We didn’t come for money; we came to live

Survival Strategies of Asylum Seekers in the Czech Republic

It was a surprise for me to meet a young Polish couple, Martin and Anna, in the refugee camp near Brno, Czech Republic. I was wondering what story lies behind their almost two-year stay in the camp.
For me, refugees and asylum seekers are clear examples of vagabonds. As opposed to tourists, who are looking for new, untried opportunities and become wanderers because they want to, vagabonds are involuntary travelers who are pushed from behind.

Journey without a promise

As the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman describes it, vagabonds are uprooted from a place and their next journey usually holds no promise, it depends on factors they cannot control, among others on an unbounded flow of tourists (1). To make it through their precarious position, they develop all sorts of survival strategies.
I want to bring your attention closer to the perspective of someone who is a part of the nameless mass of vagabonds; to acquaint you with a fragment of a particular life strategy. How to deal with life in the refugee camp where you eat three times a day in the canteen, share the washroom and toilet with seventy other people of different nationalities and customs?

Dictated by “Them”

What is it like to never know for how long you will be allowed to stay in this place and whether or not you will have to leave the country at a given time, as dictated from above, and moved somewhere else? Or put in the common language of asylum seekers, dictated by “Them”.

A try to work out the story

During my work in the refugee camp near Brno I visited Martin and Anna in their room several times; I listened to many requests and complaints and tried to work out their story.
The nature of our conversation was partly given by my position in the camp. As a social worker, although from an NGO, I was one of “Them”, one of the people from outside the camp, who may possess some important information and perhaps some power.
Both Martin (26 years) and Anna (20 years) came from the Polish town of Nowy Sacz. Their son Dawid was born eight months earlier.

Illustration: Jagna Jankowska, Paris

To become a refugee

M: It was such a happy coincidence. We were at a railway station, had some five minutes before our train to Krakow, and we had spent all our money on buying this ticket. In the few minutes left to just to smoke a cigarette, I went to ask two men on a platform for a light, they were from Ukraine, they told us about the asylum here, they showed us their asylum visa.

No place to return to

A: But I couldn’t believe them. Then, some old gypsy man went around and in our Roma language I asked him whether it was true. He confirmed it and then I finally believed. I was so happy. Then, we went to Vyšní Lhoty, to the quarantine camp, you know.
M: It was a big relief for us. We really had nowhere to go in Poland, no place to return to.
A: It was from God, I know, when we had just five minutes, it isn’t normal.

To steal a woman

M: As we said in an interview, we can’t return to Poland, because I stole her.
A: You know, we gypsies we have such principles, I was a virgin, you understand, an unspoiled girl, but he took me, without asking my father. The first time when we made love, I was so afraid. What if my father knew…

They won’t feed us

M: We didn’t want to get married, you know, it’s a gypsy rule, you have to wait a long time for a marriage, and her father didn’t like me.
A: So he stole me and after that we had to run away. My father doesn’t like it, that I live with him. I was just eighteen, papa wanted me to stay with him longer; I was his favorite daughter.


Yes it is two years now, we have the baby, but you know, even if father would agree, we have nothing there. I cannot go to my sister’s house and wait for what she will give me; we cannot sleep in one room with someone else.
M: They won’t feed us; it would be a shame.

Life before

M: I have also been in Finland before, you know, in an asylum. I lived there for one year. But then there came some new law and I had to leave, I went back to my town.
A: And me, I was in England, with my mother and father, for three months. We had such a strong case going for us that we almost got passports there. But my father’s colleague called from Poland as my father had a firm there in Nowy Sacz, so the colleague called and said to papa: You will lose your firm. That’s why we went back.
M: We got to know each other just afterwards, when Anna returned from England.

I have rejected my country

M: Most gypsies from our town run away. There is such misery there, there is no work; people fight with each other.
A: I have nothing to return to, no flat, not even security in Poland, it is as if we would not exist there; we are not in computers.
M: Poland is no more my country; I have rejected it. We had big troubles there, I said it in the interview, skinheads attacked us and nobody helped us, the police doesn’t help anybody there, because we’re gypsies.

We didn’t come for money; we came to live

A: I repeat it all the time: We didn’t come for money; we came to live.
M: I know we have just a tiny chance, but I want to work here, I want my boy to go to school.
A: He was born here, so he is a Czech now, isn’t he?
I explained that according to Czech law people do not obtain Czech citizenship because of being born in the country.

Our baby is a Czech

A: Hey, I don’t believe you; he was born here, so he’s a Czech now.
M: How can we go away from here, we have nowhere to go. I feel good here; people look at me as a human, I’m not only a gypsy for them.
A: We’ve lived here for two years; our baby was born here…

Only God can help us

M: We could go somewhere else, but we didn’t, we want to stay here. I know I need a stable job, but it is so difficult. I knew one Czech person, maybe if I work for him eventually I get a visa, but he paid me very little money.
A: What are we going to do, when we get that paper from Prague, the decision that we have to leave? I really do not know; only God can help us.
M: I’ve no idea what They want to do with us.

Here in the camp

A: You would not believe what we have to eat here in the camp; once they gave us a tongue, oh God, I could not even look at it.
M: And I don’t talk about toilets and hygiene; there’s no hygiene here.
A: Other people here? We have no friends, we don’t talk to them, just ‘hello’, ‘hello’, ‘how are you’ and that’s it. We keep together as a family, you know.

Just eating, sitting, gazing

M: They are sometimes surprised, they say ‘you Poles, you can go somewhere else, what are you doing here?’ but I always say that we didn’t come for money as others do, we just get what’s our own right.
You know, I don’t feel good here, after two years; I just eat, sit and gaze. I’ve a headache and stomach ulcer. You quickly forget how it is to work and to make money.

Next stop: England?

A: But we got used to this place, we know where to go for the doctor and so on.

During our talk, Martin asked me by the way: “What do you think, if we would like to leave the Czech Republic and go to some other country, England for example, is it possible? We still have valid passports.” I replied that they can always take their claim for asylum back and afterwards, as any other Pole, cross the border to another country.

No chance as a Roma

But I warned him, that without any invitation letter and with their Roma appearance, they might not succeed in realizing this plan (2). I was also trying to explain to them, that as Poles they will probably have more opportunities to travel and to work abroad after joining the European Union in May 2004; they were very surprised.

We’ll keep waiting

After one week I was in the camp again, I saw Martin sitting on a bench under the trees.
I: How are you Martin?
M: You see, normal, as always.
I: How about your plans for the future?
Martin smiled.
M: So far, we’ll keep waiting, at least until May.

A “strong” story

It is almost sure, that Anna, Martin, and their child will not get asylum in the Czech Republic. And one could conclude – nothing can be done, they came from a democratic country which is considered to be capable of protecting their rights.
Asylum should be granted to people with “stronger” stories. Nevertheless, they used the existing opportunity to stay for almost two years and to give birth to their child in the Czech Republic.

Mixing with the flow

Soon, they will be – as typical vagabonds – uprooted from a place again while their next journey holds no promise…there they may have prospects; they might succeed in mixing with the flow of tourists and benefit from the coming changes.

(1) You can find more in Bauman, Zygmunt 1998. Globalization: the human consequences. Cambridge: Polity Press.

(2) There was the case of Czech Roma people claiming asylum in the UK. In 2000, when this flow of people became significant, they were not even permitted to enter the UK. Due to their dark skin and hair, they were stopped by British officials already at the airport in Prague and not allowed to continue on their journey.

This article is taken from Plotki # 6, the NEW issue about Voluntarism. You can order this issue here.

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