Of an unsung heroine, a few irate Brits and a Sarah Palin wannabe

On Wednesday, I went to a mini-conference at the British Embassy. A young Czech woman named Lucie Fremlova, who I met a year ago, had done a study on Romani children who have fled the racism in the Czech Republic and Slovakia to live in the UK. Naturally, many of these children attended the segregated remedial schools, where Romani children are funneled here. Those schools have an extremely curtailed curriculum and kids who graduate from them are not qualified for anything but manual labor. In this country, the belief that Romani children are genetically degenerate is still widespread and the official attitude is that children in the “Special Schools” all have low IQ and cannot be educated. And yet, Lucie’s research found that within a year or two of entering British schools, the Romani kids not only learned English well but caught up with their British peers, often after arriving with reading and math levels several years below where they should have been.

The conference I attended was a second attempt by Lucie and a few non-profit organizations that back her to bring this information back to the Czech and Slovak public. She had brought with her a group of British teachers, a Romani teacher’s assistant and a Romani policeman, who fled this country at the age of 18 after he and his parents were all attacked by neo-Nazis in separate incidents. By the time, they came to the British Embassy, they had been here a week, traveling through the outlying regions, giving their presentations about how they work with the Romani children coming to them from this country. By the time they got to this last stop on their Czech tour they were exhausted and frustrated.

First up, the British Ambassador gave a short speech full of flowery diplomatic words that said in effect, “The Czechs are our close allies and we expect that they want to end racial segregation of the schools as quickly as possible.” There was no threat in her words but she seemed serious enough, and well she might have been. Czech officials had largely snubbed her invitation to this cordial meeting in a beautiful embassy hall. A Czech bureaucrat made excuses for the government’s special representative for human rights, a Sara Palin wannabe who is notorious for her neo-Nazi sympathies.

Look at your child and just try to think the words "27 times more likely to be labeled as mentally disabled".Perhaps my children will escape because I am their mother but thousands more are so labeled each year.

Then, Lucie and the British teachers took over, one after the other, each either bewildered or irate. They were teachers from “tough” schools in poor areas with large immigrant populations, and yet they could proudly point to good results in their classes. One male teacher castigated the audience and compared the Special Schools to concentration camps. He was confronted by a special school administrator, who took the standard Czech line that “these children have low IQ” and he blasted her with his frustration.

I had come to the event because wanted to make contacts with Romani organizations. I had expected to be bored by the presentations of information I know all too well. However, I found myself on the edge of my seat, not to catch the content but watching the politics between the different interest groups present. The air fairly sizzled with the tension and very little went unsaid. In the end, however, I had to conclude, against my own tendencies, that the irate male teacher had the wrong tactic. No one was convinced by his talk of concentration camps. Well, he may have boosted the flagging spirits of some of the activists on our side and that is not an insignificant thing. But those who were unconvinced largely remained so.

After his presentation, a Czech bureaucrat got up and claimed in very dry official-ese to have new data that replaced the “outdated” data in the teacher’s presentation. While the British teacher had quoted the Czech government statistics showing that 70 to 90 percent of Romani children attend the segregated schools, this bureaucrat claimed that those figures are wrong and only 27 percent attend such schools. I later tried to raise a question about it, because it is well known that no new ethnically based statistics have been allowed in ten years. Amnesty International reports from its own research that the percentage of Romani children in special schools hasn’t changed noticeably in that time, which means the original government statistics of ten years ago must still be close. Finally, I realized what might have happened. The number 27 did come up in the government reports. It stated that a Romani child is 27 times more likely to be placed in a school for those with mental disabilities than a white Czech child. Lucie and the other organizers shushed me and I subsided. It seemed obvious that they wanted to avoid a spat over statistics, even though they later apologized and told me that, of course, they know the statistics have not changed.

Still it appeared to me that the Czech bureaucrat’s response was aimed at and succeeded in muddying the entire issue. People milled about afterwards, confused and questioning every part of the story brought by the British teachers. I overheard more than one Czech official or headmaster accuse the British of lying. I cannot be certain whether the bureaucrat who brought up the “new” statistics was confused or maliciously trying to confuse others, but the effect was confusion.

Even so, I was excited by the meeting and the fact that such truths had been spoken here at all, even if securely behind walls guarded by British security. During the conference, I managed to get phone numbers and tentative coffee dates with two interesting, professional Romani women, who might just be able to help me find opportunities for my children to know their birth culture better. All in all, the day was a success for me. However, Lucie, the young organizer, looked exhausted and a bit let down. She was no doubt disappointed that most Czech officials had not come. The Sarah-Palin-wannabe did eventually show up and sat right in front of me for an hour toward the end of the day. But even she is more or less just a figure-head without much in the way of real power. Those with real power stayed away.

Even so, I could see one result that Lucie probably had not planned for. The British had their eyes wide open. Their expressions were even shocked. They had come to realize the seriousness of the situation here. And that may make the difference eventually. The reason Czech politicians don’t want to talk about desegregating the schools is because the Czech public does not want their children going to school with Romani children. That was perhaps the only harsh truth that was not mentioned overtly at the conference. The outrage of the British teachers and officials gives me hope. Someone outside must support change here because the Roma, with only 3 percent of the population, are not going to be able to force it alone against a Czech population which is solidly against them.

For myself, I went home and wrote a poem of sorts, without rhyme or rhythm but these lines were chanting in my head all the way home on the train and through the little snowy wood between our house and the station:

If I had an ear for song,
I’d sing of unsung heroes.
I’ve got no tune
But if no one else will,
I’ll sing of Lucie, a pretty girl,
With a will of iron.

She is a Czech girl in the UK
Working on the British Island.
She went there to learn and to see
Like many Czech girls do.
And like every Czech hears,
She had heard of the Gypsy kids
Of our landlocked land
Who are said to have low IQ.
She knew about the “special” schools
Where the brown-skinned kids go.
She knew it’s a sad situation
But no one can change it.

She knew how they lose hope.
There are no jobs for those
Who can barely read
In this day and age.
She heard about the skinheads
Who attack women and men
Throw their bombs into houses,
Burned a baby in her little bed.
She heard how those Gypsy kids,
Fled from their homes, over the sea.
They came to that British island
Just yearning to be free.

Then, Lucie came to a British school
Went inside and heard them talk.
She heard the Czech tongue
From brown-skinned kids and she knew.
She went to the teacher and said,
“Those kids are said to have low IQ.
They came from my country
How faire our Gypsy children here?”
The teacher looked around surprised.
“Those kids are just like the others.
They can learn, if you will teach.
That one has been here for years
And just look how he can write.
That one has just come
And doesn’t speak English yet.
But come back in a year and see.”

Lucie came back in a year
With a scholar’s will to seek
What happened to Czech Gypsy kids
Away on that British island.
They learned to read, to write
To speak the English language
To think and understand
History, geography and math.
They were afraid at first
To go to the white kids’ school
In the old country they were teased,
Beaten and tormented at school.
But now, they sat in class
With whites, Pakistanis and Africans.
They were not strange
Because everyone was different.
They began to dream
Of a life where even they can be
Doctors, builders or poets.

Lucie saw and understood.
There is a crime going on.
A crime happening every day.
Children in our country
Are sentenced to life without hope
Because of they are Gypsies.
The officials say they have low IQ
They are shut away from society,
Away where no one has to see them,
Far away from white children.
And Lucie saw what follows,
Unemployment, crime and violence.
What hopelessness and despair
knowing your child stands no chance,
Because of your language or skin.

I’ll sing of Lucie, a pretty girl,
With a will of iron.
She counted the children
Counted their scores
Kept a scientific tabulation.
Then, she went back home again.
And she told what she had found.
She stood in the universities.
She talked to the journalists.
She knocked on the doors of power.
And very few listened.
They say one person cannot
Change such a huge tragedy,
A crime over a whole continent.
But ambassadors stand beside her.
Officials are called to account.
Lucie doesn’t shout or cry.
She smiles a pretty smile
And she keeps on telling the truth.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Kathy Mangan
    Feb 17, 2012 @ 16:15:46

    Hi, I am a firm believer that it only takes one person to change the world. It may not be this year, or next but maybe the year after next.

    Your words give me a glimpse into a world that I find hard to believe exists in this 21st century. People always seem to need to “hen peck” another race. 😦

    Keep the faith. Kathy Mangan


  2. Nathaniel Farnam
    Feb 19, 2012 @ 09:22:00

    That’s both heartbreaking and encouraging. It seems that people can only be willfully blind for so long, before they are forced to open their eyes. 27%- that sounds like an outright lie!


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