If you want to find out how many Roma live in the Czech Republic, you are going to have a bad time. Numbers vary between 13.150, according to the last census in 2011, and 300.000, according to the estimates of the European Roma Rights Centre.
If you want to find out, which attitude the majority population has towards them, things are a bit easier. But now it’s the Roma having a bad time: Antiziganism and Roma discrimination are widespread phenomena in the Czech Republic. Roma facing social exclusion can expect little to no support from municipal and governmental institutions.
This is where IQ Roma Service (IQRS) comes in. The NGO, which was founded in 1997, aims to build a society, where Roma and majority population live together in respect. At the beginning, however, they did it for the kids. Their goal was to get children to finish secondary school, to help raise a new, dignified generation. But soon they realised that, in order to achieve this, they would need to take a more holistic approach and also tackle the kind of problems Roma children struggle with on a daily basis: family issues, housing, debt. Now, their work is based on four pillars: “Servis” for youth, for adults, for families and for the society. The activities encompass social counselling, field work, drop-in facilities for children and youngsters and many more.
One example is their campaign “V jedné lavici” (“at one school desk”), which advocates for Roma and majority pupils sharing one classroom. The story behind it? According to IQRS, there is still no real concept of integration in the Czech education system, a fact which is particularly visible during the first years of schooling. Elementary school is divided into a “normal” and a “practical” branch, the latter teaching a limited curriculum mainly targeting children with mental disabilities. According to an Amnesty International report of 2010, in some places Roma children make up more than 80% of the students of these schools. The case was even brought before the European Court of Human Rights, which in 2007 concluded that this kind of systematic discrimination violates the right of Roma children to a full education. And, sadly, not much has changed since then. Moreover, Roma children who do stay in mainstream schools tend to end up in classes full of other Roma: parents of majority children will often choose a school which does not accept Roma children, push schools not to accept Roma students or move their children elsewhere. Their campaign is, thus, particularly targeted at the majority children’s parents (as well as at teachers and principals) and highlights the benefits of diversity in school.
Another example is IQRS’ flagship project called “Ethnic Friendly Employer”. This “label” is awarded to employers, who support equal treatment of people of minority ethnic origin. Instead of naming and shaming discriminatory processes in companies, the NGO wanted to take a positive and proactive approach in the critical field of Roma employment and show that socially responsible companies and institutions exist. Since the start of the project in 2007, 60 employers in the Czech Republic have received the label. While it did not directly contribute to bringing Roma into the workforce, it raises awareness about systematic discrimination and is accompanied by personal stories of Roma employees that help fight stereotypes.
Their biggest pride, however, are the many, many individual cases, in which IQRS was able to help: whether their lawyers eased the debt burden of Roma women, 90% of children they work with go to a mainstream school, their music club for kids spawned a well-regarded band or their job counselling programmes bore fruit. IQRS handles about 2000 cases per year, all free of charge.
And their struggle? Well, "you can't win elections with the Roma question", which makes their relationship with municipal and national authorities not exactly a piece of Czech pancake. They describe it as “good... depending on topic and institution.” Right now, social housing – an issue that also concerns many Roma families – is high on the agenda of the country’s government, which gives IQRS the chance to approach authorities on a more general note and as part of a wider network of NGOs. The fields of pedagogics and education, however, are described as the major shortcomings of national politics. But IQRS does not get discouraged: “In Czech Republic, NGOs and authorities do generally not act as partners. Not if you want to change something and not, if you are asking for money to do so.” The European Union seems to be a better co-pilot in this respect: “Regarding the Roma question, positive developments were easier and faster brought about on the European level. [...] Sometimes we have the feeling that the Commission understands the content of our work better than our government in Prague.” For this reason, they argue that the EU should keep a closer eye on how and on what the member states spend EU funds - demand outcomes, carry out proper evaluations and check if member states actually implement the kind of projects, they are getting money for. And finally, they would welcome easier access to EU funds in general, because “the people that really need it, often do not have the capacity to deal with elaborate application procedures.” More than money, however, they “need some change in the minds of people.”
And it looks as if this change might be just around the corner. Last year, IQ Roma Servis won the national "NGO of the Year" award, quite a societal appreciation of their activity. But much work is left to be done. So go ahead and show them your support on Facebook, check out the website of the organisation and their Ethnic Friendly Employer project.