SVK24102018MC004SPIŠSKÝ HRHOV, Slovakia – Derogatively known as gypsies, the Roma people have long been victims of discrimination in Eastern Europe.

But a remarkable municipal-owned business has helped this little mountainous village in the heart of Europe overcome those prejudices, providing a model for integration of the continent’s longest-suffering underclass.

"Based on my experience, as soon as Roma and white people start to work together, they will become very close to each other,” said Vladimír Ledecký, the mayor of Spišský Hrhov in rural eastern Slovakia.

As other villages in this depressed region of eastern Slovakia declined as manufacturing evaporated after the end of communism in the early 1990s, Spišský Hrhov launched a government-owned business in 2005 with the goal of employing local people to improve local infrastructure.

“We did not have enough apartments. Such necessities as electricity and running water were lacking,” said Ledecký. “Almost nobody had any proper education. [But] we came to conclusion that 80 to 90 percent of the people were very clever and willing to work hard.”

The municipal government gave a $7,600 loan to the business – called Spišský Hrhov Municipal Social Enterprise. The funding was enough to hire three workers to make paving stones for the village’s crumbling sidewalks. The business paid off the loan after a year, then used its profits to expand into local construction projects, including building 100 apartments, a swimming pool, gymnasium. More recently, it launched other ventures like a bakery, sausage making facility and lumber milling, with the sawdust providing biofuels for municipal vehicles.

In 1998, Spišský Hrhov had 700 inhabitants, or around 500 less than under communism. Half were Roma, an ethnic minority who migrated to Europe from India around 1,500 years ago. Nearly all the Roma were unemployed.

Today, almost 2,000 people live in the village, the enterprise has around 100 workers and 80 percent of the Roma have jobs, according to Slovak government figures.

In contrast, government statistics show that only 21 percent of Roma on average in Slovakia have a job. In other words, 79 percent of Roma people in Slovakia are unemployed.

"Spišský Hrhov was on the verge of extinction but Mr. Ledecký established a community enterprise which built everything in our village, arranged hot water for every apartment,” said Jozef Seman, who manages the business.

Much of the acrimony between Slovaks and Roma, whom Slovaks often regard as lazy and unwilling to work, especially during the anxious post-communist times when the economy was imploding, has disappeared, Seman added. “Relations between the Roma community and white population are much better,” he said

Jozef Kandráč, a 34-year-old Roma, works as a mechanic in the business. He married a Slovak woman in 2006, a rare occurrence even in the cosmopolitan capital of Bratislava.

"My wife is white and we are very happy together,” said Kandráč. “We have never encountered any discrimination problems. We are satisfied with our life here. There are other intermixed marriages. One of the most beautiful [Roma] girls in the village, Miša, even made one Roman Catholic priest renounce celibacy. They have a happy family together.”

The integration starts early.

In the village school of 300 students, half are Roma. Typically, only 18 percent of Roma children attend schools in Slovakia for more than 10 years, a crucial factor in their likelihood of lacking a job later in life, according to the United Nations Development Programme.

Jarmila Lajčáková, an analyst at the Bratislava-based Centre for the Research and Ethnicity and Culture in Slovakia, said Ledecký realized that the integration of Roma was crucial to development of Spišský Hrhov in general.

"Spišský Hrhov is considered to be a big deal because of a widely shared prejudice against Roma people that they will never work or send children to school, they will only try to abuse the social system,” she said. “Ledecký was not driven by human rights ideals, but he rather pragmatically understood that having a poor Roma community in Spišský Hrhov was a potential source of problems.”

The mayor didn’t solve every problem. Twenty percent of the Roma remain unemployed. Two Roma families in particular refuse to work in the business. Taking into account the growth of the village, further extension of the school and kindergarten is also on the agenda, potentially costly projects that will strain the village tax base and enterprise’s balance sheet.

"Spišský Hrhov is not a community where all the problems have been already solved,” said Alexander Mušinka, a researcher focused on this topic at the Institute of Roma Studies at the University of Prešov. “But it clearly shows that change is possible.”

Ledecký highlighted that there are many villages in Slovakia with problems of Roma integration. Their representatives came to see him to seek help but did not implement any of his suggestions.

"The media and people who have never met Roma people are creating discrimination and prejudices against Roma people,” said the mayor. “Nevertheless, people who work with them are very satisfied with their performance.”
Photo: October 24, 2018 - Spišský Hrhov, Slovakia - Jozef Kandráč, a mechanic in the village's social enterprise.
Credit: Tomas Kolar/ ARA Network Inc. (10/24/18)

Story/photo published date: 11/9/18

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.
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