Solitude. The way to a brighter future










Tomas Janeba | Pictures: Iva Zimova

Mongolian labour migrants often come to the Czech Republic planning to begin a new life and to secure their children a better career and future. They pay inordinate fees to middlemen for organizing their documents and work; they work from dawn until dusk in conditions that neither Czechs nor other migrants are not willing to take on. However, many of Mongolian children are not as happy as their parents would like. Their parents come home only at night and so the children are responsible for the domestic duties and their own lives. Moreover, they also encounter a language and cultural barrier. They are different. They are alone. Furthermore, the children of those from non-EU countries are burden again: a newborn must be very expensively insured before birth. If they are born early without insurance, at the hospital check-out they already owe about a million Czech Crowns for for healthcare.



­­Solitude. The way to a brighter future.


Within the past decade, the number of foreigners coming to the Czech Republic has dramatically increased. There has been a high demand in the labor market for unskilled workers who will take jobs no longer wanted by Czechs. Among others, some twenty thousand Mongolian labor migrants have come to the Czech Republic from Mongolia between the years 2006 and 2008.

Mongolians are not new to the Czech society; during the communist regime they often came to Czechoslovakia to study or work. From the 1960’s until the late 1980’s as many as 60,000 Mongolians had studied in Czechoslovakia. With the end of the regime, many Mongolians returned home; however, with the growth of Czech economy, many Mongolians have been coming back again. In 2006, there were 3,500 Mongolians living in the Czech Republic, while in 2008 the number increased to 14,000. However, the numbers are shifting once again. Currently, in the aftermath of the global economic crisis, only several thousand Mongolians have remained in the Czech Republic, according to official statistics.

Mongolians take jobs that no Czechs, not even other migrants, are willing to take. These jobs are the hardest and the worst paid; they involve working mainly in factories producing steel wheels for cars, have extra long shifts, cruel quotas, low wages and conditions in which the workers breathe in the fumes from the glue. Apparently, Mongolians have a strong enough will to work under these conditions. Unlike many of the other migrants who are more transient, from the very start Mongolians intend to bring their family here and settle down in the Czech Republic. The predominant reason for their relocation to the Czech Republic is the desire to provide their children with a brighter future and the opportunity to study and live in Europe.


The children of Mongolian migrants

Ever since I was exposed to stories of Mongolian migrants living in the Czech Republic, I have wondered how their children have coped with these life changes. But it is hard to find information on their situation; there is basically no media coverage or government monitoring. True, official statistics on the numbers of Mongolians losing jobs and subsequently their visas due to the economic crisis were quite easily accessible; however, there were no reports or articles in the media about Mongolian children. These are children who live quite difficult lives; children who have been forced to adapt to a foreign country, who have been losing friends due to the exodus of fellow Mongolian migrants, who are often destined to change schools two to three times a year, who often do not see their parents or grandparents for years and who are facing the same uncertainty in life as their parents. Furthermore, they had no say in the crucial decision to emigrate and often do not understand the reasons for the sudden and sometimes tragic changes in their lives.


These are the reasons why I decided to go out searching for the children of Mongolian labor migrants and listen to their experiences. I wanted to hear their stories because they are the unsung heroes of the larger story – and its problems – of labor migration in Europe. In my search, I wanted to find children with different backgrounds so I could get as broad a picture of a migrant child as possible. I have found some children willing to talk to me. After I spent some time with them, I realized that I could also learn very interesting things about them just by listening to what they were not saying. Here is what we have seen, heard, and observed

Blansko


Blansko is a small town of about 20,000 inhabitants in the eastern part of the Czech Republic. While some 10 years ago most Czechs only knew about the town’s existence thanks to its industrial past and some famous caves located nearby, now it is known mainly for its large population of Mongolian labor migrants, who are working in the local factories. In 2008, at the peak of the migration wave to the Czech Republic, some 600 Mongolians lived in Blansko. Although there are some other small towns in the Czech Republic that have relatively big populations of Mongolian labor migrants, only Blansko has been singled out by the media.

It began in 2007, when a group of Czech neo-Nazis organized a demonstration against the presence of Mongolians, who allegedly had been terrorizing the town and had taken the jobs away from the Czechs. Luckily, the demonstration was a complete fiasco; only about 20 neo-Nazis arrived from all over the Czech Republic and none of the local inhabitants actually took part in the demonstration. Nonetheless, the Mongolians were frightened by the actions taken by the neo-Nazis, and not only in Blansko.

And the fact, that no local people came to the demonstration also does not mean, that Mongolians would be very popular in the city. There were still rumors about potentially negative attitudes of “locals” towards the Mongolians. For example, according to the Mongolians, in some pubs in the neighborhoods where Mongolians lived, it was difficult to get a table for a Mongolian, even if the pub was empty; every table was officially “reserved” for the evening. However, when a Czech walked in, there was always a place. And there are other similar examples to this behavior. I was curious how the situation really looks like and how Mongolian live in Blansko; in particular, how Mongolian children are doing in such an environment. So I went to take a look for myself.

A big reunification


In one of the concrete apartment blocks of Blansko there lives a large Mongolian family with four children. Although they are all siblings, each of them has a very different life story, and not only about how they have arrived in the Czech Republic. Now, they all live together; but the journey to reunification took the family eight long years.

Adyasuren, a 17 year old young man, attends secondary school. He wants to become an auto mechanic. He also likes to play football. Adyasuren, or Áda as his teammates and friends call him, is a really talented football player; he is definitely one of the best on his team. When he gets emotional during a game he shouts at his teammates with an irresistible accent typical for Brno and its surroundings. It is hard to say he is a Mongolian. He has integrated in to the community thanks to the sport. He is by all means an integral part of his team. He has lived in Blansko for eleven years already. He was five when his parents left Mongolia and he joined them in the Czech Republic a little more than a year after their arrival.  

Adyasuren’s younger brother and the youngest of all the children, Khongor is 11 years old. He was born in the Czech Republic. Like his big brother, he also plays football and he is very good at it. He seems to have no problems with his life in the Czech Republic; he has friends at school, he plays on a good football team and likes to talk about his victories. He also has that thick local Moravian accent, but in his case it is no surprise – he was born here after all. When he met his two sisters for the first time, he was already attending elementary school.

Khongor’s and Adyasuren’s twin sisters, Khaliun and Khulan, were just four years old when their parents left for Europe. In Mongolia, they lived with their grandparents, who took care of them instead of their parents for eight years. It took that long until the family managed to save enough money to obtain visas and tickets for them and the family could completely reunite in 2006.  

Khulan and Khaliun are fifteen years old. Their knowledge of Czech is still quite limited compared to their brothers and as a result, they have a more difficult time at school. They still have problems communicating fluently in Czech, but each for different reasons. Although everybody can see that Khaliun and Khulan are twins by the way they treat each other, they are not identical in appearance. Even their brothers like to make fun of it. But it is not just their appearances that differentiate them. Khulan is handicapped: she is deaf and she cannot speak. To communicate with other people, she uses sign language and also, quite often, her sister Khaliun “translates” for her.

There are a few more differences between the twins. While Khaliun attends 7th grade, Khulan is only in grade four at a special school for children with impaired hearing. Khaliun’s school is located in Blansko, but Khulan’s school is in Brno, a larger city located some 30 kilometers south of Blansko. Just one way to school takes Khulan an hour and a half. She has to wake up very early in the morning, a when she leaves home her siblings are still asleep.

The first three years of her stay in the Czech Republic she lived in the school’s dormitory, but since September 2010, her parents have moved her home. She said she is glad: “In the dormitory I had just one friend, who graduated and left the school to go to secondary school.” Her Czech classmates are four years younger than her. After her arrival to the Czech Republic she had to start school from grade one again. Furthermore, as Khulan and Khaliun add: “When we arrived in the Czech Republic we had to learn to speak Czech. But Khulan also had to learn Czech sign language, because Mongolian sign language is different.” The girls later admit that Khulan actually never used Mongolian sign language because, back in Mongolia, they developed their own sign language and Khulan did not attend a special school for deaf children. Evidently it is Khulan, who has had the hardest time to adapt and to integrate to the new country and it’s society.

The lives of the children seem to flow quite slowly without any special excitements. During working days they just go to school and then it is their obligation to let the run the household, as parents work long hours often till the night. On weekends they usually gather with other Mongolian youngsters at nearby a playground. As they say: “We just hang around and talk.” And their closer contact with Czech kids represent their own resigned words: “No, we do not have any real friends among Czechs.”

The lack of close relationships with local Czech kids is not caused solely by their strange appearance and language barrier, I would say. Possibly, the reason lies in their dramatically different way of life; since Mongolian parents are at work almost all the time, their children have to keep the household running, make meals, do cleaning, shopping – everything by themselves. Their parents work even on Saturdays, so the only time the family can be together and “to go somewhere” is on Sunday. By Sunday however, are the parents of Mongolian children exhausted; the only thing they want is to stay at home, to spend the day with their children and to take plenty of rest. An so the Mongolian children can not share the adventures of Czech kids and their families, who on weekends take the opportunity to leave their homes and go out to the countryside by train or by car, they bike, they ski, they swim, they go to cinema, they go to pick mushrooms or go to see their friends and relatives in other cities or villages. Thus, the Mongolian children live parallel lives, which (with the exception of the school) never intersect, simply, they have other living experiences.

The economic crisis has had two main impacts on the family; one positive and one negative. The positive one is that Khaliun lives at home now instead of the school dormitory. Her parents could not afford to pay for the dormitory, so they decided she will have to commute to school every day. She does not mind traveling such a long way, she is just happy that she can spend more time with her family and that she is not alone anymore.

There is nothing in the second impact that can be considered good at all. When the crisis started, there was a lack of jobs at the local factory and even the luckier workers, who had not lost their jobs, had to accept the fact that their income somewhat dropped. The children’s parents were happy that they both managed to keep their jobs, even though they had to accept new daily norms, so it takes extra effort for them to earn enough money to cover the family’s expenses. Before the crisis, they received 3.25 EUR per steering wheel. Now it is only 3 EUR. Previously, the quota to make one steering wheel was 80 minutes, now they have to manage the same job in just 60 minutes. Now they must work harder and faster. So they leave home early in the morning and come home around 8 PM. On Sundays, they are happy just to be at home, with their children, so the family mostly stays at home. For Czechs it is very strange, but knowing the circumstances, it is no surprise that the children have not yet visited the famous caves nearby or other famous landmarks. The parents just stay home, rest and hope their hard work will one day pay off  for their children.

The children have nobody else to accompany them on such trip, no family friends, no aunts, no uncles and above all no grandparents. All these people are back in Mongolia. This distance is especially hard for the twins, for whom their grandparents provided the role of parents for eight long years. Hardly any Czech children have such pessimistic prospects for seeing their own grandparents as they have.

191 years of debt


The family of little Oyun lives in Třebíč, a town located some 120 kilometers southeast of Prague. A baby girl, Oyun was born prematurely in December 2008 when her mother Sarantuya was just six months pregnant. In April, after long months of constant fear for Oyun’s life the day finally came when Oyun could be checked out from the hospital. But on their way home the parents were carrying more than just a baby. They had also received a bill of more than one million CZK (about 45 thousand EUR) for the hospital treatment of their child.

In the Czech Republic, the health insurance of newly born babies of migrant mothers from so called “third” or non-EU countries must be bought well before the baby is born. The insurance policy for an unborn baby does not come cheap – the price is over 2,000 EUR for 12 months, which is the shortest duration one can buy it for. This practice differs very much from the situation of Czech or other EU citizens, whose babies are automatically covered by the mother’s health insurance. It is needless to say that for many labor migrant women in the Czech Republic 2,000 EUR is an astronomical sum.

Sarantuya tried to buy the policy after the baby was born; however, because of the high cost of the care for a prematurely born baby, no insurance company was willing to provide it. Sarantuya and her husband tried to deal with the situation, hoping that the hospital might reduce their debt – the amount far exceeded their ability to pay; however, their hopes were in vain. The hospital wanted its money; according to the law, the hospital simply cannot waive such a debt. The desperate situation was sorted out with the help of several NGOs, who gave the family their assistance and negotiated with the hospital for more than a year. In the end, the family and the hospital agreed that Saratuya and her husband will pay back 500 CZK (about 20 EUR) monthly. Moreover, thanks to the assistance of local NGOs, the Czech Republic granted them permanent residency on a humanitarian basis and thus, Oyun’s further medical insurance is covered by the state.

The town’s social welfare workers helped them find cheap accommodation in the town’s welfare housing and the local Caritas organization included them in their system and sometimes offers them help. Furthermore, Sarantuya and her husband both started to attend Czech classes in nearby town of Jihlava.

It seems that everything is right on track for Oyun and her family. Oyun seems to be healthy, despite the high chances of future difficulties caused by her premature birth. For now, Oyun does not realize the troubles her family has had to endure. She takes her first steps in her life and her parents can forget for a moment about the unusually complex and difficult bond Oyun’s parents, herself and also her children – possibly even her grandchildren – will have with the Czech Republic.

This problem of insurance for foreigners is not unique. But a happy end is not very typical for these kinds of stories. In Blansko, there is another Mongolian family living with a similar problem. Their son Temuulen was also born prematurely without insurance. As in Oyun’s case, the medical insurance company refused to insure the baby retrospectively, so when the boy left the hospital, the debt his care had incurred had reached 800 thousand CZK (approx. 32 thousand EUR).

What is different in this case is the virtual informational vacuum the family lives in. Although representatives of two local NGOs providing assistance and counseling and a representative of the Mongolian Embassy in Prague had visited the family after boy’s birth, no real help ever came. They desperately need legal advice and services now because it is the only way to solve the burning issue of Temuulen’s insurance. Temuulen’s parents still cannot find a health insurance company willing to insure him and so they have to pay for every visit to the doctor. “We have to pay in cash for everything: medicine, vaccinations, visits to the doctor. It is so expensive. When he has a fever, I can’t afford to go to see a doctor. I buy him some medicine in the pharmacy,” says the baby boy’s mother, recalling the first most difficult weeks: “In the beginning, we had nobody to tell us how to take care of Temuulen. We had no grandparents, no family, nobody who could give us advice. We have managed. But while taking care of Temuulen, I kept thinking: Will I be able to keep my job?”

My cello and me – life in splendid solitude

Buyaka lives on the outskirts of Prague. She is 13 years old and she aims at becoming a musician. While still in Mongolia, she was taking lessons on the traditional Mongolian instrument called the Morin Khuur, or the Horse head. At the same time, Buyaka also danced Mongolian national dances.

Her father, Boroldzoi, and her mother, Lchagva, both studied and taught music in Mongolia. Buyaka’s father likes to remember an occasion, when, in 2006, he played traditional Mongolian music with a large orchestra of 800 other Morin Khuur players who were gathered in Ulaanbaatar from around the country to commemorate 800 years of Mongolia’s existence.

In 2007, Buyaka’s parents moved to the Czech Republic in order to find a better standard of living and education for their only child. Today they work in a nearby factory, where they have a job typical for many Mongolians in the Czech Republic; they make leather padding on steering wheels for cars. They work long hours to be able to pay for their nice two-bedroom flat and to keep a good living standard for their daughter.

Their salary in the steering wheel factory depends only on the number of steering wheels they make. This was good, or so they thought when they first arrived, because their monthly income would be dependent on their effort. So they were working up to 12 hours a day with the aim to accumulate enough money to bring Buyaka to join them. At that time, Buyaka lived with her grandmother in Mongolia. Her parents worked really hard and so, after a year, she was able to join her family in the Czech Republic.

When she arrived in December 2008, her parents still lived in a worker’s hostel with other workers. However, the living conditions there were not very suitable for raising a child. They decided to rent an apartment nearby. Their living conditions improved immediately, but they did so with an increased cost of living. Thus, Buyaka’s parents started to work even more.

Two months following her arrival, Buyaka was required to attend Czech school. Her parents did not want her to follow the fate of so many migrant children, who, because of the language barrier, have to enter at a lower grade that is not appropriate to their age. She attended Czech language classes to improve her Czech and to make studying at school easier. Buyaka had to put in extra effort to study, but she has persevered. Today she is doing very well at school and she attends 7th grade, which is adequate to her age. After some time, her parents have started to pay for her to attend lessons at a music school, where she plays cello.

Buyaka’s parents can finally be happy; they live in a nice apartment, their daughter has joined them in the Czech Republic, she is doing well at school and attends music lessons. Boroldzoi and Lchagva are very proud of her: “We both work long shifts to make enough money to support Buyaka. And she helps us a lot. She translates for us and between her music lessons and school she cleans and cooks as well.” But the happiness is not perfect; Buyaka lives her life quite alone.

Her parents leave home when she is still asleep and they are still at work when she comes from her elementary school and goes to the music school or Czech language class. They are still gone when she cleans up the apartment and fixes the supper for the whole family. Late in the evening or often early in the night, Buyaka’s parents finally arrive at home from work; they eat their supper and, being very tired, they go to the bed. She is left all alone.

“I do not have many Czech friends at school. My best friends early on were Mongolians. But when crisis came, almost all of them returned with their parents to Mongolia or left for other countries. I do not know where,” she told me. But brave Buyaka does not complain about her life. Unlike most Czech children, she is constantly busy and working on her future.

Home alone in a village


Maralmaa and Odbayar live in a little village some 40 kilometers east of Prague. They are 11 and 9 years old, respectively. The children’s parents, Batsaikhan and Gantsetseg Terbish, came to the Czech Republic more than 10 years ago. The first to come was Batsaikhan, their father, and than two years later he was joined by his wife Gantsetseg and their daughter Maralmaa, who was five at the time. Their three-year-old son Otbayar stayed with his grandparents in Mongolia. Otbayar joined the family three years later, when the family’s financial situation improved and his parents were able to buy him an airplane ticket to the Czech Republic.

Maralmaa’s and Odbayar’s parents initially worked as many other Mongolians in a steering wheel factory in the little town of Rumburk. This town, just like Blansko, was also populated by several hundreds of Mongolian labor migrants. Maralmaa and her parents spent three years in Rumburk and then they moved to Prague, where they worked in the same factory as Buyaka’s parents. They even lived in the same dormitory. The two families became friends.

After several years in Prague, the parents decided to move to another place because, as they put it, “Our children were spending too much time with other Mongolian kids and they were not really focused on school.” At that time, the Czech economy was at the height of its boom, so the Terbish family felt confident enough to buy a two-bedroom apartment in a block of flats originally built for army officers in the communist era.

The flat they have is in a typical charmless concrete building, but which has been recently remodeled. For Terbish family, this apartment seems to have been the right choice. While for Czechs, such a flat is not considered a desirable standard of living, in Mongolia it would be among the best living conditions to be found. Although the family had to take a loan, it was affordable at the time. After the economic crisis hit in the Czech Republic, both parents had to start working harder to be able to continue paying the loan.

The whole family hardly meets at home for longer then a few hours. As Odbayar says: “Our parents are always at work.” And Maralmaa adds “When mum comes home from work, my dad is leaving for his work. When my dad comes from work, my mum is leaving for her work.” This statement is true; the children’s parents have to use any opportunity to work, so they work six days a week and up to 12 hours a day. While Batsaikhan managed to find a new job in a warehouse on the outskirts of Prague, Gantsetseg still works in the steering wheel factory. She is really tired of the hard and long shifts and of breathing the fumes from the glue and other chemicals used in the manufacturing process. Currently, she has already started to look for a new job. The parents also feel bad that they see each other only a few hours a day and rarely get a chance to spend a whole day together with their children.

When asked how they like their village, Odbayar replied: “It is OK,” but Maralmaa after a while admitted, “In Prague, it was better because we had more friends there.” And then she recalled how the family had lived in the beginning in Rumburk. “I liked it there more because there were a lot of children, Mongolian children, and I had many friends there.” Odbayar added: “But I like it here as well, we have friends here also.” Maralmaa was silent. During our walk around the school and the playground the children greeted several schoolmates along the way; no real friendship was visible. They spent the time outside mainly by themselves. On the other hand, it seemed that both children are well adapted in their new country. Unlike their parents, they even use the Czech versions of their names (i.e. Maya and Oto) when they speak to each other.

I wondered what these children consider as their identity, what country do they consider their homeland, and where they would like to live in the future, in the Czech Republic or in Mongolia? They are too young to answer questions about their identity, but when I asked Odbayar which ice hockey team he cheers for, he said without any hesitation: “Canada or Sweden”. So my impression is that, for the moment, their biggest trouble is the fact that they cannot spend as much time with their parents as most Czech kids do.


First generation

 

As we have seen, the young generation is not having a very easy time in the Czech Republic. They have to learn not only a new language, but also how to live alone and with the fact that they are different. Their parents are constantly at work, trying to maintain the most basic, but the most necessary, conditions of life, which is material and financial stability. In the Czech Republic, they are present physically but absent mentally. Essentially, it is their children, who are living as the “first generation”. It is they, the premature mature children, who should explore the new country and find their place in it. Hopefully, this generation will secure their place here as well as for being grandparents for their own kids.




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