europe

Bělá-Jezová: Inside a Czech refugee camp

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Illustration by Delarock

By Ryan Keating-Lambert

I wanted to pay the Bělá-Jezová detention camp a visit after reading some rather negative articles late last year on the subject. In a recent DW article, human rights official Anna Šabatová said the camp in many respects, offered worse conditions than a Czech prison. Upon first glance, it seemed that the camp had improved, however after speaking to a refugee there about her own personal experience within the camp, I started to doubt some of these improvements. On top of that, the staff were unable to divulge any information whatsoever. As you read on, keep in mind that the names and details of some people have been changed in order to protect their identities. This is also the only ‘People in Prague’ interview I have done where I have not been able to put a photo of the person. Due to not being able to capture details on camera, Czech artist and illustrator ‘Delarock’ was kind enough to interpret my description of the grounds.

I arrived at the camp with Jonatan and his wife Eliška – 2 local volunteers who were bringing some supplies such as food, literature and other materials. The camp, which was formerly a military training facility is reasonably well concealed and had I been driving I would’ve gone straight past it without blinking an eye. We were greeted by security who closely examined our ID, but surprisingly didn’t ask that many questions about a native English speaker carrying no supplies for the detainees. Lucky for me.

After receiving our entrance key cards, we were escorted to the main building where we were instructed to lock up all of our possessions including phones, keys, lighters, wallets – anything that could be stolen, used as a weapon or as a recording device.

We then started to walk to the main building through a narrow path carved through the thick snow that had fallen the night before. During the walk I took in everything around me, the high 4 metre fence with barbed wire sitting coldly behind a snow-covered children’s playground that reminded me a bit of the opening credits of Terminator 2, but the apocalyptic fire had been replaced by a thick blanket of monotonous snow – later I realised that this image painted a depressing portrait of the monotony and loneliness felt throughout the whole camp. The playground was there, but the high barbed-wire fence made it almost invisible. Eliška informed me that the playgrounds and children’s art on some of the walls had obviously been put up after Šabatová’s visit to the camp in an attempt to make it more comforting and friendly for children. While we passed through yet another security gate, Eliška and Jonatan also spoke about the conversations that the workers had about the refugees and other migrants, that they referred to them as objects or things rather than people.

Finally, we entered the main accommodation building and our ID was taken before entering the recreational rooms through a prison-like gate. We were then told that the Macedonian migrants, whom the volunteers had ordered books for, had since been released. According to Eliška and Jonatan, the staff never make known how many migrants or refugees are present in the camp, so we were unsure of what numbers to expect when we entered the ‘tea room’.

Upon entry, we removed our shoes and entered a living room with a small TV, a few armchairs, a bookshelf and a table and chair set where four women were sitting, two Ukrainian and two Serbian. A volunteer told me that most of the people now in the camps were not refugees anymore, but rather regular economic migrants and that maybe some of them had simply forgotten to submit paperwork or made another mistake in the visa applying process. According to them, it wasn’t like that before the refugee crisis. Apparently there was even an American in another camp in Drahonice that actually used to be a prison. While listening to this, I started to think about my own visa status and they warned me to keep a close eye on the process or maybe I could end up in the same place.

We were soon greeted by a woman with a purple head scarf that had entered from the other room who spoke to us in English. I soon learnt, that she was the only person who spoke English in the camp, not even the staff did. After serving some tea and biscuits, we sat down together at the table and had a lengthy two-hour conversation about how Naciimo, from East Africa, ended up in the camp.

Surprisingly, she was not there alone but had her teenage children upstairs that refused to leave their room because they were angry. Angry at the staff and angry that they had to be there at all. It was then that I learnt that despite several meetings with lawyers, their situation hadn’t improved. It had almost been six months since they arrived to the camp. She seemed to believe that the staff were simply exercising their power by keeping her there. Her release date should be some time during February, but the look on her face told me that she wasn’t too optimistic. I found this interesting because the whole camp is run by SECURITAS – a private security company, and I wondered who these people in power were. Since November, the Czech government have also stationed prison guards there.

Naciimo used to be a teacher before they began to be executed by rebels in her town, so she fled. “10 countries in 4 months,” she repeated over and over again. She spent most of her time travelling in a large group with mainly Iraqi refugees and walked a lot of the way, aside from the occasional boat, and a car ride through Syria.

When I asked her about her trip through Syria, she replied that “it was dangerous, but here is worse.” She wanted freedom, and felt that it was a waste to be stuck in the Czech Republic after travelling so far for so long. I could see that she was incredibly lonely. I thought back again to the picture of the snowy playground. Her daughter was in another camp in Belgium and she wanted to meet her. Since her phone was taken away from her upon arrival, she didn’t have many opportunities to speak to her. There was a landline phone in the camp but with limited access.

Naciimo’s dream was to eventually move to Ireland. As we sat there drinking our tea she was holding a book about Ireland that she said she’d been reading. She also made it clear that she didn’t want to go to a country where there were a lot of refugees. It sounded as if she wanted to be immersed in something completely different, and from her journey so far I don’t blame her.

Something that had the most impact on me was that during her time in the camp so far, she had seen many families come and go and couldn’t understand why families from Afghanistan or Syria could leave before her. She was convinced that it was because she was black. Her frustration escalated until she organised a one-week-long hunger strike with other detainees in an attempt to get some answers, which she didn’t get. This caused her to become sick and she was eventually sent to a nearby hospital which started her on a course of medication to clear any infections as well as medication to help her sleep. Naciimo averaged about 3-4 hours of sleep a night.

However bad things had been, I kept thinking about how much was still to go for her and her children. Thankfully, the volunteers had managed to keep her optimistic about leaving and helped in every possible way that they could.

Our two hours were soon up and I was quite upset to have to leave her there. We said our goodbyes and it did seem that the detainees were in higher spirits than when we arrived. The two Ukrainian women were getting out the following day, the Serbian women probably not much later. As we crunched our way through the snow and gravel in the playground one last time I kept thinking that Naciimo’s story is just one out of millions.

I continued to think about that on the train ride back to Prague looking at the man sitting across from me with a ‘BLOK PROTI ISLÁMU’ (Block against Islam) button badge on his sweater – quite a difference to my arrival to the camp with the cheerful and caring volunteers.

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Refugee crisis: the difference in photos

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Photo: Human Rights Watch

By Ryan Keating-Lambert

So this is a little bit late, but it’s still extremely relevant now. I was talking about the topic of refugees recently on the November 17 holiday in the Czech Republic, a day dedicated to the struggle for freedom and democracy. There is absolutely no way that you haven’t heard about this crisis and you may even feel that you’ve heard it all. But I thought you might like to see a new perspective on the situation; a perspective that can help you relate directly to this crisis.

Like countless others I have witnessed the pain and loneliness of these refugees through 100s of photos posted on news websites all over the world and when I think about these photos, two come to mind in particular.

The first being the photo that most people have seen in the Guardian or somewhere else… The one of the dead Syrian boy on a Turkish beach. This photo sparked a lot of controversy in the media and it seemed that people started to pay attention to the situation much more after that.

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Photo: Reuters

The other photo (pictured under the headline) is one that a lot of you probably haven’t seen. A photo of Syrian doctor and student Ali when he was in transit in the Budapest Keleti train station waiting to go to Germany. He looks reasonably healthy, not smiling but also doesn’t look particularly upset or angry.

What was interesting to me was that even though these photos appear to be at opposite ends of the spectrum, both are capable of provoking an intense emotional response.

The death of a child, especially when it’s associated with war, is utterly heartbreaking and shows the true destruction of innocence. But at the same time, isn’t that what the media usually uses these photos for? To provoke emotion and read on and sympathise? This definitely works and does make people more aware of the situation which is certainly an advantage… However, it shouldn’t only be these photos that make a situation like this hit home.

Ali is a young doctor and student, wearing normal clothes and a baseball cap. He could be me and he could be my friends, and that is what makes it terrifying. He is not the typical poor and rugged looking refugee that the public is trained to see and feel for.

Refugees are not in rags anymore, they are in your clothes. These people ARE you. They are me. They are everyone we know. They worked and had families and were simply trying to live their lives.

You can find more information on Ali’s story through Human Rights Watch here.

5 more people in Prague that you should know

By Ryan Keating-Lambert

1. Mirek

Mirek

How would you describe Prague in only a few words?

Sometimes beautiful, crowded and very historic.

Where do you like to hang out in Prague?

Anywhere near the train station.

If you could go back in time and see anything, what would you choose to see?

Having this chance, I would like to meet my grandpa in his twenties.

What’s your favorite word in English and in Czech?

’Pusillanimous’ in English – I like the way it is pronounced; and ’jídlo’ in Czech – as I’m always hungry and love eating.

Who would play you in a movie about your life?

Brad Pitt. He also has chicken legs.

2. Javier

Javier

How would you describe Prague in only a few words?

An open air museum. A world of contradictions.

Where do you like to hang out in Prague?

Due to my work, I always hang out in the historical center, you can find not so touristy places if you look for them hard enough. Other than that, you can find me in Vinohrady and sometimes in Letná.

If you could go back in time and see anything, what would you choose to see?

The time of Rudolph II, the Renaissance era in Prague must have been wonderful.

What’s your favorite word in English and in Czech?

Maybe ’fashionable’ in English, I like the sound of it. ’Ahoj’ is one of the few words in Czech that I find optimistic, too bad they don’t use it that often, at least with me.

Who would play you in a movie about your life?

Leo DiCaprio or Daniel Craig.

3. Tish

Tys

How would you describe Prague?

Prague is a haggard old woman who’s got her claws in your heart. Prague is magic.

Where do you like to hang out in Prague?

Prague 1,2,3,7,10. Everywhere.

If you could go back in time and see anything, what would you see?

I would like to go back around 80 years and see Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong play in a Harlem blues joint.

What is your favourite word in English and in Czech?

My favorite Czech word is ’sbohem’ (godspeed). It is so wonderfully finite and loving and tragic. My favorite word in English is ’grace’.

Who would play you in a movie about your life?

Russell Peters.

4. Jan

Jan Kopecky

How would you describe Prague?

A magnificent historical city where even low-income students can live a rich life.

Where do you usually hang out in Prague?

Náplavka, Riegrovy sady and Havlíčkovy sady.

If you could go back in time and see anything, what would you see?

Ancient Egypt, Greece or Rome to see some of the great wonders being created.

What is your favourite word in English and in Czech?

’Air’ because it brings about the lightness. ’Život’ (life) because the sound of it is in soothing harmony with the meaning.

Who would play you in a movie about your life?

Michael Fassbender, Bradley Cooper or Alexander Skarsgård.

5. Martina

Martina

How would you describe Prague in a few words?

Still running, endlessly stunning.

Where do you usually hang out in Prague?

Well, when I’m with my friends I don’t care that much where we hang out. Company is more important for me. But usually I prefer underground pubs or bars, restaurants or café anywhere in Prague 3 – Žižkov.

If you could travel back in time and see anything, what would you see?

I wish I could go back to the 60s and see Elvis Presley in concert!

What’s your favourite word in English and in Czech?

In English, ’fluffy’ – sounds so funny. In Czech, ’hovnožrout’ which means ’shit-glutton’ – so funny.

Who would play you in a movie about your life?

I can’t decide between Renée Zellweger (before that awful plastic surgery) and Tom Hanks – they both fit perfectly to my role and actually sometimes I’m on ’The Edge of Reason’ like Bridget Jones and sometimes I feel like I’m a ’Cast away’.

Written by Ryan Keating-Lambert.

More protests in Prague: Anti-racism and xenophobia rally photo report

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By Ryan Keating-Lambert

More protests on Wenceslas Square today in response to the ‘refugee crisis’ that is currently all over the media. The anti-Islam and anti-immigration protesters under the National Museum expressed their concerns through loud chants guided by chosen speakers on the museum balcony, while under the statue of St Wenceslas the pro-refugee crowd preferred to make an impact through motivational speeches and dance.

Both groups appeared to draw bigger crowds this time. The protesters then marched to Náměstí Míru where the event concluded. Check out some of the photos from Wenceslas Square below.

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Everything you need to know about Prague

Old Town Square at Xmas

I was recently asked to be a guess blogger on SuperBreak, a UK travel website and blog, and write about Prague. This is the end result. Hope you enjoy it and let me know your opinion…

Prague is both east and west. Slavik and romantic. If London and Moscow had a baby, it would surely be Prague. I feel as though I’m describing it the way Dickens’ would, but that’s exactly what it is. It’s said to be Venice of the east, if you consider it to be east. It’s also said to be the city of 100 spires. To me, it’s all of these things, and also home. No, I’m not Czech. I’m Australian, but have been living here for the past four years and I’m also writing a blog called ‘People in Prague’ that talks to locals, expats and just about any character that passes through the Czech capital. From their experience and my own, here is a list of ‘musts’ that one should do to enjoy the Bohemian city to its fullest. From cuisines to castles, parks to pubs, these are the essentials.

Tourist attractions:

Like any decent tourist, you should start with the main sites that Prague has to offer. This list can be endless, especially for someone who’s a history or architecture buff. After all, Prague was one of the only major cities that didn’t feel the full wrath of World War II. Around Europe there are a number of great replicas of buildings that actually still remain in Prague. It’s originality is well-preserved.
My advice would be to start from the castle and work your way down. Prague castle is easily accessible by tram from most inner city locations and if you start there, it also means that you avoid walking up the countless staircases. There are a number of decent tours available for this area. It’s definitely worth taking a walking tour to hear some of the history. Even if history isn’t your thing, the enchanting legends of the place and its great kings certainly will be. I personally love the legends of King Rudolf II and his obsession with animals and alchemy.

From the castle, you can descend into Malá Strana, the cute and quirky castle town below which leads into Charles’ Bridge, another major tourist attraction. If you want to avoid the crowds, check out the bridge early in the morning for a picturesque sunrise. From Charles Bridge you will journey into Staré Město, the old town. I’ve never been one for maps. I find them embarrassing and annoying to carry, but really, get a map for this labyrinth. A map or Google is the only way you’re going to find the old town square and the astronomical clock which despite being full of tourists, and the occasional pickpocket, is a fairy tale scene. There’s nothing quite like it.

Charles Bridge and the river Vltava

Charles Bridge and the river Vltava

A short walk from there will bring you into the heart of the city, and the Main Street, Václavské náměstí, or Wenceslas Square. The street should be seen to take in the magnificent National Museum at the top of the square, and to witness the main place of celebration and protest for Czech people. The Velvet Revolution took place here and marked the end of communism for Czechoslovakia, but these days it’s littered with casinos and dodgy food vendors. I’d avoid those at all costs, unless gambling and food poisoning is your thing.

Of course, these are only guidelines. As I said before, the sightseeing opportunities are endless here. Play it by ear as you go along.

Off-beat attractions:

In my opinion, this is where the true beauty lies. A short metro ride on the C or red line will take you to Vyšehrad park. This area overlooks the city and makes for a splendid view as well as giving you access to an awe-inspiring cathedral and cemetery. There are also some very famous Czech composers buried there. The whole area is virtually untouched by tourists and you can even enjoy a well-deserved Czech beer or ‘pivo’ overlooking the river Vltava and Prague castle.

The inner city districts of Vinohrady and Žižkov are perfect for anyone seeking a decent cafe culture, not to mention glorious food. This part of the city is home to beautiful architecture and a host of expats and young Czech families. The young and trendy vibe is felt best in Náměstí Jiřího z Poděbrad on a Saturday morning with the farmers’ markets. Eat some fresh and delicious food and take in the atmosphere. There is usually some kind of festival happening in the square every second weekend. Like all great beer drinkers, the Czechs love a good party.

Žižkov tower

Žižkov tower

Art and culture:

Prague is a hub for classical music and always has been. From Bedřich Smetana to Antonín Dvořák, a lot of composers called this city home. Municipal House or Obecní Dům usually hosts well-known Czech orchestras which can be seen also every day. Towards the river is the National Theatre or Národní Divadlo, (talk about charity to rebuild it after the burning) even if opera isn’t your thing, the building’s interior is gold and a wonder to experience.

For some classic art, the National Gallery is worth a look. For those who like something a bit more modern or controversial, take a look at DOX, a modern art gallery in Holešovice. The Žižkov tower is a great example of modern Czech art. Controversial artist David Černý put faceless babies all over the large sputnik-like monolith to perhaps lighten up a once dreary reminder of the communist past. There have actually always been artists and writers a plenty in Prague. Many would recognise Alfons Mucha and his signature art nouveau style of painting and of course, writer Franz Kafka. Cafe Louvre on Národní street was an old hangout for Kafka and even Einstein – they also do a tasty breakfast.

Food and beer:

Speaking of fresh food. It’s worth ‘czeching’ (a cheesy pun still on every souvenir) out the local cuisine. Czech food is delicious, but heavy, very heavy. Like a lot of central and Eastern Europe, the cuisine is mainly meat and potatoes. In saying that though, they do meat pretty well. Try svíčková, the most typical dish consisting of beef marinated in a light brown sauce with some cream and cranberry jam on the side. Soak it all up with a few bread dumplings and enjoy that spongy goodness. There are countless Czech restaurants littered all around the city, but for a decent meal and beer in one, I would recommend any of the ‘Lokal’ restaurants which have a great selection of Czech beer, and a fresh rotating menu. My personal favorite restaurant is ‘U Houdku’ on Bořivojova street in the heart of the Žižkov pub scene. A lot of locals eat here because the portions are HUGE, tasty and medieval; the only thing missing is a hungry dog in the corner. They also offer a range of delicious vegetarian options. In summer, take a seat outside in the beer garden.

Czech Republic is also known for their huge Vietnamese community. Pho restaurants are now starting to spring up all over Prague and provide addictive soups, noodles and other rice dishes that will fill you up, and also cure any lingering beer hangovers. There is a particularly good one in Náměstí Jiřího z Poděbrad near the farmers’ markets.

Vinohrady district

Vinohrady

Shopping:

Prague has all the usual European shops that you can expect to find in any major city, rather than walking around Vaclavske namesti in the cold, take a short walk to Palladium shopping centre in Náměstí Republiky – everything under one roof. If you’re into handmade things, ‘DeafMessanger‘ provides handmade diaries, notebooks and postcards with unique stencil art and other clippings (pictured), all available in ‘Luxor’ bookstore.

For those looking for something authentically Czech, you might want to check out the range of handmade souvenirs and skin products in ‘Manufaktura’, everything here is made in the Czech Republic. If you visit the national theatre, be sure to pop round the corner to the giant ‘antikvariat’ shop. Get yourself lost in a maze of old communist trinkets, furniture, art, old records and books.

Where fashion is concerned, I’d recommend having a look at ‘Pietro Filipi’, a homegrown men’s and women’s fashion store with a unique style. For those who want something a little more custom, check out the custom denim and fashion design studio at ‘Chatty‘. The label has met with a lot of success and prides itself on original designs that are authentically Czech.

Drinks:

As mentioned before, the beer is an absolute must. Pilsner Urquel is considered to be the best, but there are a lot of smaller breweries that are better. I personally love Svijany and Bernard, both of these you can find in most bars and pubs around the centre of town.

If you’re keen on cocktails, there are two great bars in town that will no doubt tickle your tastebuds, and liver. ‘Anonymous bar‘ is a classy and fascinating place based around the hacker group and the book/film V for Vendetta. It sounds cheesy, but this bar is a work of art and is well worth a visit just to taste some of their old cocktail recipes. ‘Hemingway bar‘ is also a classy cocktail joint and recently made it into the top 50 bars in the world. Be sure to make a reservation at both.

For clubbing, Dlouha street is in the heart of town and provides you with a number of options. Both ‘Roxy’ and ‘Druhy Patro’ thrive on the electronic music culture in Prague, whereas Harley’s can be more of a rock’n’pop club. In the Žižkov and Vinohrady area there is also ‘Palac Akropolis’ where you can see some of the local DJ and music talent. Try to stay away from the typical tourist clubs like Karlové Lázně, unless you want to be ripped off.

Accommodation:

For backpackers, both the Czech Inn and Mosaic House hostels are reasonably inner city and host a number of fun events including parties, theatre and comedy. They also have reasonable prices and outstanding service.

However your budget, Prague has a great variety of hotels on offer. For those who want something a little more luxurious, typical hotels like the Hilton, the Intercontinental and more are all there. But for a real treat, take a look at the Emblem Hotel. It’s still quite new, but extremely modern and luxurious and boasts a number of great services, not to mention an excellent restaurant and bar too.

If you’re traveling in a group, it might be worth getting an apartment on air b’n’b. A lot of Czechs inherited apartments from their ancestors once communism came to an end, so there are a surprising amount of unbelievably beautiful flats available for a few nights in the heart of the city.

Transport:

From the airport, I would recommend ordering a taxi or getting the bus to Dejvická followed by the metro. Prague has a decent underground metro system which I still find to be a novelty because of how retro it looks. Trams go almost everywhere and also run all night, as do the buses. There are plenty of taxi companies, but I would always call before just getting in. Prague taxi drivers have a reputation for ripping tourists off.

Things to be careful of:

– Czech is an extremely difficult language to learn, but even if you just say Dobrý den (Good day) and Dík (thanks), it will make them happy that you’re trying. However, majority of Prague residents do speak English.

– High percentage absinthe is also legal in the Czech Republic and can be a very interesting experience, but try to go to a proper absinthe bar for the real thing. Souvenir shops sell terrible stuff.

– Although I’ve never been pickpocketed, I’d advise to watch your belongings, especially around old town square when waiting for the astronomical clock to ring.

– A lot of bars and restaurants don’t take card, so have plenty of cash handy.

– Remember that the Czech Republic is NOT on the euro. Check your exchange rates to see how many crowns you’ll need to get by.

All and all, Prague is one of the safest cities I have ever lived in. It’s also very tourist friendly, and has an addictive charm about it. Once you’ve been, you’ll more than likely return. For more information on the quirks and adventures of people in Prague, be sure to subscribe to my blog.

Written by Ryan Keating-Lambert. Photos by Ryan Keating-Lambert.

National Museum at Wenceslas Square

The National Museum at Wenceslas Square