Amnesty Against Extremism in Slovakia

by Pontis Foundation
Amnesty Against Extremism in Slovakia
Amnesty Against Extremism in Slovakia
Amnesty Against Extremism in Slovakia
Amnesty Against Extremism in Slovakia
Amnesty Against Extremism in Slovakia
Amnesty Against Extremism in Slovakia
Amnesty Against Extremism in Slovakia
Amnesty Against Extremism in Slovakia

Martin told me his extraordinary story on one sunny august afternoon in the garden of the Amnesty International office in Bratislava, Slovakia. I picked him up at the railway station after a long journey from his hometown, Košice. It was easy to spot Martin even a large crowd because of his appearance – he is missing almost a half of his both arms and one leg, instead of which he wears a prosthesis, but he also has a stylish blond highlights in his hair.

Martin labels himself as a “minority within a minority”. “I am a part of the LGBT community, I am gay, but people don’t care about that once they see I have no arms.”

 

Born with a handicap

On one hand, Martin would like to know why it was him who was born with a handicap. On the other hand, he understands, that he just has to accept it. “I don’t know why I have this handicap. It was in 1986, my medical records say that it was an infectious disease. I had to deal with myself when I wanted to ask my doctor why she let it happen, why she hadn’t told my mother and I earlier. But then we realized with my mother that it doesn’t really matter – knowing why will not bring the years back. In the past, I would have done it, I would have confronted the doctor hard, but it is a dead end, a person has to move on.”

A court assigned Martin to an institutional treatment. It took him some time to stop holding a grudge against his mother. Martin now doesn’t see his childhood as black and white: “The only thing I felt sorry for was the fact that I was brought up in the institutional care, which I felt was really unnecessary. On the other hand, my mother needed some help, she had never been around a person with a handicap so she had not known how to take care of me. She put me into the institutional care, but she still took care of me… At first, I did not believe her, because I was a teenager, and in that age, we are ignoring whatever parents or adult tell us. “

Martin had to find a way not only towards his self-acceptance, but also to his mother: “After twenty years, I met a nurse and she confirmed to me, that my mother was often with me. That’s when I realized that it is about time for me to start trusting my mother a little bit and stop blaming her from something which is not even her fault – she took care of herself, she didn’t smoke or drink, she was an example of a woman who was responsible when she was expecting a baby, and what happened, just happened.”

 

Childhood in the institutional care

Despite everything, Martin thinks well about his childhood in an institutional care. “I grew up in an institution which and now I think of it as a good thing. I learned how to take care of myself, I had good relations with the nurses and the staff, and I even visited them at their homes a couple of times… there were children who didn’t get a chance to go somewhere outside and I went to my mother’s but also to other families, so I got to know the family life a little bit. It was nice, but of course, I ignored it as well…I hated the world around me, I hated myself because I didn’t have arms, but not only I was missing my arms, I didn’t even have one leg – I had to wear a prosthesis.”

“Once in a month I went home for the weekend. I always came back on Sunday with something my mother gave me, for example a cocoa. It was just a small thing, because my mother couldn’t afford more and she was divorced, but she always tried to make my life nicer. She used to give me 400 crowns, which was big money back then.

 

Rebel at school, “rehabs” and end of a swimming carrier

Martin recalls his years at school with nostalgia. “My school was nothing unusual – the only difference was that there were not 30 children, but only 15, because we all needed more individualized approach. Teachers treated as children without a handicap, but because there were less of us, we had even stronger bond between ourselves.”

 

As most of the kids, he enjoyed breaks during high school. Besides the breaks, he enjoyed mathematics, and surprisingly, physical ed. He pushed around other kids, which they didn’t like: “For example, when they had to make circles with their forearms, I could do it, because for me, it was as natural as making circles with wrists is to you. Some of my classmates couldn’t do it though and I provoked them and got good grades.

 

Martin was always a unique student, who was not afraid to rebel. He told his German teacher that he would not learn German. He told his Slovak teacher: “I refuse to learn literature, I do not care about it! And she was the sweetest woman, she started to cry and asked me how I could told her that, that I would ignore it, when she liked me so much,” remembers Martin semi-seriously.

 

After school, they used to go to rehabilitations, which they called “rehabs”, or HW (healing by working). They learned how to tie their own shoes, how to spread butter on bread, or how to plug light bulbs on a board so they would light up.

 

“I used to be an active swimmer, attending swimming competitions.” However, Martin admits self critically, that his carrier as a swimmer ended once he started to drink beer with his friends. “After I quit, I regretted it, because my coach promised me a star carrier – I could have gone to the Paralympics.” He adds with a smile that thanks to swimming, he still has good figure, which he benefits from.

 

He remembers the time when a new gas station was build near an exit to Miškolc. We met men and women working at the gas station and as you, healthy people sit with your friends on the street or in front of a bar, us met in front of the institute.”

There were good times, although back then I hated it. Now, when I recall it, those were the best times of my life and I don’t regret being there. Now I know that it was the best school of life which taught me how to live in a group of people.”

 

Farewell to the institutional care, vulnerability and integration to society

Martin left the institution when he was 19 and began a hard period of integration. “On one hand, I said thank God, I shut the door and told myself never to come back, I didn’t even wanted to turn. On the other hand, it was a weird feeling to move out and move all of my staff – it was a strange feeling that something new was coming up which I was afraid of.”

Martin questioned himself about how he would manage to live independently. “How would I get my ID, as I was always with somebody before, I knew there was always somebody who was there for me if I didn’t understand something – a person needed to have somebody to lean on just in case, and suddenly it all stopped… my mother didn’t have the time, because she was working and she had to take long shifts in order to earn some money.”

 

“I thought that everyone on the bus wanted to kill me, everyone was looking at me – “he doesn’t have arms, his teeth are poking out, he doesn’t have a leg”… and I was very self-conscious at that time. Even now, when somebody laughs at you, it destroys your self-confidence, which often takes a long time to build, and somebody just comes and destroys it in a second.”

 

Living libraries

He got to know about the Living libraries project in 2007 “on accident, through an aunt of my confirmation daughter and that’s the moment when everything started to change.” At my first big Living library at lake Zelena Voda near Trencín which was organized by Iuventa in 2007, he learned to say his story thanks to radical simulation led by Ms. Janette Mazini. “At first as a reader, she shouted at my confirmation daughter Veronika. She wanted us to prepare for all types of readers, so then she turned around to the other extreme and was very nice to us.”

 

“To tell your life story couple of times one after another is very difficult. It is not very easy to go through a self-reflection five times in a row, with only small breaks. You always tell your story in a different way, as we are not machines. We have living books who cannot do it, not because they would not want to, but because they are too tired to do it.”

Martin, as a living book with most experiences explains that it is important to train new living books, but also new librarians.

 

“Thanks to Living libraries, I learned to accept myself. I had many issues before, I was self- centered and I thought that everyone should adjust according to my needs. Living libraries taught me that I should be the one who should adapt. If I want to be around “healthy people”, I couldnt ask them to treat me in a way that “look he does not have arms, he does not have a leg, lets behave around him differently”, it does not work this way…”

 

Work experience in Germany

Martin spent 10 months as a volunteer in Germany at special school for children coming from poor social backgrounds, with behavioral disorders, hyperactive and also handicapped children. In this way, Martin’s high school rebellion got the best of him, as he had to learn German language from scratch. His experience with living in Germany taught him a lot about global education, prejudices and stereotypes. Until that, he saw people from different nationalities differently: “People from Turkey or Pakistan looked the same to me, I could not see the difference between people from China and Japan… Originally, I did not want to spend my time with any of the minorities, I wanted to work with a group of regular people, not from poor social background, or handicapped in a way… I had too much of them… and then my mother asked me: “Are you crazy?”

 

“Sometimes, those children made me really angry, sometimes they were amazing, but their behavioral disorders showed very often and all I wanted to do was go outside, shout and never come back. But then I recalled what the director of the school always said – that everyday is a new day, and we have to give it a chance.”

 

Studying photography

Martin started to study at private film high school (Súkromná stredná umelecká škola filmová) after he met one of their alumni at Living library. He studied photographic design and video.

 

His beginnings were surrounded by worries. “I did not know if I would be able to afford it, how the teachers and students would approach me. These worries were useless, the director was nice and until I didn’t have my one camera, I could borrow a school camera even for a week. “

 

Martin appreciates that the teacher at school never treated him differently. “Once, my art teacher told me to draw and I was not in a mood, so I told him that I wouldn’t, because I didn’t know how to draw. And he asked me: “You don’t know how because you cannot draw with your hands, or because you are lazy?” I responded that it is because I was lazy. And he told me: “Here, there is a paper, you can draw.” I stopped then and I thought that he could have been more considerate, but then I told myself that he actually approached me as a normal person. They forgot that I had a handicap, they thought of me as being healthy.”

 

Plans for future

Martin takes pictures while working on projects, although this is not something he genuinely likes. He’d rather take picture of people, acts or portraits. He is building his website and a portfolio. Besides that, he likes to cooperate with NGOs, which he has been doing for about a year now. “I don’t need to buy a big house, but… well, ok, a Jaguar yes.”

I asked him if he could drive a car with his handicap, and he confirms, but he also adds that nobody wants to let him try to drive.

 

Martin would like to try to live abroad. “There not that many opportunities here in Slovakia, people have various complexes. I come to a job interview, where they see me and a person in a wheelchair, and they prefer this person over me, because they think a person in a wheelchair could write on a computer, whereas I don’t have any arms, so I will not be able to do the same. But I have many certificates that say that I have done it… I was at a job interview in Košice for a company working with computer technologies. They had an e-shop and wanted me to work with the department on cameras and video, manage their Youtube channel, shoot videos. I liked it, because it was something I would like to do and I could help those people but in the end, they told me that they found somebody else – I was probably too handicapped for them.”

 

I am grateful that thanks to the Living library project I can meet with such strong and inspirational people like Martin. Despite the fact that he told his story around 500 times, he is still full of emotions, and the reader has the feeling like he is living his story with him. I wish Martin, in his own words, “gets a chance” for a fulfilling job and a nice partner. 

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Natalia is 19 years old dancer, senior at high school and a living book. She became a part of the Living books project 3 years ago together with her parents. During the readings, she reflects on her life as an adopted child.

She was born on April 28th, 1996. „I was given life by a wonderful woman, who unfortunately died two months later due to hearth failure.“ Natalia’s father never acknowledged her as his daughter and never took interest in her, so she ended up in an orphanage.

Adoption

Before adopting Natalia, her foster parents had been to many orphanages from Bratislava to Košice without any luck. They recall a story where they came to the orphanage in Prešov for the first time. The director asked them whether they were interested in white or Roma children. Her father realized that it was not going to be so easy, so he decided it did not matter to him and asked to see both.

They found Natalia’s stepbrother first. Her father then found Natalia in a room where everybody else was sleeping; only Natalia was screaming her head out. Her mother did not want to have a girl, but when she saw Natalia, she could not resist her. Natalia is very grateful for the adoption. She thinks that if her parents did not take her, or her mother would have lived, she would have probably ended up in a Roma settlement in Sabinov (where she is originally from), and would probably have been a mother of her own. She does not want to meet her biological father. She says that he gave her life, but that it ends there. Her grandmother was willing to take care of her, but when she realized that she would have to take care of Natalia’s siblings as well, she agreed to the adoption.

School, love and prejudices

„As every child, I also attended preschool, which was hell. There I encountered racism for the first time – children refused to play with me even in preschool. One little girl asked my father why I was so dark. My father replied that it was because I drank too much cocoa. I started to use the same reasoning, but it only worked for a short time. ‘

At elementary school, Natalia had to get used to being humiliated. On her first day, she came back crying, because she was afraid of the reactions from her new classmates. Her mother then gave her strength by saying: „Natalia, you are an extraordinary human being, do not forget that. Nobody can ever humiliate you because you have dark skin, or because you have Roma origins. Think of it as a gift from your mother, which you were given and have to carry with you, as it might cause you problems.“

She was thrown banana peels at, she was locked in dressing rooms, in bathrooms, and she was hurt in many ways. At first, she did not know how to respond. She made up excuses not to go to school or to dance practices, only to avoid being harassed. In her final year at elementary school, her classmate told her, that she „should hang herself for being a Gypsy, and that if he was a Gypsy, he would have killed himself.“

When she was seventeen, she fell in love for the first time. After a year and a half long relationship, she encountered racism in love as well.

„My then boyfriend told me, that he could not go out with me anymore, because I was a Gypsy.“

It was hard on her and Natalia was afraid that she would have to deal with the same issue in her further relationships. After a while she told herself that this could not bring her down. „I told myself that I should actually thank him. He taught me that when somebody humiliates me, I have to rise above it, work on myself and make him see that he had made a mistake.“

New perspective and the Living books project

At one moment, she realized that she was looking at all this from a wrong angle. When she was five years old, she started to dance. Later on, she did a lot of dance performances on TV shows and in concerts with famous dancer Laci Strike. Currently, she teaches children Latin-American dances. She told to herself: „Why? I am a normal person, just like anybody else, why should I hide myself?“

The Living books project helped her a lot. She joined the project thanks to Janette, who has been supporting Roma children and youth in Slovakia for many years. She admits that she ran away from the first training crying, as she was touched by the stories of Living books.

At first, she did not want to participate in the project. She was afraid that the readers might react to her story in a similar way to how she did. Finally, she decided that it was a right thing to do. When she realized, that by telling her story she might help somebody else who is dealing with similar issues, but does not talk about them, it changed her perception. She realized that there are dark sides of this work, but she should take it easy.

„It is difficult to have many readings during one session. You have to relieve the memories again and again. It is good that the person can talk out the experiences, but I most probably would not do it under other circumstances. However, I understand that the children really need to hear it. And not only children, but also adults, who might be carrying some issues with them. They need to see somebody like me. They might say to themselves: I have these issues, she has these issues, and somebody else has these issues as well. We are all on the same boat, but she is steering her boat in a different course and with different speed.“

Living books is a project by managed by Amnesty Interational Slovakia. Thank you for your support.

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Milan identifies himself as a courageous and active person, someone who likes to overcome challenges. He has chosen to be a Living book because he likes to help people - especially those who belong to minorities and have faced similar prejudices as himself. As a part of the Living libraries project, he wants to change the attitudes of people. Milan’s answer to the question why people should care about minorities and help them is that “no one really knows when he or she will become a minority.”

Milan is not identified by only one profession. On the contrary, he engages in many activities, often at the same time. He studied English and philosophy, then the theory of theatre in Netherlands and Finland. Ever since finishing his university studies, he has been teaching. He also works as a translator, and you can meet him in a cultural space Záhrada in Banská Bystrica where he works as a literary adviser and a producer. He is also still active in theatre and is pursuing his doctorate degree in theatre studies.

On the outside, he is just an ordinary guy. However, he is also a living book.

He is a modest, intelligent person with a smile on his face. He does not stand out in the crowd, but he lives an interesting life. And he is not ashamed to admit that he does not belong to the heterosexual pool of people. He started to be engaged with the Living library project around the referendum for family period of time in Slovakia. “Hate, criticism and questioning of the normalcy of the LGBT community interfered with my daily life, so I decided to act.” Because until this moment, he was surrounded only with tolerant people, who hadn’t considered him as being “different”.

“It is similar to attacking a Roma person just for being Roma, or a blue-eyed people just for having blue eyes, which is absurd.”

He perceived the period around the referendum for family in a negative way, because he could relate to the fear of not being accepted and guilt felt by people: “homosexuality is not a factor based on which a person’s character should be judged”.

“Suddenly I had a feeling, that I am really affected by how people are talking about homosexuals, or about anybody who has a different sexual orientation other than heterosexual. I felt that it is my responsibility, but also something more than that. For me, living in a normal and open society means something different than facing insults and humiliation in discussion forums from anonym contributors, but also from our leaders.”

For him, being a part of the Living libraries project is an interesting experience and a great opportunity to open people’s eyes. It also means that he can react to different opinions and views. It is an opportunity for him to show the “readers” his daily life and fight against stereotypes.

He likes to attend the Living libraries events because of the experiences and atmosphere which he feels during the events. “During those 10 – 15 minutes, a person can witness a change of mind or attitude on such an intuitive level. It is interesting to see how the glances of people change – at first, they are evasive, then they show some compassion, after that understanding, and finally a smile.”

When asked, whether he feels that he is changing people’s attitudes, he answers: “Yes, I’ve had this feeling. I don’t know how this people will react in real life afterwards, but I have had a feeling that they have become more open, that they have really learned something about an authentic life of a gay person. I hope it helps to make a difference in future.”

The view of a teacher

His job as a teacher and his work with children has brought him a unique perspective on life. As a teacher, he always tried to explain his students that they should not disgrace anyone. He has not had any issues with colleagues or parents, though children had been cruel sometimes.

“Elementary school was hard, children had remarks. I have never lied about my orientation by saying that I am not gay. I always tried to turn it into something humorous. When children use word such as “fag” or queer, they think they make fun of the person. I tried to make them understand that it is an expression of a sexual orientation, nothing more and nothing less than that.”

The view of a traveller
As a member of a minority and as a passionate traveller, he always stands up to other people in need and feels solidarity with refugees. The reason is simple, “it is because I like to travel a lot, and I get to know new countries. It is amazing that we have these opportunities to travel and migrate. It is a great advantage, but here, people want to build walls.”

He cannot imagine what would happen, if travelling was suddenly prohibited, or if the student exchanges and mobility programs were cancelled.

“Maybe people would then finally understand what they were fighting against.”

He says that his minority is different than others: “We are an invisible minority. It is different with foreigners; you can hear that they speak different languages and that they look differently. Often you cannot tell who belongs to the LGBT community just by looking at them. People with different sexuality have different jobs, they belong to all parts of society.”

People should not be quiet

“I am sad that people in Slovakia are quiet, that they avoid their responsibility to help the minorities and change the attitudes of others.”

Milan thinks that it is important to take the responsibility and not to stay quiet.

It is important to start the change locally – in everyone’s backyard. Although he admits, “I can imagine that a person remains quiet in a village or small city with 400 people”. He quickly adds that he himself cannot remain quiet, as it would make him feel as he is hiding something.

He argues that people should talk about minorities, that Living library is important. “I admit I don’t have time to change the attitude of every neo-Nazi or a homophobe. That is why I focus on people, who I think would understand what I have to say to them.” He thinks it is important to capture the right moment, but also avoid situations that can be dangerous.

According to Milan, political elites and media persons should be more active. “I condemn those about whom I know they are homosexuals, but who don’t speak about it, or are evasive in their answers. They need to realize that they have the media power. They should not be afraid of losing the support of few people. Really, it only takes a few statements in the media and the public perception would start to change. People would at least start to think about it.”

“You always have to stand up for minorities, because anyone can become a member of a minority. Just imagine that you are in a group of 10 people and you are the only one with a different opinion – just this small thing means that you are a minority. Anyone can become a minority in any kind of situation.”

A view for future – be more open and more perceptive

Everyone hopes for a better future, for a change in opinions and attitudes of people, for a tolerant world. “There are always plenty of steps and fights for human rights, but it is more of a marathon. The gays own the starting line, though.”

“Fear and societal pressure which teenagers face can do much harm. I know gays who are willing to lead a double life and lie about their orientation just because they fear rejection. It’s a paradox, since they fear to accept themselves.”

Situation can change as the time passes, and he believes that with the development of information sharing and communication, the change of attitudes and perception of people will follow. Milan likes to sort things out with discussion, that’s why he appreciates the Living library. He would to see the project growing closer to people and to become a part of cultural events.

“Everybody should be a Living book to express their feelings…this is not only about homosexuals, but also about other minorities.”

We parted ways with his statement “Live and let live!”

We would like to express our thanks to Milan and our appreciation of his courage and will to change attitudes and views of young people.

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Venus
Venus

Venus Jahanpour is an energetic and optimistic woman who, in her adolescent years, fled from Iran to Sweden through Pakistan. Sweden, as she realized later, wasn’t enough for her. She wanted to go somewhere further. Somewhere, where people will need her help. 

Venus was born in Iran. Along with her parents and siblings, she spent her childhood in Tehran. Her whole family practices Bahaism, Iran’s second most spread religion after Islam. “Your religion is very obvious in Iran, unlike in Europe, where it’s more private. You can distinguish who practices what religion just by looking at people. In school, I faced different prejudices because of my religion and had to prove that it doesn’t mean anything bad all the time. All our conversations at home looked the same – my asking why do people say all these things about us and my parents’ trying to support me and my brothers in telling people about our faith. There’s a story from my childhood that I recall: I was five years old and my family was buying a car. My father left it up to me to make the decision about the color and I remember how happy I was when I felt that my opinion mattered.”

Her childhood and adolescent years were full of negative memories too. “The revolution started when I was around eleven years old, and my daily activity became buying the newspapers for my parents every morning so that they could check whether any of their friends had been executed or arrested. Our neighbor once told my mother she had heard gunshots coming from the execution site. You think about whether it was someone you knew all the time in a situation like this. We lived nearby the prison designated for people labeled as political prisoners. When my brothers were imprisoned, I found my father crying in his room. He had always been an optimistic person, he never gave up and believed in better tomorrows. Seeing him in such despair and not knowing how to help him must have been one of the worst experiences of my entire life. Finding out he had died in a car accident while I had been living in Sweden for over a year was also one of them. It was my faith which helped me get over these moments. Bahaism is a very pacifistic religion which emphasizes the mutual understanding between various religions and cultures. Bahai people are supposed to always tell to truth because we believe it gives us strength. 

The revolution drastically changed Venus’ life, and she decided to flee Iran when she was just sixteen years old. “My parents wanted me to escape. I traveled through Pakistan, where I spent three months. In Islamabad, I could feel the difference between the poor and the rich for the first time. Despite all of what my family had to endure, I grew up in a calm environment and coming from the middle class, it was a huge change for me. After living in Pakistan for three months, I received my refugee passport and traveled to Sweden, where my older brother had already been living for some time. I had studied in Sweden for six years before I moved to Czechoslovakia.”

Why Czechoslovakia? “Throughout my studies at the university in Sweden, I participated in a lot of extracurricular activities with exchange students form the Olomouc university. We worked with the Red Cross, Amnesty International, UNICEF and the UN on questions regarding gender equality and we supported the “world citizenship” idea, topics I found extremely important. What helped me decide to move to Czechoslovakia were these students, some of my teachers and the fact that what was taken for granted in Sweden, the freedom of expression, for instance, were still unthinkable in other countries. Upon my arrival in Czechoslovakia, I realized that people are interested in such topics because the system was imprisoning them in their own country. I felt I could help the community who couldn’t express themselves clearly, just like in Iran. My initial plan was to stay for one year. My stay has obviously prolonged, and I had tried a few cities, Banská Bystrica and Olomouc, for example, before I moved to Bratislava where I live and work at the moment. “

Venus first met Amnesty International while she was studying in Sweden. “At the university, I developed a strong interest in the human rights. Many people begin working for NGOs while pursuing their university studies and in the Bahai community, we are always ready to land a helping hand. With Amnesty International, I had the chance to visit schools and show the students that the situation in many countries is worse than in Sweden.” Venus continued to work with Amnesty International in Czech Republic and Slovakia. “Throughout the last 7 – 8 years, I was trying to inform government- and non-government organizations about the situation in Iran. I felt it was my responsibility. Sometimes, the only way to help is to inform the international community about what’s happening – the ongoing repressions and persecutions of Bahai people, and other citizens of Iran.”

Venus has been actively visiting high schools as a living book for over a year now. Why did she decide to become one? “My Bahai friends from Vienna told me they had become a part of this project a couple of years ago. I didn’t know about it so I looked it up at home and fell in love with it. I met people from Amnesty International during the Humanity Challenge project my daughter participated in. I was looking for volunteers for my projects with Roma communities and they were looking for living books for the Living Library project.”

It wouldn’t be a Living Library without the questions form students. What are the frequently asked ones? “Most typical are: Why does the Iranian government persecute the Bahai, and what was my last meal before leaving Iran (laughter). Girls often ask whether it was difficult to leave my whole family behind. Another frequent one is whether I’m happy and why don’t I live in Sweden where life is easier. I also get asked which of all places is my home. My answer to this one is: Anywhere, where a person can contribute to the society, hence it’s Slovakia at the moment.”

Besides working in a kindergarten, Venus dedicates her time to helping other people in various ways. One of them is working with the Roma community in Banská Bystrica “Working with Roma people has been fantastic. I’m working in a program which has its roots in Latin America and aims to improve children’s education. I realized that it shouldn’t only be designated for the Bahai community and decided to spread it further, which is why I began to engage myself in Bratislava. Doing such meaningful thing like helping children and families with their education is very fulfilling for me. I engaged my children too. We visited courses together and used the knowledge and experience of educating the Roma children to create a camp where these kids could get to know each other. It was a huge experience for us. Many of my friends from Bratislava and other places as well, have a lot of prejudices about this group of people but I’ve learnt to overcome them by a closer contact. One American photographer wanted to visit a Roma settlement with a security one, and I persuaded her to come with me instead. I showed her how a lot of Roma mothers care about their children’s homework and their doing well in school. Most of the people don’t believe it unless they see it with their own eyes.”

And what are Venus’ future plans? “I founded my own kindergarten because I wanted my children to grow up in a different way. Later on, we started taking in more children and soon, our house became too small, so we rented a bigger space. We worked our way up to a point where we founded an elementary school and this year we’re welcoming our first first-year pupils. It’s obviously hard work but you actually realize how easy it is to create this government for the kids. They are more creative and pursue various kind of art. Seeing your child happy is very satisfying. I always want to improve and learn. Maybe I will return to Iran or Afghanistan one day and to pass experience of educating children further on. Here in Slovakia, we still must learn how to understand our minorities and how to integrate them better, it’s a long way. It’s very important to teach children to be honest and just, and to show them how to dedicate their energy and talent to the sake of all humanity. It’s not just a challenge for me, it’s a challenge for the whole world.”

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The living library is a wonderful tool for tearing down prejudice. The main stars are always the books, i.e. people who talk about their life. But what about the people who organise libraries? What is their perspective?

It usually starts with an email with the subject "Living Library". A teacher, for example from Košice, Poprad, Jarovnice or Turcianske Teplice might have sent it. Basically, it might have come from any part of Slovakia. Then, an exchange of basic information follows, reaching an agreement on time and all the details you can imagine. 

The school or organisation has usually some preferences about the books they want to have in the library. We try to take their wishes into account when approaching books. Sometimes we have to patiently explain that living books are not stored on shelves and sometimes we just cannot choose the one required. The most stressing period follows. Will we get all the books? Will they answer our email? Pick up the phone? Will they be available? It's best to have at least two weeks time for finding books. It's also important because books often need to take days off from work or school due to the event. Even though both the working and studying books are glad to come, it needs to be said that the studying books are more enthusiastic to skip the school. Who knows why...

When we have answers and commitment from all the books, the most stressful part follows. Waiting. What if something gets into their schedule? What if they get sick? What if they forget? Rarely the book's plans change at the last moment. And we find out only in the evening before the library. In such cases we apply breathing techniques and counting to ten. Of course, we can be angry only with the fate.

Then the D day follows. Or more precisely, the L day, the Library day. Anxiously, we get to the school, library or other place suitable for the library. This is without doubt the most stressful part. Will the people like it? Won't they get bored? But we dispel these fears very quickly. The course of the library itself is mostly very relaxing. Because we can see live how the prejudices and stereotypes are getting destroyed and the attitudes are being changed. We see how young people are finding out that people are in the first place humans and cannot be judged just because of their different skin colour, religion, sexual identity and such. We are rewarded when people tell us during the reflection after the library that it really worked, that they have changed their opinions. Another reward is seeing the books smile when they tell us what messages they got from students. All the stress is gone and we just enjoy lunch together in the school canteen or at a restaurant with the feeling that we were able to change the world for better at least a tiny bit.

 

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Organization Information

Pontis Foundation

Location: Bratislava, Slovakia - Slovakia
Website:
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Pontis Foundation
Jana Desiatnikova
Project Leader:
Jana Desiatnikova
Bratislava, Slovakia

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