A habitat to build humanity across social divide

Despite the cold rain, two men wrestle a heavy water pipe into place in Ostrava's impoverished Slezka municipality. Most of their colleagues crouch inside the shells of the new homes they are building, waiting for the squall to pass, but Jan Novák and Michal Gorol are impatient to get the job done.

Both men are from Hrusov, a nearby out-of-work mining area that was devastated by floods in 1997. Though Mr. Novák is Czech and Mr. Gorol is Roma (or Gypsy), and their populations are segregated in almost every sphere of life, they are now working together in a spirit of cooperation that is unusual in relations between their communities.

The project that has united them is called the "Coexistence Village", an effort to build homes for 30 families from Hrusov - half of them Czech and half Roma - who lost their homes in the flood.

At that time, Hrusov was declared unsafe by Czech police and the municipality evacuated the population. Some 320 families, mostly Czechs, were removed to other areas. 120 mainly Roma families live in Hrusov.

In 1998, teacher-turned-community worker Kumar Vishwanathan founded a group called 'Life Together' and devised a plan for the 'Coexistence Village' to provide employment and housing for the flood victims.

With Charitas, an international Roman Catholic charity, acting as guarantor, Mr. Vishwanathan convinced the Czech government to invest 16 million korunas ($430,000) in the project. The city of Ostrava donated a parcel of land, despite resistance from the local municipality. Dutch NGOs contributed another 20 million korunas ($600,000).

But the project is expected to cost 65 million korunas ($1.95 million) more and a third of that sum still has to be raised. Vishwanathan's group has applied for a grant from the European Commission which, if approved, could put families in the new homes before year's end.

"The work is going well, but there is a big risk involved," says Markus Pape, the Prague representative of the European Roma Rights Center. "The village will be watched very closely by the rest of the country and if it doesn't succeed - if there are conflicts or trash on the ground - it will be a disaster. If it does work, it will be a beacon, proof that coexistence of Roma and Czechs is possible."

This week, workers are finishing the first 10 units. "It is a beautiful prospect," says Novák. "We will finally have a decent place to live. After the floods destroyed the apartment we were renting, the authorities said it will take five to 10 years before we can get another. The whole city is strapped for housing."

"We already pulled out whites from there," Petr Kudela, deputy mayor of Slezka Ostrava, reported to international investigators. "We explicitly told the Gypsies that they should not think that they will get apartments somewhere else than Hrusov. Do you really think that I should place them among our normal people?"

A poll last year showed that 80 percent of Czechs would resent a Roma neighbor and 45 percent would support deporting the Roma population, which is estimated at 300,000 in the Czech Republic. So, with tensions running high in Ostrava, it has not been easy to find Czech families willing to live in the village with Roma. Novák is among those few Czechs eager to join the project.

"Czechs have a lot of false stereotypes about Roma, that they steal or are dirty," he says. "I grew up near Roma, so I know many Roma I would put my hand in the fire for. I don't want to live in a monotonous society with only one kind of people."

For Novák's Roma colleague, Gorol, the village is both a chance to hold a steady job for the first time and a way out of the isolation he experiences as a Roma: "I don't want to be shut off in some ghetto. Czechs and Roma have a lot to learn from one another. The Coexistence Village is our only chance."

Roma neighborhoods are now home to village founder Vishwanathan, who came to the Czech Republic in 1991, after marrying a Czech classmate while studying physics in Moscow.

He admits that he knew little about race relations problems in the Czech Republic, until he was attacked by skinheads on the street in 1992. At the time, he was teaching at a British-Czech high school. "I began to lose purpose and meaning in my work, because the school was so elite," says Vishwanathan.

So, after the 1997 flood, Vishwanathan decided to get involved. He moved into makeshift shelters with Roma people and tried to prevent an inter-ethnic conflict when Czech residents protested and harassed the Roma evacuees.

"I thought I could calm things down in two or three months and go back to teaching, but I began to see huge problems. Now, I guess I'll be working on this until I die," Vishwanathan says.

Jan Svozil, mayor of Slezka Ostrava, claims that no one lives in Hrusov's destroyed buildings today, but a walk through the rubble-strewn streets proves otherwise.

Some buildings are no more than skeletons, roofless and with gaping holes in the walls. Everything is covered with the dust of brown coal burned by nearby factories.

When Vishwanathan makes his rounds here in Hrusov, children run to him, and adults lean out of windows to tell him their troubles and ask his advice. "I admire Kumar immensely for what he has done for the Roma and for the whites too," says Anna Micková, a Czech resident of Hrusov. "The situation is critical here. The authorities just ignored Hrusov until Kumar got involved."

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