Kazakh Czechs Altynbekova

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Government completes 13-year program to integrate Kazakh Czechs

Eleven years ago, Anatol Samek made a life-changing decision. Distraught by the declining living conditions in Kazakhstan, where his family had lived for generations, Samek, his wife, and two small children relocated to their country of origin — the Czech Republic.

As the government finally completes a 13-year-long program to repatriate Kazakh Czechs, officials are lauding the successful integration of hundreds of people, including the Sameks, into new lives here.

“It was hard at first,” Samek says. “My wife was on maternity leave, I was getting paid 6,000 crowns a month, and the apartment [the government] allotted us wasn’t the best.”

Yet though he admits the beginnings were difficult, he says he always embraced his new life. At 41, he owns a house in Ronov nad Doubravou, a village some 90 kilometers (56 miles) north of Prague, and has recently obtained Czech citizenship.

In November 2006, Samek, a native Czech speaker, talked to The Prague Post about his move from Borodinovka, a village in Kazakhstan whose Czech inhabitants managed to keep their culture and language alive for generations.

One year later, Samek says his family has settled comfortably into the rural Czech lifestyle. “We’ve fallen in well with our little village,” he says after a day’s work at a local steel factory. “I don’t remember ever having problems that we couldn’t deal with.”

His family represents the first wave of immigrants who benefited from a government integration program to help Kazakh families of Czech descent return back to the land of their ancestors. The program has enabled the repatriation of about 900 people since 1994.

The Interior Ministry is now completing the program with the Oct. 31 arrival of 47 Kazakh Czechs from the Aktyubinsk region in the steppes of western Kazakhstan. According to the ministry, the new arrivals are the last group eligible for repatriation from Kazakhstan.

Like the Sameks, these immigrants will receive state aid with job searches, language courses and housing placement.

“Our experience with this integration program has been very satisfactory,” says Pavel Dymeš, director of the Interior Ministry’s department for the integration of foreigners and refugees. “The newcomers are completely self-sufficient, and even though a number of them reside in areas with high unemployment rates, the unemployment level in their community is minimal.”

Promised lands

The first Czech community in Kazakhstan sprouted in the mid-19th century, when advantageous land offers lured groups of farmers from Central Europe to the region. Settling on the western Kazakh steppes, farmers like Samek’s grandparents founded Borodinovka, where they passed on the Czech language and culture to younger generations. In 1941, the community enlarged due to an exodus of Czech emigrants who were forcefully deported from Moldova by the Stalinist regime, Pánek says.

The initiative to repatriate Kazakh Czechs started in the early 1990s, when a wave of nationalism swept across the emergent countries of the former Soviet Union.

“At that time, we began registering signals that the Slavic population of Kazakhstan was not faring well,” says Šimon Pánek, director of nongovernmental organization Člověk v Tísni (People in Need). The country was “in the midst of a nationalistic revival” that pressured Russian or non-Kazakh-speaking nationals to either renounce their ethnic allegiance or leave the country, he says.

The Czech repatriation program shadowed the actions of Germany and Poland, which in 1994 launched projects to repatriate thousands of Kazakhs. According to Pánek, the issue was also spotlighted by filmmaker Miloslav Maryša, who captured the worsening situation of Borodinovka residents in his 1994 documentary Návrat domů (Homecoming).

That same year, the behests of a handful of prominent politicians prompted the Interior Ministry to launch a program in cooperation with People in Need. “The government provided the financial resources, and People in Need acted as the administrators,” Pánek says.

During the next six years, the government contributed more than 64 million Kč ($3.4 million) to the program. While a majority of funding was allocated for individual families, who received up to 80,000 Kč for living needs, Pánek says the Interior Ministry also contributed more than 18 million Kč to small towns, where the money was used to refurbish buildings to house the newcomers.

Government efforts to repatriate families of Czech descent have not always met with success. Shortly after the 1989 revolution, the Interior Ministry relocated about 2,000 Ukrainian and Belarusian Czechs affected by the 1986 explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

According to the ministry, most refugees were sheltered in barracks left behind by the dissolved Soviet Army, creating isolated and homogenized communities from which it was difficult to assimilate into mainstream society.

“This government initiative was a complete failure,” Pánek says. “It started a mass movement of people applying for refugee status. … A majority of these people never managed to integrate into [Czech] society.”

To prevent a similar fiasco during the Kazakh repatriation project, People in Need approached each family separately. “Each family was consulted individually,” Pánek says. “We were careful not to place more than three or four families in the same town — they were required to pay their own travel expenses and obtain visas through the Kazakh government.”

According to Pánek, involving families in the relocation process ensured they were serious about the move, heightening their chances of integrating here successfully.

“An overwhelming majority of families accepted our offer,” he says. “By now, most of them have completely embraced their new lives.”

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