Jesus people, loving people

New life, new problems for Sheffield’s Slovaks

[Source: Published: Wednesday, 16 January, 2008]

Housing and social problems trouble Sheffield’s new migrants by Martin Wainwright.

The little word “receipt” wasn’t in Milan Horvat’s crash-course in English when he moved to South Yorkshire from Slovakia, and that meant trouble.

“I paid the rent regular, every two weeks, £220,” says the 40-year-old who commutes from Sheffield with his son, Ivan, to a warehouse packing job in Chesterfield. “But the landlord, he say I don’t, and I don’t have any paper to prove it.”

The dispute, which led to Milan and his family losing the tenancy, is typical of problems plaguing the Slovak community in Sheffield, most of them originally from Roma gypsy villages between the Tatra mountains on the Polish border and Poprad.

Barred from social housing for their first year in Britain, under the Worker Registration scheme, they cluster in the hillside terraces of Pitsmoor, which has the largest stock of privately rented housing in the city.

Misunderstandings abound, not only on the landlords’ side, but among families who know little or nothing about British housing regulations. Faced with average rents of £110-a-week for a three-bed Victorian terrace, the Slovaks and other eastern European migrants are tempted to cram in cousins and in-laws.

“We get endless complaint calls from neighbours about overcrowding,” says a local housing worker, who has to measure the room space and divide it by the number of residents.

The equations tend to produce the wrong answer for the families. “We have every sympathy because so many of them are in shitty jobs with really low pay, but the law means they have to look for somewhere else.”

The city council and voluntary groups including the charismatic Jesus Army church, which has won the trust and membership of many Pitsmoor Slovaks, meet some of the need with advice and referrals to new landlords. The church helped Milan find a new house in a quiet side-street just in time for the arrival of his first grandchild, Alex, plus room for the family’s traditional Roma display of artificial flowers and china ornaments, including an entire shelf of porcelain parrots.

Friends from Slovak days try to stay close, pooling resources to send money back to relatives around Poprad, and also sticking together against routine discrimination.

Cyril Dunka, a 37-year-old graduate from Bratislava university who is currently working as a cleaner, keeps his family away from the local high street shops and pubs at night.

“You get called over to fight by white boys, or sometimes Pakistani boys,” he says, and the problems recur for younger members of the community at school. Dunka is looking for a different school for his teenage daughter, Mishka, because of trouble from other kids, some picking on the Jesus Army link.

His family moved last year from a different part of Pitsmoor, where they felt uneasy, to their current home which bulges with Roma friends, calling round to drink strongly sugared tea and let their children play together. The Dunkas‘ daughter, Dominica, has taken eagerly to the local primary and is now the family’s star English speaker.

Cyril says: “Here in this street it’s quiet and we all get on well together. We have had troubles and I wish houses weren’t so expensive. We will always rent, I think. How could I get the money to buy? But I like England.” He imitates wings with his arms. “Here we are free.”

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