Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Habitat to Build Humanity across Social Divide

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Habitat to Build Humanity across Social Divide

Article excerpt

Despite the cold rain, two men wrestle a heavy water pipe into place in Ostrava's impoverished Slezka municipality. Most of their colleagues crouch inside the shells of the new homes they are building, waiting for the squall to pass, but Jan Novak and Michal Gorol are impatient to get the job done.

Both men are from Hrusov, a nearby out-of-work mining area that was devastated by floods in 1997. Though Mr. Novak is Czech and Mr. Gorol is Roma (or Gypsy), and their populations are segregated in almost every sphere of life, they are now working together in a spirit of cooperation that is unusual in relations between their communities.

The project that has united them is called the "Coexistence Village", an effort to build homes for 30 families from Hrusov - half of them Czech and half Roma - who lost their homes in the flood.

At that time, Hrusov was declared unsafe by Czech police and the municipality evacuated the population. Some 320 families, mostly Czechs, were removed to other areas. 120 mainly Roma families live in Hrusov.

In 1998, teacher-turned-community worker Kumar Vishwanathan founded a group called 'Life Together' and devised a plan for the 'Coexistence Village' to provide employment and housing for the flood victims.

With Charitas, an international Roman Catholic charity, acting as guarantor, Mr. Vishwanathan convinced the Czech government to invest 16 million korunas ($430,000) in the project. The city of Ostrava donated a parcel of land, despite resistance from the local municipality. Dutch NGOs contributed another 20 million korunas ($600,000).

But the project is expected to cost 65 million korunas ($1.95 million) more and a third of that sum still has to be raised. Vishwanathan's group has applied for a grant from the European Commission which, if approved, could put families in the new homes before year's end.

"The work is going well, but there is a big risk involved," says Markus Pape, the Prague representative of the European Roma Rights Center. "The village will be watched very closely by the rest of the country and if it doesn't succeed - if there are conflicts or trash on the ground - it will be a disaster. If it does work, it will be a beacon, proof that coexistence of Roma and Czechs is possible."

This week, workers are finishing the first 10 units. "It is a beautiful prospect," says Novak. "We will finally have a decent place to live. After the floods destroyed the apartment we were renting, the authorities said it will take five to 10 years before we can get another. The whole city is strapped for housing."

"We already pulled out whites from there," Petr Kudela, deputy mayor of Slezka Ostrava, reported to international investigators. "We explicitly told the Gypsies that they should not think that they will get apartments somewhere else than Hrusov. …

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