Being accepted into the law faculty of prestigious Charles
University is a formidable achievement for anyone in the Czech
Republic. For Jaroslav Drobek and two other Romany students who will
begin classes later this month, it is revolutionary.
Only a handful of Roma (often disparagingly called Gypsies) have
ever attended university in the Czech Republic, but this is
changing. In June, Drobek was among the first 25 graduates to emerge
from the Romany Secondary School in Kolin, the only Romany high
school in the country. Twelve of them have been accepted to
institutions of higher learning here and abroad.
"This is our moment of breakthrough, like 1968 was for black
people in America," says Drobek, the son of a single mother who
worked as a maid. "The Roma have awoken. We have so many more
opportunities than our parents did. I could become a lawyer or enter
the civil service.... The main thing is to throw off the primitive
stereotypes about Romanies being stupid."
After centuries of discrimination and isolation, life for Czech
Republic's Romany population appears to be changing for the better.
This year has brought several high-profile prosecutions of neo-
Nazis who attacked or murdered Romany citizens, crimes that were
rarely punished in the past. Czech schools and city councils are now
hiring Romanies, which make up about 3 percent of the Czech
population, as advisers. While a few years ago Roma were insulted in
public by the country's top politicians, this fall the Czech
government announced a far-reaching anti-racism program.
Still, enormous hurdles remain for Roma in Czech society.
Government reports show that 75 percent of Romany children are
channeled into segregated schools for the mentally retarded, a
practice sharply criticized by international human rights groups.
Unemployment among the Roma is about 80 percent, while the national
average is 9 percent. Last year, the Organization for Security and
Cooperation in Europe reported that Czech towns are systematically
moving Roma into isolated ghettos with substandard services. Czech
authorities registered 400 racist attacks against Roma last year,
several of them fatal.
As a result, some 70,000 Czech Romanies have fled the country,
according to the Czech Helsinki Committee, many applying for
political asylum in Canada, Britain, and Scandinavia. The European
Union has reacted by pressuring Prague to combat discrimination and
reform its legal system.
In mid-September Deputy Prime Minister Petr Mares held a press
conference to detail the government's $200,000 antiracism campaign,
including education programs for schoolchildren, policemen,
teachers, and social workers. "We cannot continue to hide from the
problem of racism," Mr. …