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In Central Europe, one town offers new lessons in fighting age-old racism

Path to progress

In Spišský Hrhov, the Roma minority and non-Roma live side by side, unemployment is far lower than the national average, and the population continues to grow.

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Two Roma women make flower boxes as part of the mayor's 'municipal firm' employment project.

Asel Llana

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A "neo-Nazi" party leader calls Slovakia’s Roma minority “gypsy parasites,” and the tough talk resonates: The party, promising to solve the Roma “problem,” makes it into the national parliament for the first time in March general elections.

But Mayor Vladimír Ledecký, in this tiny town at the foot of the High Tatra Mountains, offers a different solution. Driven by a sense of justice as well as pragmatism, he has given Roma residents jobs, and in turn helped to counter age-old prejudices that the Roma minority is lazy, unwilling to work, and incapable of integration.

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“With employment, the life of Roma people has improved, and we all have a higher quality of life,” says Mr. Ledecký, as he shows off the centerpiece of his effort – the “municipal firm,” a collection of small businesses run by the mayor's office, with profits reinvested to create more jobs. He then darts off to a meeting with seven mayors visiting his project. “Here we have shown that living with Roma is possible.”

Today about 50 percent of the Roma population of Spišský Hrhov works legally, putting the town’s Roma unemployment rate far lower than the national average. And perhaps most telling for the state of coexistence in Slovakia, the town continues to grow, from about 600 residents in the late 1990s to 1,600 today. So does the enrollment rate at the local elementary school, among both Roma and non-Roma students alike.

“It simply works,” says elementary school principal Peter Strážik.

But it’s not simple at all.

The Roma minority here has long felt the wrath of majority populations – an ugly strain of xenophobia that has been revealed most recently as Central European countries, Slovakia chief among them, have rejected refugees from Muslim countries. 

There was hope that relations were finally improving in Slovakia after a 2012 landmark desegregation court ruling that drew on the principles of the 1954 US Supreme Court case of Brown vs. Education. The following year, an amendment that opened doors to affirmative action was written into an anti-discrimination law. But in reality, little has changed on the ground since.

If anything, the situation for the Roma has worsened, says Jarmila Lajčáková, an expert on Roma issues at the Bratislava-based Center for the Research of Ethnicity, who helped push through the affirmative action amendment.

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But, she says, at the municipal level real progress is being made toward inclusiveness, and that Spišský Hrhov sets a model for other towns in Slovakia with the will and entrepreneurial spirit to change ethnic relations. 

“Where more and more towns are experiencing white flight, people are buying homes in Spišský Hrhov to enroll their children in the school, despite the large share of Roma,” she says.

Engaging the Roma

Such work is even more important today amid a hardening of attitudes towards “others.”

In March general elections, the extreme-right People’s Party Our Slovakia (L'SNS) gained 8 percent of national votes – and saw some of its highest support here in eastern Slovakia, where the share of Roma is much higher than in the west. Mainstream parties, while not as virulently anti-Roma, have done little to improve the group's plight. The Roma minority has a 75 percent unemployment rate, counts 20 percent in abject poverty, and sends only a handful of students to college, says Rado Sloboda, an activist in the region Banská Bystrica, where the L'SNS has been in power since 2013.

Mr. Sloboda holds intercultural exchanges in Banská Bystrica, where he says there is no official segregation but where Roma and non-Roma do not share space. “The situation in Spišský Hrhov shows that if someone in the right position wants to change things, things can move forward,” he says.

When Ledecký was growing up amid rampant prejudices, he remembers feeling scared that a Roma family could kidnap him – one of the most persistent myths. Roma prospects improved under communism – all Slovaks had to work then, Roma or not. But with the transition to democracy, Roma were the most disenfranchised in a market economy.

By the time Ledecký became mayor in 1998, he says the unemployment rate for the Roma in Spišský Hrhov was about 100 percent.

Ledecký knew that a population of unemployed Roma – who comprise about 20 percent of the overall population – could lead to “white flight.” It was an argument he used to gain support of the majority population: their grocery stores or eateries would be more successful with more customers. So he put a fifth of the town budget toward the “municipal firm” to give Roma jobs.  

'Best village' in Slovakia

Now self-sufficient, the firm employs 50 to 100 Roma, depending on the season, who build homes and buildings, work with wood to make fire pellets or flower boxes, and work in a municipal fitness center and pool.

On a recent day, a group of men are working on a construction site. “Roma want to work, but people don’t want to hire us,” says Jan Polak, a Roma resident who has been on this project for three months. “Many of us don’t have enough education.” He himself only went as far as elementary school, but has 13 children to feed.

While the work makes a difference in his individual life, the concept has had a major impact on the entire town, which has become a national model. The US Embassy has paid a visit here, as have European officials, nongovernmental organizations, and so many mayors - 200 to 300 – that Ledecký has lost count. Last year it was named the “best village” in Slovakia. Many have moved here from the nearby larger town of Levoča because the land is cheaper and the school is successful.

Fifty-four percent of the students at the school are Roma and 46 percent non-Roma. On a recent day, students from both groups play together in the garden. Nationally, integration exists on paper, but too often is not the norm – with Roma students often steered into separate schools or segregated within mainstream schools, the inspiration of the 2012 court case. But here, parents from both backgrounds continue to enroll their children, says Mr. Strážik.

Tensions remain

Not all is perfect. Strazik says that the vast majority of Roma go on to vocational training after their elementary studies, while the non-Roma tend to head for university prep. He has only one Roma assistant, because there aren't any more Roma who are qualified. Just a few miles from this town is a Roma settlement where many have no running water and where a separate school was created for the youngest students – what some consider a form of segregation. The Roma from there are despised by the Roma of Spišský Hrhov, says the mayor.

And tensions have not disappeared in Spišský Hrhov, either. Lacko Dzurnak, who heads a construction team of Roma for the “municipal firm,” says he likes working with Roma. “They want to work, they are always asking for work,” he says. But it can be difficult. “They don’t always listen, you have to be very harsh.”

Josef Šarišský, a Roma, says he is grateful to have a job with the “municipal firm” but sometimes he wonders how deeply relations have really changed at the end of the day. “White people call Roma when they need work, but afterward, they turn their backs,” he says.

Strážik agrees this is a work-in-progress, but he says at least the town is heading in the right direction, when the nation seems to be moving in the opposite.

“There has been progress in people’s minds,” he says. “We’ve grown up and gotten more mature in terms of inter-relations and inclusiveness.”