Accessibility links

Breaking News

Czech Republic: Gypsies Encounter Harassment In Canada

Ottawa, 8 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - Members of 10 Czech gypsy families are finding Canada a less-than-hospitable haven. The 43 people -- who arrived just before Christmas as refugees -- are in the west coast city of Vancouver, home to an estimated 200 people of gypsy descent.

Vancouver's social service agencies and volunteers were totally unprepared for what has happened since their arrival. There have been frequent anonymous hate calls, some saying the refugees should be sent to concentration camps or gas chambers -- and all of the calls have been in the Czech language. Every one of the 10 families has a story of harassment.

Gypsies have long been the target of racism in Europe, often being blamed for the social problems of their host countries. More than 300,000 gypsies were killed by the Nazis before and during World War II.

One Canadian gypsy is speaking out about the problem. Julia Lovell has lived in Vancouver for most of her 30 years.

"We don't advertise who we are. We lead settled lives, with close family ties and strong Catholic backgrounds," she says.

Lovell grew up as a nomad. She was born in Scotland and travelled around Europe and the United States with her family in a motor home. She says the family sold rugs and told fortunes to earn their way. Ten years ago, she says, her father got too old to travel so they bought a small house in Vancouver and started a textile design business.

Lovell says she and some friends are starting a "gypsy union," to push for civil rights for gypsies around the world. "The time is ripe to come out of the closet. In Europe, they think gypsies just steal, that we're a plague, but Canadians romanticize gypsies, thinking of them only as good dancers, colorful fortune tellers with dark-haired, beautiful women."

She says the Czech families, all from the industrial city of Pardubice, chose Canada because "they see it as a country where people from many different backgrounds live together peacefully."

"In fact," she says, "They didn't even know there were any gypsies here."

But, says Lovell, the families are all having trouble in their adopted homeland. She says children have been kicked off school buses or beaten up by other children; that another refugee was beaten up and bitten by a skinhead's dog; and yet another and his family were attacked by six people wielding knives when they were walking in a park.

Lovell says the process of waiting to be accepted as refugees will take up to a year and that the families have to show they have reasonable grounds for fear of persecution on the basis of race, political affiliation or religious beliefs.

"Canada has accepted thousands of refugees from the former Czechoslovakia, especially about the time of the Soviet invasion of 1968, but the federal government's attitude about this new wave of refugees has yet to be tested," she says.