Michal Dord is like any other international relations student in Anglo-American University – except he has a different answer to the question: “Where are you from?”
“I am from Czech Republic,” he always answers, ignoring the confusion on some people’s faces. Then he adds, “I am Roma.”
Dord was born in the north Bohemian town of Ustí nad Labem, where, at age 2, he was placed into foster care (detsky dum) – not because of an abusive home life but because his family is poor and was not able to take good care of him.
He now believes that was not a good enough reason to deprive a child of their biological parents – and that such policies only create an endless circle that passes onto other generations.
“My parents both grew up in children’s houses and I ended up there too,” he reflects.
The state should be supporting those families rather than placing children in institutional care, he believes. Most such children end up in trade schools, not even on university tracks in high schools. Thus, they never get the access to a good education, which limits their opportunities. After a childhood like this, many even end up on the streets.
Luckily for Dord, an educator told him about foundations such as Erudikon, which helps young Roma students get higher education, and the Veolia foundation, which assists with rent for housing in the city. AAU, meanwhile, is probably the only university in the Czech Republic that gives two Roma scholarships per year in the form of tuition waivers. The process of getting his free semesters was fairly straightforward, Dord says.
He just had to fill out the admissions application and a scholarship form. No document proving Roma heritage was required.
“I was like, ‘Wow – a scholarship for Romas. I will apply for that.’ I just had to have my GPA over 2.5, which wasn’t hard, and in the end of the first year show the student services that to prolong the scholarship for another year.”
Dord defies stereotypes, making a point of dressing well and hitting the books in the library. His perfect accent and vocabulary hint at a background in an upper-class Czech family – factors that sometimes make him feel unaccepted in the Roma community, he says. Yet his brown skin and dark eyes draw suspicion from some less-than-progressive Czechs.
“For part of the Roma people, the older generation, I wouldn’t be considered Roma,” Dord says, “or the right Roma, or the pure Roma – which is the reason I do not even try to fit in or reach out to them, or make contacts with them.”
Some of the trouble is cultural, he explains. “The moment they realize I don’t speak the language, they would be saying: you are Gadjo,” a derogatory term used by some Roma for a whites. “I wouldn’t be equal to them.”
Nor is it easy to transcend small-town roles. In Prague Dord doesn’t feel disadvantaged, but in Usti nad Labem he and his friends had difficulties getting a job because of their skin color. Sometimes he gets confusing reactions when telling people about his heritage.
“It’s prejudicial to think: You are dirty, you live from day to day, you don’t have money, you don’t work, and therefore you are Gypsy and have a Gypsy lifestyle,” he says. “I behave certain way, I speak certain way. My lifestyle isn’t Czech or Gypsy. It’s my lifestyle. But I still consider myself to be Roma; I would not change a thing about that.”
The locals of Usti don’t see in Dord a sophisticated young man who loves Mark Rothko and Kevin Kline paintings, Hemingway’s The Sun also Rises and Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Nor would they picture him in the arty coffee shops he loves, at exhibitions and galleries, where he enjoys cool music and art.
“One of my most favorite places is the National Gallery’s Veletrzni Palace,” he says. “In galleries you look at the art and that’s the purpose. It’s not like with bars, where you go just because you don’t know what to really do except for the vague idea of having fun…”
Dord’s passion for art and creativity prompted him to create a Facebook page called Unknown Pleasures to inform people about unique events and places around Prague. He also write stories in Czech, and hopes to become a writer.
“Now I am writing short stories that are quite autobiographical,” he says. “Later on I hope to be able to develop some of the characters I have already created into stories. My goal is to write at least a book.”
Not just serious art fascinates Dord, he confesses. He also loves tabloids and MTV reality shows like Jersey Shore and RuPaul’s Drag Race.
He surmises that his eclectic background may make both cultural worlds appealing: “Maybe some unconscious balancing of the two…low and high culture.”