We spoke to Károly Csóka, who is the head of the TASZPOINT in Sajóbábony
How did you become a TASZPOINT leader?
It began in November 2009, when a representative of the far-right party Jobbik called for a town hall meeting in Sajóbábony, from which Roma people were barred. When the event was announced, there was no mention of the fact that members of the Magyar Gárda (Hungarian Guard Movement), or the “gárdista-s,” would be there as well. In the end, the “gárdista-s” outnumbered the locals. We only found out after the event that the “gárdista-s” had threatened the mayor. Apparently, if the mayor had denied permission for the use of the elementary school for the event, the “gárdista-s” would organize a march in Sajóbábony. In the end, fighting broke out between the members of the Gárda and the Gypsies. They damaged a Suzuki, but luckily no one was hurt.
It was after the weekend’s events, in a meeting held at the mayor’s office on Monday, that I met Péter Juhász (fieldworker of HCLU). During this meeting, I complained to the mayor that as the town’s leader, he had not prevented the fight. He could have ordered the police to oust non-locals from Sajóbábony; they could have ordered the locals to go home. I also mentioned that they gave absolutely no help to the Roma. In the Chemical Plant of Northern Hungary, which operates out of Sajóbábony, there cannot be more than five local Roma employees; meanwhile, the rest of the workers are from out of town.
After the meeting, Péter Juhász came up to me and handed me his business card, saying that I should call if I needed assistance in any way. The events were taking place during those days, so I did indeed call him, he did come to help, and we began to talk. It was then that he suggested that I become a member of TASZPOINT. I was happy to do it, because I had already been active in local public affairs.
When and how did you begin working on local issues?
It has disturbed me for quite some time that people are forced to do things, which they think are wrong, or even illegal. Often, Roma people will be fined 20,000 forints for riding bicycles with worn tires. This open form of discrimination really bothers me. I did not want to leave it at that and just ignore these cases. Instead, I voiced my concerns by going to the mayor’s office, where I would look for the local police commander. I would ask him whether he thought it was legal for someone to be issued such hefty fines, who had committed no other offense than ride a bicycle with worn tires.
Then, when the HCLU program Make your voice heard! was started, I became more familiar with the opportunities available to us, and about the legal background of some of the cases. I already had some basic knowledge, but having daily contact with the HCLU lawyers makes a huge difference. Whenever I need them, even on the weekend, they are always available.
Had you previously heard about HCLU?
Yes, I knew HCLU. I had seen them on TV, and I had read about them. I have had a computer and internet for quite some time now, but online browsing hadn’t sustained my interest. I would sit in front of the computer, search for and read things that would interest me, but that would be it. Since I have gotten to know the people from HCLU, I spend a considerable amount of my free time in front of the computer. I try to share as much of the useful information with others that I can. I search for opportunities and calls for applications. I also organize events. We held a health day together with the Red Cross, to encourage more people to undergo medical examinations. The Let’s Read Together program was a big success. At present, we are working on a project called Village Day. I plan to move the entire TASZPOINT, including the computer, into the open, to encourage more people to come.
What is an average day for you like?
I work at the Robert Bosch factory in Miskolc, where we repair different types of machines. I work in the inspection and packaging team. When I am on duty in the mornings, I wake up at 3:30 AM, and I get home at around 4 PM. On these weeks, I work Saturdays as well. When I have the afternoon shifts, I start at 2PM and I am usually at home by midnight. My parents are ill. After I take care of them, I go on my usual walk around the town. I talk to people and ask whether they have any problems. Although recently I haven’t had to walk around that much, people look me up if they need help. There are 3000 people living here, and I know almost everyone, but one thing is for sure, everyone knows me.
What could be the reason for this?
My parents and I always tried to live as productive members of Hungarian society. There was never any problem with us, my four younger sisters and me. We always went to school properly, and since then, we have held decent, regular jobs. Actually, you can’t really call Sajóbábony a racist place. There are lots of mixed marriages, and there is one in our family, too. Sadly, since the “gárdista-s” appeared, several people have gained the courage to openly express their secretly-held anti-Roma views. But this doesn’t represent the majority. For instance, just recently, a covertly pro-Jobbik civil guard (“polgárőrség”) association was established, but it isn’t too popular with the town residents. You can’t really see them anymore, and we are more likely to encounter the official civil guard in Sajóbábony.
Does this mean that there is no conflict between Roma and non-Roma people?
The people in this town do not think that the solution rests with fomenting difference. Understanding and acceptance goes much further. I think that Roma and non-Roma people should live next to each other like good neighbors, and they should never sneak behind each other’s backs.
I talk about this with the Roma children at the school. I try to make them feel the importance of studying. Having an education, they will find jobs and they will be able to earn a living, so they won’t be forced to steal. If the only example they see is their parents, who drink, don’t work, and spend their allowances on gambling, these children grow up believing that they will never have all those things that non-Roma children have. And at one point they, too, will have children of their own. So they need to understand that they can’t pass on the same lifestyle they inherited from their parents. The advice I usually give them is to find a role model, someone whom they would like to be, because often times their own parents are not suitable as role models. By the way, this year, out of the 27 graduating students, with the exception of one, all will continue their studies.
What kind of qualifications do you have?
I trained as a locksmith and welder. But I didn’t find work in this field. The work I do at Bosch is different, and I came here through a friend. What I see is that it matters less and less what you are trained to do, especially in this region. This is why I try to attend as many different trainings as possible. I am only 32, and I don’t want to retire from the production line.
What do you tell the children when it comes to the question of continuing their studies? Do they find jobs if they keep studying?
Sure, I try to pay attention to each one of them. When I see that they are gradually finishing school, I try to help them find jobs: through acquaintances, and I also try to teach them how to write a CV, how to present themselves in a job interview, how to behave during the interview, what they need to say to make a good impression on potential employers.
How do you find time for all of this next to your job?
I have time especially on the weekends, as I limit my rest time. Meanwhile, I also submit applications for funding. If you really want to make a difference, you need to make sacrifices. Sure, there are unfortunately some people who you just can’t change whatever you do. But you need to get past this, you can’t stop, you always need to press forward.
How does HCLU support these activities of yours?
I have not been abandoned! Even before, I was aware and informed, but now I am much more self-confident, and I have more access to information. I am grateful to Péter Juhász, and the free legal service also makes a tremendous difference. At the moment, we have a request for information pending for a public interest case.
The case started back in 2009, when the municipal government passed a resolution. It made it mandatory for everyone to install drinking water in their homes. This affected 12 families. Since they had no money for this, the municipal government agreed to pay for it in advance. The families would be able to repay the amount in installments. They agreed that the garden taps would cost 150-180 thousand forints. Once the work was completed, suddenly the price jumped to 500 thousand forints.
I began calculating and wondering what on Earth could have cost so much for installing garden taps. I mentioned this to the people from HCLU, and they advised me to submit a public information request, asking about the details. I submitted it, but the notary didn’t respond. I re-submitted the request over six or seven times in total. By that time, a year and a half had passed since the original submission. Yet no reply came. I even sent a letter, informing the notary that if he didn’t respond, I would take legal action. I went to see him personally, but he only laughed in my face. Laugh all you want, I said to myself, we’ll see who will laugh in the end…
Where does the case stand now?
To my knowledge, the notary is not longer working as a notary, and the court hearing will take place in a couple of days. I went to see the ombudsman, too. I told him that I suspected that an abuse of resources had taken place. Meanwhile, the authorities had replaced the notary, when one of the representatives, Lajos Sebők, who had helped the local Roma a lot, came to support me. Meanwhile, I spoke with the affected families, who, for instance, had received bills for work that were never done. It had been the responsibility of the municipal government to ensure that the work was completed, on behalf of the customers. Sure, it’s nice of the municipal government to loan money to the local residents, but in the end, it is the residents who have will have to pay for the full amount.
What are the most common cases that people bring to the HCLU legal service?
Lots of people are fined while riding horse-drawn carriages or bicycles, although the cases in which people are fined up to 20 thousand forints for worn bicycle tires, are dropping. I feel that with the presence of HCLU, the situation for the Roma people has improved remarkably. They are aware of their rights and responsibilities. I tell everyone that if they are ID-d, and they feel that they have been treated unfairly, they should tell the police officer that they will go and see Karcsi Csóka at the TASZPOINT. It seems to be working. Slowly, it looks as if it’s enough for someone to be wearing a HCLU T-shirt. If I were better off, I would have already set up a TASZPOINT in every town in the country.