Tomor is the center of the world

  “We bring human rights to those living in total isolation, communities needing all the opportunities for just law enforcement that they can get,” says the HCLU’s web page. There are currently 15 working TASZPOINTs in Hungary, and our series of interviews will show how they work. Here, we discuss the TASZPOINT in Tomor, with Laci Siroki, the director.

 

How did you become the director of a TASZPOINT?

I happened to be unemployed and I spent much of my free-time filming and editing, spending 6-7 hours in front of my computer daily. I also became obsessed with Facebook. I have a friend name Péter Juhász, here in Hegymeg, and I wanted to add him on Facebook, but instead I accidentally added the Péter Juhász who works at the HCLU. He responded, asking me how we know each other. That’s when I realized what had happened, but since I knew who he was from his visits to the area and from a common friend, we started talking. The next day, he came down to Tomor, and within about an hour, we realized how similar our goals are. He told me what a TASZPOINT is, and what the initiative is about. At first I didn’t want to get on board, because I was afraid of the police and that they would start harassing us if we created a TASZPOINT. I told him that I would love to help, but that I didn’t want to put up the TASZPOINT sign for now.

Approximately when did this happen?

We started working together around February, but at that point, I still thought there weren’t really any issues. I go to different settlements a lot to help out, but all I heard was that they fine people for different reasons. The case in Lak, where it was assumed that four children murdered an elderly woman, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Lak is a settlement with about 800 people and it is 60% Gypsy, but the Roma and non-Roma there always had good relations, the police weren’t always fining and accusing people, and murders were unimaginable. One morning, an elderly woman, with whom the Gypsies had especially good relations, was found dead. It was clear that she was brutally beaten, but nothing was stolen from her. Four children were taken into jail, the oldest one being 11 years old, and it was claimed that they had committed the crime. Then Jobbik, the radical nationalist political party, came, and, as usual, they marched through the village in their guard uniforms. The media completely distorted this story in the news.

And was it after this that you put up the TASZPOINT sign?

I was still afraid, but I saw that we would need legal help in countless cases. Before this, people only asked me about minor issues, but then came the case of Lak and many stories of stolen wood, of mayors harassing the Roma. In May, I couldn’t take it any longer and finally saw that I had to do something, so I put the TASZPOINT sign up on the house.

How did people react?

They had known for a while that I was working with the HCLU, since I usually don’t wait for them to come see me, instead I go around the settlements and talk to everyone. If you look at my cases, you can tell that they happened in many different settlements. There were some people who didn’t understand what I was doing at first, and they thought I was giving out aid.

Is being director of a TASZPOINT your full-time job?

I started as a volunteer. I had internet and didn’t need much else. Well, I did ask for headphones and a webcam, so that people could contact the lawyers at the HCLU through Skype. By now, I have become Péter Juhász’s colleague, and we also make films.

What do you mean when you say that you go and film? Who do you work together with?

I don’t run the TASZPOINT by myself. I used to spend my time making films primarily so my film-maker colleagues help me, we have three film crews. We make amateur films and teach children. We have volunteers too, who work on advocacy and community building in addition to running the legal aid of the TASZPOINT. The TASZPOINT is really a tool for us to use.

Can you elaborate on that?

For me, it is not only important that if the police beat someone, then this is found out and there are consequences. Rather, I am concerned with how everything runs locally, and the peoples’ relations with the government representatives, the mayor, the doctors, and the National Public Health and Medical Officer Service. In order to work together successfully, we need the community to work actively. Until now, I have established 47 associations, who can apply for community-building programs, talent development, training for children, and leisure activities, such as sports, on their own.

What can the presence of the HCLU add to this?

They help me get to know as many people as possible. They also help raise awareness of the rights people have, since I’m not a lawyer, and this way people can receive professional advice for solving their problems and can speak directly with lawyers. Luckily, in Tomor, the situation is good because we have community. In different settlements, the problem is that communities have fallen apart. If the communities were restored and there were competent leaders, then their problems could also be solved. For example, in Tomor, if someone is cold, they aren’t forced to steal, because everyone will give them two sacks of wood. All that people really need is someone to turn to when they are in trouble. People feel comfortable calling me even in the middle of the night if there is an argument in the family, because they will listen to me. If a community works well, then a TASZPOINT isn’t necessary. There haven’t been any issues in Tomor, but rather people from other settlements come to us. My long-term goal is to become independent from the HCLU. Just imagine if suddenly the HCLU ceased to exist, what would happen to us? The police would come and laugh at us, and we can’t have that. We have to become stronger, able to stand on our own two feet. A network has to be established by the TASZPOINT directors. If we become strong locally, then we will have no need for outside help.

What are the most commonly recurring issues?

In the winter, stealing wood is the biggest problem. People are becoming poorer and poorer, winter is approaching, and I don’t know what will happen. Most people don’t even steal wood, just gather branches, and they are still fined. There are proceedings against many people for picking mushrooms, and their crime is that they picked more than 2 kilograms. Until now, this hasn’t happened. Some Gypsies lived off of selling the mushrooms and from that money they were able to buy wood.

What does an assistant’s job cover?

Before, the people working at the HCLU had to come down from Budapest to Borsod for every little issue, but now I can get things ready for them and, working together, we are much more efficient. I go and talk to people, I help them with their cases, I go to court, I film a lot, I give out phone cards to the people working at the TASZPOINTs, and things like that. I go to about 30 settlements regularly, but not only because of HCLU-related issues. The people accept me and listen to what I have to say. It would be best if every community had someone who was concerned with their day-to-day issues. Unfortunately, the people currently just take Laci Siroki’s friends to be their community leaders, while these people aren’t necessarily qualified for this job. I am trying to convince them to choose their own community members who are competent to represent their interests.

What was your job before this? How did you become so involved in civil life?

I have been doing this for 10 years now. Maybe it all started when, in ’98, I was the first in the area to graduate from high school and the school took us to a camp, which was organized by sociologists from Pest. Everything was going very well, until the third day. My cousin got slapped because he didn’t go buy cigarettes for one of the teachers. This is how I got to know the sociologists from Pest better, and soon we started working together. We spent two years bringing children to Pest. Every weekend, we took 32 children and they learned about how to film and photograph. This is how I got into the role of bringing Roma and non-Roma together. Volunteers taught us, some of who are famous directors or video news-reporters today. This was also when I started filming. In the beginning, I felt that when I was filming, I was doing it for myself, and I didn’t want to show anyone. Then András Nyírő, who is tall and bald, and looks like a real skinhead, came and talked to me, but I didn’t even listen to him. He tried to convince me to put my work onto YouTube. In the end, we became friends, and created wifi-falu. Through this program, we brought internet to 120 settlements. This was when I fell in love with the internet and started putting my videos on YouTube. There are some that now have 220,000 views.

There was recently an article about how you are working together with the film director, Béla Tarr.

Yes, Béla Tarr sought me out and we are now making a five-minute film, but I can’t give away any details for the time being.

Tell us about your family!

I have two children, and one of them is so mischievous. But seriously, I am not satisfied with my family life, because I hardly get to be at home. Usually I leave at 7 in the morning, and I don’t get home before 9 or 10 at night.

How do you spend your days?

I work in several places, but this changes every day and it depends on whether or not they need my help. In the morning, I start in Szikszó, where I work on the development of different organizations. At 3 in the afternoon, I come home and there are about 10 cars waiting for me, people from different organizations, like the Gypsy Minority Government, and I help them. Then I go to the settlements that need me, and of course I also film. My home is practically just a passageway, and every day at least five people come by.

What do you do in your free time?

Sometimes we play music together; I am in the Dorco band. I play the guitar. We regularly perform at local events.

What do you think makes you qualified to successfully complete the tasks of the TASZPOINT?

I would say my greatest strength is that I don’t let myself become conceited, even when I might have reason to be. I was the one who met with Prince Charles when he was in Hungary, and other Gypsies would never have such an opportunity. I was the one who the President and Prime Minister of Hungary visited. At the same time, if I go to settlements, I go into houses that others wouldn’t dare go into, and I eat paprikás krumpli from a can. People can see that I am still the same person I used to be, and this is why they accept me. Honesty and simplicity, that’s all there is to it. The politicians come in their suits and speak in their jargon, so no one understands them, and people get scared. I don’t do anything special, I wear normal clothes, I sit and talk to them, and I listen. My biggest problem is that I can’t say no. What I have learned in life is that when you really want something, you can achieve it, and this is why I always try to think big. I believe that people need to be brought closer to one another, because that is the only way we can break the barriers. For example, if someone wants to give a donation, we don’t accept it until they come in and see who we are. I like to tell them arrogantly that Tomor is the center of the world.

Translated by Júlia Turán

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