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East/West: Human Trafficking, Part 4 -- Suren's Success Story

By Jeremy Bransten and Alexandra Poolos

When it comes to migration, the Czech Republic is officially classified as a transit country. As a post-Communist state still in economic transition, salaries there are significantly lower than in Western Europe, as are government welfare payments. Most migrants who come through the Czech Republic -- either legally or illegally -- hope to continue westwards in their quest for security and prosperity. But a growing number of asylum-seekers, especially from the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, have made the Czech Republic their final destination. Thanks in part to close linguistic ties -- which allow them to integrate among Czechs more quickly -- and to optimism about the country's long-term economic prospects, these new immigrants now call the country home.

In the last of a four-part series on East-West migration, RFE/RL correspondents Jeremy Bransten and Alexandra Poolos speak with one migrant who successfully settled in the Czech Republic.

Prague, 14 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- At 33 years old, Suren is a corporate success. Multilingual and dressed in a sober business suit, he receives visitors in the penthouse conference room of the international investment bank where he now heads the information technology department.

Life from such heights seems plush and effortless. But things didn't always look this rosy. Seven years ago, Suren arrived in the Czech Republic from his native Armenia, with little more than the clothes on his back -- and a computer engineer's diploma. He asked for political asylum. After three years spent in a refugee camp, his request was granted. The Czech Republic became his new home.

Suren is not his real name. He did not want his real name used, or the identity of his employer revealed. His family remains in Armenia, and Suren says he does not want to compromise them. Suren says he fled his homeland for political reasons and the Czech authorities granted him asylum on that basis.

He arrived in the Czech Republic in the autumn of 1993 and literally rang the bell at the gate of the Cerveny Ujezd refugee camp, about 100 kilometers north of Prague.

"I had the address of the Cerveny Ujezd camp, so I went there and rang the doorbell. Afterwards, the mechanism for receiving refugees kicks in. They hold your hand a bit, conduct an interview, take you to quarantine and the process is started."

The quarantine lasted three weeks, during which asylum-seekers were split from the rest of the refugee-camp population and given a thorough medical checkup.

"Conditions in such facilities can't be luxurious. There's hot water and it's heated. You have the basics."

Cerveny Ujezd is one of three camps in the Czech Republic that accepts refugees when they arrive in the country. After passing through quarantine, most asylum-seekers are assigned to different camps across the country. Some stay at Cerveny Ujezd, which was Suren's case -- for the next three years.

"I stayed in the same camp -- Cerveny Ujezd. They put me in a room with another Armenian. And life went on like it does in a camp: breakfast, lunch, dinner and any activities depending on how you organized your time, whether you played sports or looked for some work. I played sports."

Suren used his first few months to brush up on his English and make a first attempt at learning Czech. He says the lack of interesting Russian books forced him to learn more quickly.

"I tried to do some reading. I didn't speak Czech. There were some Russian books there, but they were old and from the Communist era, so they weren't very interesting. But we were dependent on the books at hand. The material in Russian wasn't interesting, so that prompted me to try reading in English and Czech."

Asylum-seekers in Czech refugee camps are offered language classes, but Suren says that in his experience, the disparate education levels and backgrounds of the camp population makes it difficult for teachers to be effective.

"Czech classes were offered, but as I said, there was great diversity and a great disparity among the refugees at the camp. You can't be in a class with an illiterate person because he's going to repeat the same word over and over the whole time and the teacher, of course, has to devote his attention to those who are behind. So I went to the classes a couple of times. I had a Russian base, as I came from the former Soviet Union and Russian there was an official language. So for me, the transition to Czech wasn't as drastic as for an Arabic speaker, say. It took a while, but I mostly learned thanks to books I read."

Time passed slowly at Cerveny Ujezd, with Suren waiting long months -- then years -- for his asylum claim to be processed. At first, he was refused.

"In the first round, I was turned down. At that time, the police dealing with foreigners made the decision. I appealed, and since I could already speak Czech, I described my situation to them in greater detail. I guess this had an effect."

Suren was luckier the second time around.

"After three years, I was told to go in 20 days to the camp's asylum department to pick up my asylum decision. Of course, I didn't know what that decision would be. I waited 20 days in uncertainty -- not sure whether I would have to pack up and leave. I didn't expect it to be positive."

Immediately after receiving new documents, Suren moved to a kind of halfway house in a nearby town. A non-governmental organization working with immigrants provided him with a small apartment and helped to find a job. His first offer came from a German auto-parts manufacturer. He went to work in their purchasing department. Six months later, chance smiled again. Through a friend, Suren heard that the Prague branch of an international investment bank was looking for an information technology expert. He applied and a few weeks later got the job. Today, Suren heads the department.

Now that he has made Prague his home, Suren was asked how it feels to be a foreigner in the Czech Republic. Has he encountered any hostility? Has he found it easy to integrate?

"I can't say as a whole that society here is xenophobic. It depends on the people. Educated people have a different mentality than people who don't have any experience with foreigners, and who haven't had any historical experience of dealing with foreigners. Those people fear foreigners and think that anyone who's different is bad. If you don't have the right accent, they think you're stupid. On the other hand, you have people who travel a lot, are educated, read and are interested in the history of other nations. And they know that because people come from somewhere else, they're not necessarily bad. You meet all kinds. People are different."

Czech society has undergone great changes since the Velvet Revolution a decade ago forced the doors open to the outside world. Suren is optimistic that the trend toward openness will continue.

"Because the Czech Republic is moving towards integration with the European Union, it is becoming more open to foreigners. It can't function alone without foreigners or it would return back the 1950s."

Suren was asked if he hopes to return to his homeland one day. Does he ever dream of resettling in Armenia?

"I have that hope, of course I have hope. Everyone loves their homeland. I harbor a hope that things will change there and that society will start to function democratically. For now, it doesn't appear imminent. But some day, it will have to happen."

After a wistful moment, Suren straightens his tie and regains his corporate composure. It's time to end the interview. Memories hurt. Information technology, after all, is for those who look to the future.