Vera Torak's smile tells it all. Small, dark and in her mid-twenties, she covers her mouth with her hand. She's selfconscious and has every reason to be. She has no front teeth.
Last April in her town in eastern Slovakia, Vera was walking home alone from the market when she was attacked by a gang of skinheads. They knocked out her four front teeth with a baseball bat. One month later, her husband Jan was set upon on his way home from work and had his arm broken. In both instances, the police shrugged their shoulders and said: "What do you expect us to do about it?" The Toraks were not surprised at this response. For Romanies, race hatred and indifference to it are facts of life, whether from the police, politicans, the education system, employers or ordinary citizens on the streets. Five times their home was petrol bombed and had its windows smashed. Five times the police were called. Five times they shrugged their shoulders.
That is why Vera and Jan and their two daughters have left everything behind, including a nice house, a car and a good job, to live an impoverished and precarious - but relatively safe - existence in Dover. What they want more than anything is a letter from the Home Office that will grant them refugee status, allowing them to get off benefits - which they find degrading - and find work. They want to reclaim their lives. If they are refused and are forcibly repatriated, they will go somewhere else. Anywhere else. "We want to live without fear. We want to be free," says Jan quietly.
For him, there is no future in Slovakia. "It got so bad, we couldn't go out into the streets or on the bus. More and more shops had signs in the windows saying 'No Gypsies'. Our Slovak neighbours were sad to see us go, but they were afraid of being attacked too because they were friends with Romanies."
Here, he feels, things are different. "When we first arrived, I thought England was paradise. Everyone was smiling at my children. And it makes me feel happy to see Indians and other black people here, people who look like us."
The snowy, steely grey day I visited them in late November was the first day of school for Jan and Vera's daughters, Patricia, aged seven and Marta, six, at Guston Primary School. Their smiles, unlike their mother's, lit up the room. Smart in their grey uniforms, they excitedly chatted to their parents about their new school. Patricia's experience of school in Slovakia was not so happy. She had been taunted and spat at by the "white children". School is a vexed issue for Romany children. About half of those in Slovakia are segregated from their white peers. They are put into "Gypsy classes", where they are taught in the Romany language - a language most do not speak at home and which has no currency in mainstream society. When they are given national proficiency exams in the Slovak language and fail, as some inevitably do, they are sent to special schools for mentally handicapped children.
There are 140 Romany children in east Kent who, like Patricia and Marta, have recently come from the Czech Republic and Slovakia with their families. About 50 have already been placed in schools in the area; others will start in January, if they are still here.
It's a big if. The Home Office has set up a special fast tracking procedure for Romany asylum seekers in response to the 200 who arrived at once in early November. The idea is to process their applications and, if they are unable to prove that they have fled persecution, to get them out within a week of arrival. It's a nerve-wracking business, appealing against a Home Office rejection of your asylum application. But as far as the Romany families living hand to mouth in Kent are concerned, they have little option. With alarming resonances of the Jews in 1930s Germany, they see the writing on the wall.
Erika and Josef, a Romany couple in their late 20s, have also had a lifetime of abuse. What finally brought things to a head was when Erika was thrown out of a moving bus by skinheads. Then, one night a few weeks later, there was a knock on the door of their house by men saying they were the police. When Josef opened the door, masked skinheads barged in, kicking and beating the couple and holding their eight-year-old, Tina, with a gun to her head. As Josef told me the story through an interpreter, Tina became distressed, hiding her head under a cloth as if to try to block out the memory. Traumatised by that incident, the family moved from one town to another, hiding in the cellars of friends' houses. Their eventual decision to leave Slovakia wasn't taken lightly and they have all suffered terrible homesickness. But, like Vera and Jan, they say they had no choice. "British people like the National Front think we came here because we want money. But we had money in Slovakia. No, it's not that. We're here because we are afraid of being killed."
Contrary to popular myth, education is a strong aspiration for many Romanies. Most young parents will have finished secondary school themselves, having grown up under a Communist ideology that made education compulsory for all, in a single, integrated system. So for those families awaiting their fate in Kent, the Traveller Education Support Service's efforts to get their children placed and settled into school is welcome. But for some, it is frightening to let their children out of their sight when they have been used to random attacks and taunts. Particularly when the National Front marched against the Romanies in Dover in November, causing fear and panic among the asylum seekers. Anti-Gypsy signs have been seen outside some Dover shops and some Romanies have been verbally abused in the street.
There was also the case of Aycliffe Primary School, where a petition of some parents against the admission of Romany children was highly publicised. Things have settled down since November, when the petition was launched, according to Jenny Robson who heads the Traveller Education Support Service. "The response from schools now is very positive. Once people are given the facts about why the asylum seekers are here, once you separate the fact from the fiction, parents are more responsive."
Her team is working in collaboration with the Section 11 service to support schools in running an integrated programme which provides in-service training, supports children in the classroom, designs strategies for providing English as a second language and gives guidance to schools on how they might offer induction for new children and their families. Where possible, they use interpreters. So great is the need for Czech and Slovak interpreters that the Traveller Education Support Service is exploring the possibility of getting teacher trainees from the Czech Republic to come to Kent on placement as interpreters. This may be possible through the Socrates programme, a European Commission-funded iniative for inter-cultural education.
That will certainly help, if it happens. But in the meantime, Jenny Robson and her team are trying hard to establish trust among the families and get them to attend school regularly. It's hard to reassure some parents that their children will be safe outside the house. And among the children themselves, their ability to open up and communicate their needs is, says Jenny Robson, "something that emerges only after a time. There is a frozen state that children often enter after experiencing trauma. And it takes time for them to feel they trust someone enough to allow them to support them".
Sadly, time is the major unknown in these people's lives. At any time, they may be issued deportation orders. Or, conversely, they may be given extensions for six months. It's all up in the air. "There is so much uncertainty around their future," says Jenny Robson. "And that makes it important that we provide something secure for them for the time they're here."
For the families, borrowed time is better than no time at all. As Erika says, "We don't want our children to suffer the persecution we've suffered. Who knows what will happen to the Gypsy children who are still in Slovakia?"
WHAT SCHOOLS CAN DO
According to Valdemar Kalinin, a Romany teacher who works for the Traveller Education Services in Camden and in Hammersmith and Fulham, schools can help new arrivals and their families by ensuring that: * a well-planned induction programme is in place, introducing families to the school and making them feel welcome through an interpreter - preferably Romany but if that's not possible, a speaker of the language of their home country
* an ongoing club for parents is set up to guide them on how best to help their children
* assumptions are not made about people's educational and social backgrounds. There are well-off Romanies and poor ones, semi-literate and literate. Generally, all have aspirations for their children to do well at school
* children and families are treated sensitively but not differently from anyone else. Many will be under considerable stress because of their past experiences and their present insecurity. Be on the lookout for signs that might warrant intervention by medical or psychological services.