Vol 1, No 19
1 November 1999
C Z E C H R E P U B L I C:
To Be a Refugee in the Czech Republic
Patrick Francis, a tall, thin, dark-skinned man with thinning grey hair and a gracious manner from Pakistan, was telling me the story of his ex-roommates at a refugee camp at Cerveny Ujezd in the Czech Republic - an hour and a half drive north of Prague in the hills near the border with the old East Germany. It is a compound converted from old army barracks. There are several nondescript buildings of three storeys, holding a total of about 300 people: families, single men and some single women.
The rooms are just big enough to hold the requisite metal beds, a wardrobe, some chairs and a table. There's a cafeteria, library, a couple of common rooms, a small building for children's games and a place for adults to play basketball. It is surrounded by trees, and the nearest village is within walking distance.
We were sitting in Patrick's room which was barely big enough to hold two beds, two chairs, a small table with a cooker on it and a wardrobe. A none-too-clean window looked out on the other buildings and trees and the cold and wet October day.
As a volunteer for OPU (Organizace pro pomoc uprchlikum, Organisation for Aid to Refugees), I had come to know Patrick and his roommates on regular trips to the camp with other volunteers last summer. Patrick and his friends always treated all of us as honoured guests in their home, serving us meals of japatis, rice, beans and tea which they made on their cooker. Some of the meals were made with gifts sent by relatives and friends in Germany, and so we wondered if we should be dipping into their precious hoard, but they offered with such generosity and pride that we could not figure out a way to decline graciously.
We would also bring items of food - they told us it was hard to get the right beans in the local village, and thus, we hunted them down in Prague. We brought magazines and clothes donated to OPU. We'd sit and laugh and joke and they would ask us questions about ourselves and tell us their stories, a little guardedly at times.
Conned into the Czech Republic
Patrick's ex-roommates were Yusef and Ahmad, Muslims from Pakistan. Yusef, a slight man, had lived in Germany and married a German, got divorced and returned to Pakistan. For reasons which he did not make clear, he left Pakistan again and could not go back to Germany and so ended up at the camp at Cerveny Ujezd.
Ahmad, tall, thin and handsome, had been a journalist and had lived in Japan. He returned to Pakistan, but his opposition to the government put him in a precarious position, and so he too left.
Patrick himself was a Christian, and when someone burned the Koran back in his native community in Pakistan, he was considered the likely suspect by some Muslims. They beat him up at least twice and so, because he thought he'd never be safe, he left his wife and two daughters with his brother and went to Karachi where, a little over a year ago, he met up with Ahmad and together they paid a man to get them to Germany.
The man provided passports and papers, and, soon, they were on a plane to Moscow, where met another man who was to drive them to Germany. He drove for five nights, after which, he declared they were in Germany. Actually, Patrick and Ahmad had been dropped off in a small village in the Czech Republic.
With help from the Czech police, they made their way to the refugee camp at Cerveny Ujezd.
Duped by the duped
In Pakistan Patrick had had a business etching pictures and designs on to inexpensive metals, glass and stone, and he took it up in the camp and taught Ahmed and Yusef to do the same. They all hoped to set up in a nearby town and support themselves selling their wares.
This was all I knew as of last summer.
When I returned to the camp in October, my first visit since the summer, there was only a subdued Patrick, who was still trying to comprehend what had happened with his old friends. In puzzlement he told me his story in his cramped room as I drank the tea with milk he had prepared for me on his cooker.
Patrick, Ahmad and Yusef had made about USD 300 from the sale of the etchings they had all made together. Patrick let the other two handle the money, but they had spent it on drugs and alcohol. They beat him and stole all the art supplies.
This mystified Patrick. He said the two Muslims had prayed five times a day, so why would they act like that?
Later, they returned the supplies, and Yusef was tearfully remorseful. But they then left for Belgium and that was the last anyone heard of them.
A dark shadow crossed Patrick's face as he told this story, but then he picked up and talked about his etchings and how the children loved the bracelets he made for them with the materials donated by OPU. Since OPU gave him the materials for free, he was happy to give the children free trinkets which they came to his door asking for. He said his etching work was the only thing keeping him from becoming very depressed. As we sat and talked, his "new friend," as he called him, who was a young Indian from the Punjab, sat and listened.
This was Patrick's last day at Cerveny Ujezd. He had to leave because he'd received his second "negative," which meant that his first and second applications for asylum in the Czech Republic had been rejected; the Czech government would no longer support him with the free room, board and monthly stipend of 360 Czech crowns (USD 11). given to every adult. He is hardly alone: in the first six months of 1999, the Czech Republic granted asylum to only 26 people out of a total of 5,360 refugee cases.
So, Patrick was having to move to a neighbouring camp for people like himself who were aiming to appeal to a higher authority and hoping that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) would pick up the bill for their support as they waited for the result of his third appeal. He also hoped for some money from his wife who was supposed to sell some things and send him money but had not yet done so.
And so, after over a year in the Czech Republic, with hopes dashed, Patrick continues to wade through the process of asylum in a refugee camp - holding on to the tenuous hope that, someday, he will live and work here independently in peace and make enough money to send to his family back in Pakistan.
Waiting and moving on without a trace
There are others who are not so patient as Patrick. We used to visit a seven-member Iraqi family last summer. They had already spent an unfruitful four years waiting in Greece for asylum, before making their way to the Czech Republic. Sana, the mother in her mid-thirties, had a ready smile, betraying a calm cheerfulness. Her warmly loving, but in-charge manner with her children gave an atmosphere of security to the family despite the itinerant character of their lives. She had been a computer programmer in Iraq and so spoke good, if a bit broken English. She always had her daughters fix us cups of tea and asked what we were doing, about our families and our lives.
But, like Patrick, behind the cheerfulness there was a distracted sadness in her manner as if she were constantly sorting out her present situation, their next move, how they would get the clothes or healthcare they needed. And then the three adolescent girls wanted nail polish and watches and all the accoutrements of teenage life.
They had two rooms for the parents, the baby, the five-year-old son and the three adolescent daughters. The eldest daughter had epilepsy, a condition which had erupted after the Iraqi war, when was very badly affected by the bombing. Czech schools could not accommodate her seizures, so she stayed home with her mother, baby brother and father.
Returning to the camp in October, I was delighted to see Sana, her baby and one of the daughters, Susanna, but sad to miss the whole family, especially the high-spirited five-year-old son. It turned out the daughter with epilepsy had been falling a lot, and the father took her, one of her younger sisters and the young son to Austria, where medical treatment for epilepsy was better. The daughter was in hospital and doing better.
"When would they return?" I asked.
Sana was very vague.
She told me she needed clothes, and I was pleased, because a woman her size had just donated some lovely hardly-worn clothes that I would bring next time. Susanna let us know her birthday was coming up, and so we planned a party.
The next time we came, clothes, presents and cake in tow, we were quite surprised to get no response from our knock on the door down the long hall. The door was locked.
A woman from a neighbouring room came out to tell us that Sana and the rest of the family had all gone to Austria. We were stunned.
Never to come back?
We went to check with the camp office. Yes, they had gone and were not coming back.
"Where are they?" I asked.
No one knew.
I felt strangely betrayed. They had become my friends and then left without a trace. No goodbyes.
And I had thought so carefully about Susanna's presents. Should I hang on to them in case they do come back? What about the pictures I took of them the last time I was here, wanting them to have some record of the baby and Susanna at their ages?
When I finally accepted the fact that they were not coming back, I left the Susanna's presents for another young girl and the clothes to be distributed to whomever needed them.
We invited other refugees to come and eat the birthday cake with us.
Sergei, the newly arrived artist from the Ukraine, two Mongolian women and a Bangladeshi joined us.
Carol Sanford, 22 October 1999
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