such a a stressful issue for you. But I guess we all knew it would be. I’m proud of your commitment and persistence


  3. Mama
    Dec 09, 2010 @ 05:20:46

    What an intense and personal look into your life. I wonder if Pepino’s reaction to “gadzo” was simply that he’s uncomfortable with the word? It seems likely that he feels as estranged from Romani culture (with its “gadzo” attitudes) as he does from white Czech/American ones.


  4. Cheron joy mayhall
    Dec 09, 2010 @ 17:32:14

    We are deeply touched and grateful for the insights you have shared regarding this situation. Having lived through the turbulence and shame of the civil rights movement in our own country, and knowing the ins and outs of special ed and school integration, we truly appreciate your magnificent efforts to make a difference for Shaye and other Romani children. You go girl! Cheron & Bill


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