It wasn't easy to find Kecerovce. I missed the turnoff on the road leading out of Kosice, the main city in eastern Slovakia. One of the clerks at the gas station where I stopped for directions had never heard of the place, and the other one didn't know how to get there. I eventually retraced my steps, found the right exit, and drove deep into the Slovak countryside.
Kecerovce is a village of more than 3,000 people, but there isn't much of a downtown. At the central crossroads, I parked my car in front of the municipal building. Across the road on one side was a pub. On the other side was a small grocery and general store. I did a little exploring and found another pub and a couple churches.
The Slovak government has had a plan on the books for a couple decades to build a nuclear power plant near Kecerovce. Otherwise, the prospects for economic development in the area are bleak. The village is more than 90 percent Roma.
If I didn't have a set of interviews arranged in Kecerovce thanks to the National Democratic Institute (NDI), I would have missed the most interesting and promising development in the village. Near the pub was a building that I'd completely overlooked during my informal survey. It was a community center, and it housed Kera Club. The Roma youth of Kecerovce and the nearby village of Rankovce -- the club's name comes from the first letters of these two villages -- had come together to talk, put on events, and organize community service.
Their mentor was Julius Pecha, a Roma social worker who had lived in Kecerovce for 14 years. He helped out with logistics and with connecting Kera Club, via NDI, to youth groups elsewhere in Slovakia, in neighboring Hungary, and even in other European countries like Italy. He provided the occasional lecture for the club. But he also encouraged their self-organization. "The youth realized that they can do their own activities," he told me in an interview in the community center last May. "They don't need any strong support from outside. They discovered that they don't need much financial support. There are a lot of things we can do for free."
I also talked with Stano and Anicka, two members of Kera Club. Stano was finishing up high school in Kosice and planned to go on to university. Anicka had finished a forestry program but wasn't sure what she was going to do next.
I asked all three whether they thought discrimination had increased or decreased over the years and what would be the best strategy to combat it. Stano and Anicka were relatively optimistic, while Julius was quite pessimistic.
"I don't have much experience with discrimination, possibly because of my complexion and what I wear and how I act in public," Stano said. "The discriminated against are mostly people who have a darker color of skin and wear worse clothes and don't behave in public. Education is the most important thing that can change the situation."
Anicka added, "I feel that the discrimination has decreased over the past four or five years. Back then I had more experience with discrimination, but I don't know whether that's just my personal situation. I also think that having more educated Roma is the best way to diminish discrimination."
Julius felt differently. "As a social worker, I encounter discrimination every day. When I compare it to 20 years ago, there's much more now, but it's more hidden. People know exactly what they can say not to be labeled as discriminatory. For example, an employer can place an advertisement for an open position. They don't write openly that they don't take Roma. But every time you apply, they say, 'Well, someone just applied five minutes ago and took the position.' Regarding the three options, I choose the fourth -- positive discrimination -- what you call affirmative action in the United States. The changes that have taken place in the United States are important -- just look at your Black president."
Did they think they would see a Roma president in their lifetime? However hopeful they felt about their own futures or the prospects for the Roma community, they all gloomily agreed: Slovakia wouldn't have a Roma president in their lifetimes.
Tell me something about yourself and how you became involved in the National Democratic Institute projects?
Julius: I am 36. I've been here for the last 14 years. Originally I lived in Kosice. I work as a community social worker here at the center, employed by the municipality. Originally I was a professional soldier. I also lived in Belgium for four-and-a-half years where I worked for a Belgian charity, a crisis center, doing similar work as I do here as a social worker. I was also the local coordinator of the NDI program here in Kecerovce.
Stano: I am 20 years old. I'm from Kecerovce. Currently I'm finishing my studies at high school in marketing and advertising and travel agency management. I will finish next month, hopefully. I entered NDI through the community center, one of the four centers involved in the project. They used a form that applicants had to fill out, and then NDI selected the participants.
Anicka: I am 21. I am also from Kecerovce. I'm a former girl scout. I was involved in the NDI program through the same process as Stano.
Tell me something about Kecerovce. How big is it? What do people do around here for employment?
Julius: I am a specialist in the demographics here. This the second year that we have done a survey of the inhabitants, so we have some fresh data. There are 3,230 inhabitants, of which 2,900 are Roma. There are three Roma settlements in the village, each at a different social level. There's an elementary school, a general doctor, a pediatrician, a dentist, and a pharmacy. Two high schools based in Kosice have remote locations here -- one for forest work and the second teaches bricklaying for boys and sewing for girls. All of the students at those two schools are Roma, with 92 Roma studying there in total. 720 pupils are in the elementary school, but only three of them are non-Roma. The elementary school runs on two shifts because there is not enough space there for that many pupils. Kecerovce is a central village in this region. The elementary school is attended not only by kids here but by children from five surrounding villages.
Regarding employment, here in Kecerovce, there's a sort of agricultural cooperative -- like a kolhoz. It's a centralized system that employs 15 people, and none of them is Roma. There are three grocery stores here. And a place where you can buy clothes and shoes. Plus a municipal office and a post office. This building is the community center, and this student club was started through our NDI project.
This project was proposed during the NDI meeting? Whose idea was it?
Stano: This place is called Kera Club. Kera is slang for a curve in the road. So, it's the club located at the curve in the road. There is also a second meaning. The Ke stands for Kecerovce and the Ra for Rankovce, a nearby village. There were participants from Rankovce in the NDI program as well. The main reason behind the club was that young people had no place to meet in this area except for the pubs. There are two pubs here in Kecerovce. We didn't like meeting there because of drunk people and smoking. There was an opportunity to apply for local projects through NDI. Local groups could write up their own project and apply for funding. So we came up with the idea of having our own club where we could meet.
The club serves as an open space for youth to come here to pass the time. But we also run our own activities -- some lectures, educational theater plays, and meetings. It's also a place where we can plan events. Now we are preparing for International Children's Day on June 1. We will do some events for kids here in the village.
What are your favorite activities here in the club?
Stano: Theater plays. Making plans for future events.
Julius: I'm surprised that informal educational activities are so popular among the youth. They talk about health, relationships, culture. I'm surprised that they want to be more informed. Yesterday they asked me to prepare a lecture on birth, abortion, and the prevention of pregnancy. Generally, the youth who participate in the club come up with topics that they want to get more information about. Sometimes I invite other professionals, or I'll prepare something with Anicka.
The youth realized that they can do their own activities. They don't need any strong support from outside. They discovered that they don't need much financial support. There are a lot of things we can do for free.
This paper above my head is from the brainstorming we had at one meeting. It has various plans for how they want to change the village. Many of the things are quite expensive, for sure, like having a gasoline station or a pizzeria. But there are other things that they can do on their own, such as cleaning yards in front of the houses or preparing an event for youth on International Children's Day. There will be 150 children at this event.
I want to ask about your experience in school. Do you feel that you had a good education, good teachers, good experience -- or bad education, bad teachers, and a bad experience?
To read the rest of the interview, click here.