Slovak Village Prospers in Partnership With Roma Residents It Once Shunned


That is when Mr. Ledecky decided to take what is still a novel and controversial approach to the Roma in his country — working to better integrate them with the community.

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The village started its own construction company, staffed with Roma employees, for local infrastructure projects and to help local residents with home projects.

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Akos Stiller for The New York Times

When Mr. Ledecky and a few young residents took over the village council in 1998, the Roma lived in shacks without electricity, almost all were unemployed and a fifth of the children were in so-called special schools that taught them little and segregated them.

Now, unemployment among the Roma is down to 20 percent, no children are sent to separate schools and three Roma residents are in college.

“Some of the village mayors are trying to do good,” said Abel Ravasz, Slovakia’s official representative for the Roma community. “Spissky Hrhov is the poster boy of this group.”

The situation for Roma has improved vastly in the village, said Petronela Kacova, 27, who lives in one of the Roma neighborhood’s newest apartment blocks with her husband and two young children. Until she got this new home, the family had to share one room in her mother-in-law’s house. Now, she said, relations are cordial between Roma and non-Roma residents, unlike in other nearby villages.

“The children know each other in school, so they play together,” she said. “And we sometimes sit together, Slovaks and Roma, when we are at the pub together.”

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Petronela Kacova, second from left, with her daughter Liana. She lives in one of the Roma neighborhood’s newest apartment blocks with her husband and two young children.

Credit
Akos Stiller for The New York Times

Roma were a persecuted underclass almost from the moment they arrived in Europe from India many centuries ago. They were enslaved in Hungary and Romania in the 15th century, murdered by Nazis in the Holocaust.

Derided as Gypsies, their roaming lifestyle ended in the conflicts of the 20th century, but they remained a largely segregated underclass across much of Eastern Europe.

Slovakia, a country of about five million people, officially has 150,000 Roma citizens, though Mr. Ravasz said the real number was closer to 450,000.

There are 1,100 officially recognized Roma communities in Slovakia, most of them in the central and eastern parts of the country, which are more rural and impoverished.

Of those, Mr. Ravasz said, only about 10 or 20 have mayors like Mr. Ledecky.

“In Hrhov, the Roma start their lives in a brick house, with running water,” Mr. Ravasz said. “They go to kindergarten. As they grow up, they see their parents working.”

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The village center of Spissky Hrhov, where about 350 of the 1,800 residents are Roma.

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Akos Stiller for The New York Times

Many Roma elsewhere have few, if any, of those advantages.

“They are born into segregated communities, far from civilization,” Mr. Ravasz said. “They are the fifth of eight children, living in a shanty with no running water. Their parents don’t work. They are sent to special classes almost automatically.”

Mr. Ledecky said that when he and his friends — many of whom still serve as town officials — took control of the local council they knew they would have to work with the Roma if they wanted to stop the village from vanishing.

“There was nothing to do if people had no jobs,” said the mayor, who is a former software engineer. “So, the only thing to do was to set up a village company, the only aim of which was to provide Roma with jobs. We didn’t want to have any profit.”

The first product from the village company was pavement tiles for sidewalks. The business flourished. Then the village started its own construction company, for local infrastructure projects and to help local residents with home projects.

“We grew so fast and started making a profit, so we kept expanding,” Mr. Ledecky said.

A shop selling local cheese and sausage was opened on the highway at the edge of town. Herbal teas and apples were grown, dried and sold. An old lumber mill was leased out with the condition that the village gets all the sawdust, which it turns into biofuel pellets.

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Washing a carpet in the Roma settlement of Roskovce, an illegal settlement of about 500 Roma, a few miles away from Spissky Hrhov.

Credit
Akos Stiller for The New York Times

One by one, the former illegal Roma shanties were turned into legal brick homes and apartment blocks that the Roma either owned or rented. A new town hall was built. Wooden sculptures and colorful mosaics decorated the new town center. A village swimming pool was built with the profits from the businesses, and a new park is underway.

Residents from nearby cities and villages began to move into Spissky Hrhov, drawn by its growing reputation and land prices kept low to encourage newcomers.

Even foreign buyers showed up. A man from London built a vacation villa. A Dutch family moved to the village. Land discounts were no longer required.

“The village has become so trendy, people are just coming,” Mr. Ledecky said.

One of the arguments Slovak mayors have made in refusing to upgrade Roma settlements is that doing so would only encourage more Roma to move in, exacerbating the problem. But that has not been the experience in Spissky Hrhov.

For one thing, the village’s own Roma residents have proved vigilant about keeping out illegal shanties, eager to protect their own neighborhood and steady jobs.

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Workers of the Spissky Hrhov construction company renovating a school in the nearby Roma settlement of Roskovce.

Credit
Akos Stiller for The New York Times

“We discourage them,” said Ivan Kacur, 36, a Roma who has worked for the village company for two years, cutting grass. “They have their own culture and habits. We wouldn’t want that here. I’ve got a mortgage and a new home, a real home.”

The contrast to Spissky Hrhov’s success can be seen just a few miles away in Roskovce, an illegal settlement of about 500 Roma spread along a narrow ravine.

Two outdoor water pumps serve all of Roskovce’s residents. Homes are falling down, half-finished, with gaping holes for windows and crumbling roofs. Mr. Ledecky, who is building a new school for the settlement, has hired a few of its residents, but many more are eager to join the village’s work force.

“This has really changed our community,” Mr. Ledecky said. “The majority no longer have any problem with the Roma from our village. At the same time, they do not feel the same about Roma from other villages. I can’t understand why this racism persists.”

Indeed, the success of villages like Spissky Hrhov is not welcome by everyone. As the number of Muslim refugees passing through Central Europe has dwindled, nationalists and neo-fascists have again made the Roma a target.

“They have redirected their anger against the Roma again,” said Irena Bihariova, chairwoman of People Against Racism, a human-rights group based in Bratislava, the capital. “Things neo-Nazis wouldn’t dare say in public are now being said all over the place, on Facebook, without fear.”

She pointed to a series of marches against “social parasites,” as the right-wing describes the Roma, organized by Marian Kotleba, the neo-fascist governor of the Banska Bystrica region not far from Spissky Hrhov.

Relations between ethnic Slovaks and Roma are much better in Spissky Hrhov than surrounding communities, but even here, people tend to stick with their own, some residents said.

“The Roma here are better, of course, more tidy,” said Milan Dzurnak, 52, as he worked on a fence outside his home. “But they are still different. I never mingle with them.”

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