A Big Welcome From a Tiny Village

Monday 22, June 2009 Prague, Oseček 22 June 2009 – Despite of the rainy weather, everyone seemed happy in Oseček, a tiny village in Eastern Bohemia last Friday. Running around the house, four Burmese kids tried to figure out where their intended bedrooms are. While Zeya got busy playing with […]

Monday 22, June 2009

Prague, Oseček 22 June 2009 – Despite of the rainy weather, everyone seemed happy in Oseček, a tiny village in Eastern Bohemia last Friday. Running around the house, four Burmese kids tried to figure out where their intended bedrooms are. While Zeya got busy playing with her new doll, the other kids disappeared into the garden just to discover a huge cherry tree.

The question whether they were planning to bottle any of the fruits from the garden caused a burst of laughter „With eight of us, these will be gone in a few days”, commented Tun, one of the younger children, through Sabe Soe, interpreter from the Burmese Centre, a Prague based non-governmental organization (NGO).

On 19 June, this house in Oseček became the new home of a Myanmar refugee family of eight, who belonged to the first group relocated to the Czech Republic in October 2008, from Malaysia through an official resettlement programme. During the same week all five Myanmar families said good-bye to the Straž refugee facility to live in private accommodations offered by different municipalities in the Bohemian and Moravian regions. Under the Czech State Integration Program, the Ministry of Interior negotiated with local authorities throughout the country to secure rental contracts for refugees in municipal flats. As there are only a small number of municipal flats and a large number of applicants, finding suitable places for refugees is indeed a challenge. „Whereas every refugee dreams of living in Prague, such wishes are simply impossible to meet. Therefore, we try to find housing according to the individual needs of each refugee and their families, with special focus on employment opportunities besides many other factors” said Petr Novak, the head of the Integration Unit of the Department of the Asylum and Migration Politics of the Interior Ministry.

Hot chicken soup and a warm welcome

Besides UNHCR, the welcoming delegation in Oseček included government representatives, the village mayor, the local priest, and also a neighbour who just stopped by to say hello and to deliver a pot of fresh, hot chicken soup she had just prepared. As the Straž bus arrived, everyone spontaneously volunteered to help the family to unload and carry in the cargo. “The furniture and basic equipment was provided by NGOs with support from the European Refugee Fund (ERF), but many other things were given by the locals,” added Petr Novak, pointing at a bunch of toys awaiting the children and the four bicycles in the shed as cycling is an essential part of every-day life here.

While the four younger children explored the house, the parents and the two oldest sons discussed the most urgent issues with the authorities and Organisation for Aid to Refugees (OPU), an NGO providing assistance for the family for the first six months in their new environment. “We are ready to come as needed, perhaps a couple of times per week,” said Roman Varga covering Oseček under a special program also supported through the ERF. “The very first thing we need to do is to take the parents around and to introduce them to the authorities in Podebrady, the nearest district town and have their new residence properly registered,” he explained and added, “As a nearby agriculture corporation offered jobs for the parents and the oldest son we also need to get in touch with them as soon as possible to clarify the details.”

However, all of this was put off for the following week. On their first day, the family just took a short walk round the village meeting their new neighbours, getting to know where the shop is, learning how to handle their mail and to contact emergency.

Limited opportunities for refugees in Malaysia have impact on further integration

Since Malaysia is not part to the 1951 Geneva Convention, many refugees are restricted from legal access to labour and schooling there. The limited education of both underage and adult refugees, represent one of the greatest challenges in their integration in the Czech Republic. Nevertheless, this family seems to perceive the situation in a pragmatic way. “We did not leave for the Czech Republic to get a better life for ourselves but for our children. We prayed they get the opportunity to study here,” explained the father, who spent many years in exile in Malaysia hoping for a more durable solution for his family.

Since summer holiday starts within two weeks, the kids will visit the primary school next Wednesday to familiarize with local children and teachers and will only be enrolled from September. “Despite the intensive language training they received in the Straž facility, the adults may need more classes, which will be provided by private tutors. As usual, the children picked up the language much quicker so they will simply join the nearest primary school without any major difficulty,” explained OPU.

In spite the general optimism, there are many challenges to be faced yet. “We very much appreciate the assistance provided by the Czech authorities and keep our fingers crossed for the families. At the same time, we are well aware of many things that need to be further negotiated, especially the access to the interpreter – a great challenge in a small country like the Czech Republic -, as well as the long-term individual integration plans that would allow each family to have a perspective for professional development,” explained Marcela Skalkova, who is heading the UNHCR Office in the Czech Republic. “Seeing the families moving to a private environment is a relieving experience, which we greatly welcome. At the same time, we all need to understand that this is just the beginning,” Skalkova added. For easier communication with relatives and friends back home – one of the greatest concerns to all refugees – UNHCR presented a computer to each family allowing them cheap internet calls.

This first group of 23 Myanmarians, all belonging to the Chin ethnic group, arrived in the Czech Republic in the fall of 2008, followed by another in February 2009. By this, the Czech state is enlined with the other eight EU countries that annually open their doors to refugees through formal resettlement programs. The Czech pilot programme is aiming to assist vulnerable groups of refugees, such as survivors of trauma and refugees with serious medical problems or protection needs.

By Marta Miklusakova

UNHCR Prague