These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.

Project Svinia: getting Roma involved

 photo: Chris Togneri

When American Craig Johnson first visited the Roma settlement in Svinia two years ago, he was appalled by the miserable living conditions.

“It was shocking,” he said. “I had seen a video about the Svinia Roma before I came, so I was somewhat prepared. But it was still shocking.”

The settlement remains a miserable scene. Gaunt dogs scavenge among heaps of refuge strewn in the nearby creek, a man with one leg and no crutch hops around a puddle clogged with trash, several infants walk barefoot in the ubiquitous mud, and one child, completely naked with mucus encrusted to his face and upper chest, brandishes a three-inch knife while toddling among piles of human waste.

“It’s better than nothing,” said Mariana Dlugošová, the settlement social worker. “But not by much.”

Johnson and Dlugošová are part of a plan aimed at providing long-term improvement to the settlement’s horrendous conditions: Project Svinia. They hope that where today stand flimsy wood-framed shanties with mud-packed walls there will soon be modern houses, complete with plumbing, heating and insulation.

The project’s housing scheme differs from others in that it provides no charity. In the first phase, five new homes will be built with the recipients expected not only to help with construction, but to then pay back the total cost of the building. If this first phase is successful, more homes will be built under the same conditions.

But with the destitute Roma expected to cover a bill of 300,000 to 500,000 crowns ($6,400 to $10,700) per home, success is not guaranteed. The Roma will be given 20 to 25 years to repay the money (12,000 to 25,000 crowns per year). While the average monthly wage in Slovakia is 12,000 crowns, unemployment among the Roma often approaches 100%, with most living off the few thousand crowns per month they receive from welfare.

“It’s a risky project,” Johnson said. “I can’t guarantee they will pay us back. We will likely provide training programmes to teach families to make a family budget. We’ll give them skills that will hopefully give them the ability to pay us back. And, of course, if they do pay it all back, they become the official owners of the land.”

THE VIDEO JOHNSON viewed before touring the Svinia settlement was prepared by David Scheffel, a Canadian university professor. In 1993, Scheffel led his students on a study-abroad programme in Slovakia. After requesting to see a ‘typical’ Roma settlement, he was directed to Svinia, eight kilometres north-west of Prešov.

Moved by the pathetic conditions, Scheffel returned to Canada to search for organisations willing to help, including one group called Habitat for Humanity, a non-profit organisation that has assisted in the construction of 110,000 houses in 80 different countries since 1976. The Svinia Project was its first in Slovakia.

Michal Vašečka, a Roma analyst for the Institute for Public Affairs think-tank in Bratislava, said that Habitat’s approach was the best way to tackle Slovakia’s Roma question.

“Having them build their houses themselves is the only way,” he said. “It’s the same with all people: give them something for free and they don’t care about it. But by getting the Roma involved, this project has a chance to make a real difference.”

Ignác Červeňák, president of the settlement’s Roma civil association (called Suno, or dream, in the Roma language), said that the Roma would value their new housing. While acknowledging that Slovak Roma have in the past destroyed government-funded blocks of flats, he said that under this scheme the results would be different.

“People will see, when we build something ourselves, we will not destroy it,” he said. “Some Roma have destroyed their flats, but none of us would ruin a home we have built with our own hands.”

Sixty-five families are interested in becoming potential owners of the five new homes (650 Roma live in the settlement). With only five homes to be constructed, Johnson said that a still undetermined selection process would decide which families are to be given the chance to become home-owners.

“We’ll challenge the families to demonstrate qualities which would make them good home owners,” he said. “For example, we may have them save a certain amount of money each month. We may also have them do simple community service projects, like painting blocks of flats or building fences.”

BESIDES HABITAT FOR Humanity, several other interested parties are involved in Project Svinia, like a group of health care experts from Canada that are training the Roma to clean up the currently unsanitary settlement.

Tomáš Hajduk, a volunteer from the Krajské centrum pre Rómske otázky (Regional Centre for Roma Questions), leads a programme aimed at reducing unemployment: 15 days a month, he leads Roma in making candles, then sells the finished products in the Prešov area. Some 900 candles are produced a month, with each candle-maker earning about 1,000 crowns ($21).

Miloslav Mihok, the mayor of Svinia, has secured five hectares of land for the construction of the new housing. City-funded rental flats for those families not selected by the Habitat for Humanity project will also be built, he said.

Roma analysts, while endorsing the project, have warned that the long-term nature of the Svinia Project may invite hasty criticism.

“I don’t know if this is the type of project where you’ll be able to immediately see any appreciable difference,” said John Young, of the European Union’s Phare fund in Bratislava. Young has visited 50 Roma settlements in Slovakia, including Svinia several times, and said that Svinia would “probably” receive Phare funding for infrastructure.

Roma analyst Vašečka also warned against hurried assessments. “We have to be careful how we evaluate this project. It’s a fantastic chance to help a problematic settlement, but we can’t expect miracles. They [the project organisers] will have to stay here for 25 to 30 years if there is to be any permanent change.

“But that’s what it takes. Some people working with the Roma feel that we may have lost the current generation of Roma. So we’ve got to save the next generation.”

- Chris Togneri

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2002.

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