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Housing blocks in the Lunik IX district Housing blocks in the Lunik IX district  (AFP or licensors)

Pope in Slovakia: Roma community, a volunteer’s perspective

As Pope Francis visits the Roma Community in Košice, one volunteer describes her experience of working with the residents there.

By Lydia O’Kane

Lunik IX is a district on the outskirts of Košice, the largest city in eastern Slovakia, which also houses the largest community of Roma, who moved there from other parts of the country.

Life at Lunik IX

There are currently about 4,300 people who live on a housing estate in the area, existing in poor social and hygienic conditions. Many families live with no running water, gas or central heating. The majority who reside here are unemployed and without the necessary educational skills to progress in life. Children barely finish elementary school and become parents very early.

Alexandra Voláková is a volunteer with the Salesian community who work with children and young people from the estate. This summer, she participated in a camp working with children on a number of activities. Before the pandemic, she also met with young Roma girls on a weekly basis.

Listen to the interview

Engaging with the community 

“We talked about so many things, about life, about relationships, about Christianity.” The girls have concerns about their future and “how people will accept them,” she said.

However, in a note of optimism, Alexandra stressed that they are very excited for the future and want to broaden their horizons outside Lunik IX. “They want to do something for themselves; they want to find a job, they want to find a husband, they want to find a flat.”

Alexandra recalled that when she was younger, she grew up with pre-conceived notions of Lunik IX. She heard that it was dangerous and you shouldn’t go there. But Alexandra said that all that changed when she arrived at the housing estate as a volunteer. “It was something different,” and something she didn’t think she would see there.

She noted that in order to engage with the Roma Community you need “a heart and a mind” to work with them.  She explained that it’s not about what you can give them materially, “it’s about your insights.”

Discrimination

Speaking about the discrimination the Roma Community face in the country, Alexandra pointed out, “they don’t have any opportunity to find jobs” and people discriminate against them because of their culture and the place where they live. She went on to say that when they see someone from their community has been unable to find a job, it discourages others going in search of one.

In the eyes of those outside the community who live in other parts of the city, “they can’t see the better face of Lunik IX, they see the bad face of it,” she commented.

Papal Guest

As part of his visit to the country, Pope Francis is coming to Lunik IX on Tuesday to meet with the residents here.

Alexandra noted that excitement has grown ahead of the Pope’s visit after a somewhat muted initial response. “They see workmen doing repairs and remodeling things in preparation,” she said. “For them then, it was something different, it felt like the Pope is going to Lunik IX because of them… but they’re looking forward to it, they’re excited.”

14 September 2021, 08:55