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The Morosov family, Roma refugees from Slovakia, in their Hamilton apartment. From left: Eva, Jozef Jr., Sebastian and Jozef. Photo by Jill Kitchener

A taste of tolerance

Fleeing persecution in Europe, Roma refugees are building new lives in Canada. But their welcome here is far from guaranteed.

By Cory Ruf

A few men in dark clothes mill around the door of the greying mid-century bowling alley, sucking in a couple last puffs of cigarette smoke before they head back into the building. Bathed in the golden light of a late-October afternoon, they snuff out their cigarettes and enter through glass doors, ascending the stairs to the establishment’s dusty billiards hall. They have not come to shoot a rack of balls or down a round of pints; rather, they’re here to join their families in singing songs of Christian praise. After the music wraps up, they listen to their pastor, a slender man in a too-large slate grey suit, give the sermon.

A pool hall, with its pea-green walls, ancient carpets and lingering smell of spilled beer, isn’t the most traditional venue to hold a church service, but it was never intended to be a permanent place of worship. For members of Hamilton’s Gypsy Church, it’ll do for now, while many wait and see whether they and their families can take root in Canada. It’s the sort of life — provisional, uncertain — to which they’re becoming accustomed.

The congregation’s approximately 300 members belong to Hamilton’s growing population of Roma (also known as “Gypsies”) from eastern Europe. Most of this afternoon’s worshippers came from the Czech Republic, claiming refugee status once they reached Canada.

“Ninety percent [of white Czechs], they don’t like the Gypsies,” says Jaroslav Mitac, the church’s pastor, at his apartment in Hamilton’s gritty north end. A mop of wiry black hair frames his weathered face. The 46-year-old preacher, his wife and six kids arrived in Canada in 2009 and have since gained refugee status. A large swathe of his congregation may not be so fortunate. About one third, he speculates, are awaiting the result of their refugee claims, and the acceptance rate for Czech refugees has hovered around nine percent. “Everybody wants to stay here,” Mitac says through an interpreter. “They don’t want to go back. We can’t help with that. We just pray for them.”

Estimates peg the number of eastern European Roma in Hamilton at about 3,000, made up primarily of Czechs, Hungarians and Slovaks. Though the community in Toronto might be larger, the one here makes up a much greater proportion of its city’s population (over 500,000 people live in Hamilton, compared to 2.5 million in Toronto). It would hardly be outlandish to deem Hamilton the capital of Romani culture in Canada.

Situated on Lake Ontario’s western tip, Hamilton isn’t quite a picture of paradise. In its heyday, it was a hotbed of heavy manufacturing, and steel was king. By 1980, the industry employed upwards of 30,000 workers. But the last three decades have been ruthless to the industrial hub, particularly its lower city. Many factories shut down, thousands lost their jobs and the post-industrial age upholstered the city’s north end with hurt and blight. According to Statistics Canada, in 2009, 20 percent of Hamilton’s population lived below the low-income cutoff, and almost all of its downtown neighbourhoods had poverty rates of over 33 percent. 

The city’s economic woes come with a silver lining for new immigrants: cheap housing and myriad social services. “The reason the Roma are coming here is because of the housing,” says Ronald Lee, a Canadian-born Roma historian who lives near Hamilton’s waterfront. “It’s possible to get a two-bedroom apartment or even a three-bedroom apartment in Hamilton for a reasonable rent, which is impossible in Toronto.” Tibor Lukacs, an immigration counsellor at the Hamilton Urban Core Community Health Centre, says many come here to reunite with family or join other eastern European Roma who arrived during previous waves of migration. “We love each other,” laughs Lukacs, who fled the Czech Republic in 1997.

An array of Roma social groups are sprouting up in Hamilton, reflecting the community’s ongoing integration into Canadian society. The Czechs hold an annual Miss Roma beauty pageant at a local banquet hall. Lukacs coaches the FC Bohemians, a soccer team that started out as an all-Roma outfit and has expanded to include non-Roma players. And members of the Hamilton Gypsy Church plan to minister to people outside the Czech Roma community.

For many Canadians, these developments may seem unremarkable. For the Roma, they represent a taste of freedom that’s nothing short of revelatory. Marcela Kohutova, a Czech Roma woman who attends the Hamilton Gypsy Church, extols life in Canada: “You can go out, you can talk to people, we can go to the restaurant, sit there, eat.” Mitac echoes this opinion: “It’s like normal here. People like people. Everybody’s the same. Nobody is saying, ‘You’re black, you’re white, you’re yellow.’ It’s feeling like home.”

The contrast with central and eastern Europe could hardly be starker. The region has long fomented resentment toward the Roma. Skinheads march on Roma ghettos to intimidate residents. Roma families live in fear that their home could be the next to fall victim to a late-night Molotov cocktail attack. And a Roma woman who enters the hospital in labour worries that she’ll wake up after birth only to find out the doctor elected to clip her Fallopian tubes for the sake of her “health.”

Over the last five years, in the middle of Europe’s so-called Decade of Roma Inclusion, overt anti-Roma sentiment has entered the mainstream. Beginning last August, townspeople from villages in the Czech Republic’s northern region held “anti-crime” protests on several consecutive weekends. According to Gwendolyn Albert, an American human rights researcher who has lived in the Czech Republic for 15 years, crowds of over 100 people marched on Roma enclaves in the towns of Rumburk and Varnsdorf and hurled racist slogans ranging from “Gypsies to the gas chambers” to “We want your welfare,” a reminder of how racial tensions often surge at times of heightened economic uncertainty.

The scapegoating of Roma is rampant in Hungary, as well. Jobbik, an ultra-nationalist party that has campaigned on eliminating “Gypsy crime,” won 47 seats (up from zero) in the national assembly, vaulting it into third place. In 2007, the party’s fresh-faced leader, 33-year-old Gabor Vona, co-founded the Magyar Gárda (Hungarian Guard), a paramilitary group whose black uniforms and flag-waving marches hearken back to 1930s fascism. In 2008, a Hungarian court disbanded the force for promoting hatred against the Roma, but the Magyar Gárda still operates under a different name.

These are dramatic examples. Most discrimination against Roma shapes daily life in a manner that is much more insidious. Amnesty International has identified that segregation is endemic in the education systems of the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. In the former two countries, the organization reports, a highly disproportionate number of children — including many who have no mental disabilities — attend schools for the developmentally delayed. In 2007, the European Court of Human Rights ordered the Czech government to guarantee access to equal education for Romani children. “We are monitoring the implementation of this judgment,” says Barbora Cernusakova, a researcher for Amnesty. “Unfortunately, I must say that there hasn’t been much improvement.” According to a 2008 report by the World Bank, educational exclusion in the Czech Republic has had dire impacts on Romani people, whose employment rate is only 26.9 percent. Crucially, 60 percent of working-age Czech Roma have just a primary-level education.

In North America, the adjective “gypsy” brings to mind images of caravans of roving musicians and fortune tellers, stereotypes that bear no resemblance to the refugee claimants arriving from eastern Europe. The sometimes-pejorative term also reflects the erroneous notion that the Roma came from Egypt.

“All European Roma are sedentary and have been for generations,” Lee stresses. “Nobody has ever come here that I’m aware of — and I’ve met thousands — who has ever wanted a caravan and to be able to travel around Canada. They all wanted a house or an apartment.”

Linguistic clues reveal that the Roma originally came from northern India. In the 11th century, Lee notes, the Ghaznavid Empire (now Afghanistan) began marauding India, seizing territory and capturing slaves. Many locals fought as indentured soldiers and brought along family members and tradespersons. “These Hindu troops plus their camp followers were taken by the conquerors out of India and sent to Persia,” says Lee. “They weren’t there very long, until 1040, when the Ghaznavids were defeated by the Seljuk Turks, who took over the territory. The Roma survivors — their troops and their camp followers — fled west, first into Armenia, then into Greek [territory],” which the Turks eventually took over, too.

Over time, the Roma drifted into the Balkans, either on their own or as auxiliaries in the Turkish army, Lee continues. “That’s when the splits began among different groups. Once they got into the Balkans, some kept going, some went to what is now Poland, Russia, all the countries of central, eastern and western Europe.” By the 1600s, the Roma diaspora reached every corner of Europe.

Nevertheless, the notion that all Romani people have a natural, indefatigable urge to pick up and leave is dubious at best. Like targets in a giant game of Whac-A-Mole — one that’s spanned continents and centuries — they’ve experienced a drubbing down in many of the places they’ve popped up. “For centuries, Roma have been enslaved, massacred, persecuted, hunted like animals,” Lee says.

Popular history often brushes over the fact that thousands of Roma died along with Jews, the disabled, homosexuals and political dissidents in Nazi extermination camps. In 1938, the Germans began forcibly interning many Roma, deeming them a “racially inferior” group. Scholars estimate that at least 250,000 Roma perished during the Holocaust.

In the living room of his family’s tidy one-bedroom apartment, 28-year-old Jozef Mosorov pulls up a video on YouTube. It shows Slovak cops harassing brown-skinned boys inside a police station. Laughing, the officers in the video command the two youngsters, who can’t be older than 12, to fight each other. They go shot for shot, slapping the other at the side of the head with surprising might. Their friends look on in horror, perhaps fearing that they too would be called to spar. “Slovak people crazy!” Mosorov’s mother-in-law, Anna, yells at the screen, tears in her eyes. When the clip ends, Mosorov plays another clip, this one depicting far-right hooligans rioting in a Roma ghetto. “Skinheads?” asks his wife, Eva, wanting to know whether she used the correct word. “Yes,” I reply. Choked up, I tell them I have seen enough.

“In my country, it’s just two people: white people and Roma people,” explains Eva, 24, in scrappy English. “White people is very bad, fighting the Roma people. Not good for my children.” Under family photos and paintings of beach scenes peering down from the white walls, Eva, Jozef, Anna and two of Eva’s siblings combine what English they know to spout off the indignities they suffered in their native Slovakia.

Jozef lifts the sleeve of his sweater, presenting a five-inch ridge on the underside of his arm. In 2008, out-of-uniform police officers burst into his family’s apartment. “They start yelling,” says the father of two, “and we didn’t know what for.” The scar below his armpit is a reminder of the roughing up that followed. Eva gives an account of an attack she suffered the following January while shopping. Skinheads verbally harassed then beat her while her young children looked on. The ambush, she says, caused her to need surgery on her ear.

One month later, she, Jozef and their two sons, Jozef Jr. and Sebastian, now 7 and 4, along with her parents and three siblings, arrived at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, claiming refugee status at customs. The clan settled in Hamilton’s Beasley neighbourhood — one of Canada’s poorest — to stay with family that had made the same journey months earlier.

Though they get by on social assistance while Jozef and Eva take English classes, the family has admirable, if modest, ambitions. Eva wants to work as an interpreter, Jozef in construction. They have higher hopes for their boys: “[Canada is] better for my children, because here is future,” says Eva, who left school at age 16. “It’s everything to study. Because in my country, no [education] and no job.”

For now, those dreams are on hold. In September, the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB) denied their claim for refugee status. The family has filed an appeal, but if it’s not successful, they could face deportation before winter’s end.

The Mosorov’s story — flee Europe to make a refugee claim upon arrival in Canada; live here in legal limbo; boomerang back a couple of years later — is a script that is playing out for hundreds of Roma in this country. For the first half of 2011, Czech, Hungarian and Slovak nationals who did not withdraw or abandon their refugee claims saw acceptance rates of 8.1, 21.8 and zero percent, respectively. These numbers represent a precipitous drop from 2008, when the latest influx of Roma migrants began (the 2008 acceptance rates for nationals of the Czech Republic and Hungary were 94.4 and 62.9 percent, respectively). Critics argue that Jason Kenney, the federal minister of citizenship and immigration, is significantly to blame for this harsh reality. His interventions, they charge, have fostered an institutional bias against the minority, compromising the impartiality of the IRB and, ultimately, closing the door to potentially legitimate refugee claimants.

On multiple occasions, Kenney has suggested refugee claims made by Roma are illegitimate. In 2009, when Canada was facing a large influx of Roma refugees, Kenney said, “It’s hard to believe that the Czech Republic is an island of persecution in Europe.” That July, when Canada implemented a visa requirement for residents of the Czech Republic and Mexico to stem the tide of refugee claims, he commented that claimants from those countries represent “economic migrants who want to jump the queue.” And in March 2010, the minister referred to refugee claims made by Hungarian Roma as “bogus,” citing how the majority of applicants withdrew or abandoned their applications before receiving judgment from the IRB.

Peter Showler, a law professor at the University of Ottawa and former IRB chairperson, says he believes Kenney’s comments have created a bias against Roma claimants among IRB judges. “We saw a sharp decrease in the acceptance rate, and I think that [the minister’s statements] created a chilling effect.”

Although the IRB is a purportedly impartial body, the federal cabinet decides whether to appoint or reappoint board members, those who adjucate refugee claims. This raises the spectre that members who admit many Roma do so at their own peril. “It does take a courageous member, particularly a member that’s coming up for reappointment, to make a positive decision on Roma cases,” says Showler.

In an interview with The Observer, Kenney called assertions like Showler’s “ridiculous,” describing them as the excuses of advocates embarrassed that so many refugee claims are withdrawn. He continued, “I’d much rather they talk about what’s really happening here rather than try to find a political fall guy for the fact that over nine out of 10 of the clients they’re trying to serve end up abandoning their own claims. That’s the real issue.”

Kenney also denied the allegation that the federal cabinet reappoints IRB adjudicators on the basis of whom they do or don’t grant status to. “When it comes to reappointments, in virtually every instance I nominate for reappointment people who have been recommended by the IRB chairman,” he says. “To be honest, we don’t track the decisions that the decision-makers make. I wouldn’t even have the time to do that.”

For its part, the IRB insists it remains untainted by political posturing. “We are an independent administrative tribunal,” says Melissa Anderson, a spokesperson for the board. “Each claim is individual, and it’s determined by the claimants’ individual stories against the convention refugee definition and the conditions of the country from which they seek protection.”

It’s the “country from which they seek protection” bit that poses big problems for European Roma looking for asylum in Canada. There is a heightened burden of proof for claimants from ostensibly liberal-democratic EU-member countries to demonstrate that the state has failed to adequately protect its citizens from persecution. In the opinion of the Mosorovs’ adjudicator, their case didn’t make the grade. In his ruling, he wrote that the family did not provide enough evidence — medical records, legal documents and the like — of the abuses they sustained or efforts they took to seek the protection of a government agency. This is a tall order for a group that’s both terrified of the authorities and largely uneducated due to systemic social exclusion. Ironically, Canada may be deporting Roma families as a result of the victimization that drove them here in the first place.

A couple of weeks after my first visit to the Hamilton Gypsy Church, I amble back upstairs into the old billiards hall. The whirring of power drills buzzes overtop of beat-heavy pop music blasting from the radio. A few men are hoisting up drywall to replace the curtains that had enclosed the quarter of the billiards hall where the church holds its services. Mitac meets me near the top of the stairs and invites me into the children’s play area, once a storage room, to chat. “We’ll probably stay for at least a year,” the pastor says, a female member of the choir helping to translate. “The room next door will be my office.” Like the playroom, it’s nothing fancy: drab walls and high windows overlooking a payday loan store and a dive sandwich joint.

It strikes me as an act of optimism to settle here — in the billiards hall, but also in Hamilton, even Canada — amid all this uncertainty. But for so many Roma, it’s more than worth it to try. Fittingly, Mitac shrugs his narrow shoulders in toward his ears as he tells me about his makeshift workspace. He does so with a gentle grin, as if to say, “It’s good enough.”



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