Gypsies Find Suspicion, Not Warmth, in Canada

Influx of Gypsies from the Czech Republic this month brings out an unusually cool reaction among Canadians.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Standing on a sidewalk here, Michal Tokar, a Czech Gypsy new to Canada, wraps his arm around his wife, Ruzena, as the first chill breeze of the coming fall makes her shiver in her new dress.

But it is not just the weather in Canada that is cool. For Mr. and Mrs. Tokar and other Gypsies fleeing anti-Gypsy discrimination in the Czech Republic, Canada's shining image as a land of peace and freedom has tarnished a bit.

Tokar and his family are among a recent surge of Gypsy refugee claimants, with 120 arriving in Canada in the past eight days. This year, 543 Czechs (more than 90 percent of them Gypsies) have sought refugee status in Canada compared with 189 last year, officials say.

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The unexpected influx of Czech Gypsies into Canada in recent weeks has been met with something less than typical Canadian tolerance and warmth. Unlike that of other refugees, their arrival has been met with official and unofficial suspicion.

"For the first time in Canadian history the arriving ethnic group has not been helped by the resident ethnic group," says George Kubes, a Toronto lawyer who represents 50 Czech Gypsy families. "The Czechs are not helping their own," he says.

Blanca Rohn, president of the Czech and Slovak Association of Canada, denies charges that her organization has not done much to help the Gypsies. She says her group can't do much until the new arrivals actually apply for refugee status. Most, however, have apparently been delayed from doing so by immigration officials.

"We are concerned about the fact that they claim persecution [at home]," she says. "We do agree they sometimes face discrimination, but not because of government policy. So now en masse, somehow everyone is discriminated against. I don't know. I doubt it."

The Gypsies are not allowed to find work and housing on their own. And without local assistance and the $657 stipend given to refugee claimants, they have filled the cut-rate motels recruited by the city's homeless shelter as a temporary overflow. There are now about 400 Gypsies living in metro Toronto's 2,000-bed family shelter system. The system is bursting at the seams, officials say.

New arrivals are also reporting verbal harassment by immigration officials and translators at the airport, Mr. Kubes says.

Immigration officials say they are investigating reports of harassment at the airport. They deny that Gypsies have been specially targeted for criminal background investigations. "What we wanted to do ... was to have them all interviewed to have a better understanding of why they were coming here," says Pierre Bourget, director general for enforcement. "Some verification should be made ... before the eligibility of the claimant is decided."

Known as Roma, the Gypsies are thought to have come to Europe from India about 700 years ago. Estimates suggest between 150,000 to 300,000 Gypsies live in the Czech Republic, with 20 million more living throughout Europe. Perhaps because of their nomadic culture and dark skin, Gypsies are often targets of discrimination and are viewed by many as petty thieves.

In the Tokars' hometown of Ostrava, the mayor has reportedly offered to pay two-thirds of the cost of sending any Gypsy to Canada. Skinhead gangs have terrorized local Gypsies, Tokar says. So when a TV documentary aired earlier this month depicting Canada as a safe place, many in Ostrava and elsewhere sold their belongings and bought plane tickets for Canada.

The Tokars left for Canada two days after Mr. Tokar was severely beaten (for the second time) by a skinhead gang. He sold his home and everything he owned for $4,200 and bought his family of five air tickets. "I was surprised and disappointed [by the reception in Canada]. But I have since met many wonderful people who have tried to help us," he says through a translator.

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