You can't miss Lunik IX, but most people avoid it at all costs. It is a dilapidated block of flats in the western part of Kosice in Slovakia that receives no gas, electricity or running water. It is surrounded by garbage bags that rarely get picked up by the council, and the windows that cover its façade have been stripped for scrap metal and wood to provide meagre income for its inhabitants who are estimated to number ten thousand, three times the number planned when Lunik IX was built in 1979. The many men, women and children that play and meet on the surrounding streets do not look dangerous, but they are all Roma and that is reason enough for many of the local white population to steer clear.
It didn't used to be like that. I was born in 1990 into a Roma family that was happy and comfortable at Lunik IX. My mother was a nurse and my father a craftsman. We were one of the many Roma families in the area, but also knew a lot of our white Slovak neighbours. The area was clean and well maintained, and I loved playing in the park nearby. We moved away because my father went on to get further qualifications in Prague, from where we moved to Holland and eventually the UK, when I was eight years old. At first we weren't set on moving to the UK permanently, but when we heard about the worsening discrimination against Roma people in Slovakia, we applied for permanent residence and made a home in Southgate in North London. The rest of our neighbours and friends from Lunik IX weren't so lucky.
I was shocked when I visited Slovakia last year in order to document my hometown as part of my BA course in photography at Derby University. What I remembered as my happy home has turned into an unrecognisable ghetto with no way out for those who live there, trapped by poverty and prejudice. Some blame the collapse of communism. Although lacking in freedom, communism was like a sticky glue that bound everyone together, and my mum and dad said they would never have left had it not collapsed, because everyone had jobs and decent housing, and there was better integration between Roma and ethnic Slovaks, who shared the same houses, schools and jobs. In the 1990s the local factories closed, and since recruitment methods for smaller employers were relaxed, old prejudices against Roma resurfaced and Romani inhabitants of Lunik IX found it much harder to get work than their Slavic neighbours. As unemployment rose, debts mounted and one by one, utility companies cut off services to the local area for everyone, whether they were able to pay or not. The council did not treat the problem as a priority, reducing the waste collection services instead. Promises were made to find the local population work but they never materialised. A kindergarten and a GP are provided, but without enough financial support for Romas to receive free medication and school lunches, many of the parents simply cannot find enough cash every day to send their children to school or take them to the doctor. Diseases like hepatitis, diarrhoea, scabies and meningitis are common.
When we see scenes like those from Lunik IX in the UK, they are often presented as the Gypsy or Roma "norm," but that's not the reality. Few families from Lunik IX did manage to escape and get jobs in the 1990s. Some live very close by in financial and material comfort, but because of widespread prejudice there are not enough jobs to go round and the authorities aren't doing enough to address associated underlying problems like access to health and education or even the very basic issue of rubbish collection. Many Roma are photographers, teachers, doctors, plumbers and academics, just like members of any other ethnicity or race. The reason so many are unemployed around Europe - and almost all of those living in Lunik IX do not have a job - is because many of the industries they would like to work in are closed to them.
This sort of prejudice based purely on ethnicity may be hard for British people to understand. For all the problems in the UK, I feel incredibly lucky to be treated the same as everyone else in this country. Never would I be refused a seat in a restaurant or feel discriminated when applying for a job in London, but last time I visited Kosice I was refused service in a shop simply because I am Roma. I can brush it off and go back home to London, but the people who live in Lunik IX face this sort of discrimination every day.
I feel an incredible amount of sadness and anger, when I see the likes of UKIP leader Nigel Farage misrepresent European Roma as a community that are en masse wanting to come to the UK to live on benefits. For most Roma I know that is simply not the case. I completed a degree and work full time, all my family and friends I know want to do the same and most of those who are in Slovakia have no desire to change countries in order to do that. They simply want to be given a chance to make a home and a living where they already are.
Lunik IX, a short documentary about Roma rights in Slovakia by Artur Conka will be broadcast by Community Channel at 9pm on Monday 13 May and 10.50pm on Wednesday 5 June, available on Freeview, Sky, Virgin Media, BT Vision and BBC iPlayer: www.communitychannel.orgSuggest a correction