William Tanko: It's necessary to realize that a person can have a hundred role models. But you have to work hard on yourself.
Viliam Tanko. A Boxer. I wonder what I will talk about with a boxer? I used to go boxing. I mean... Not gonna lie, I've been to one sparring session. I was not into it, and I've put the guys who box into a box - they're nice, but we have nothing to talk about. I felt a great feeling of respect from this talk. Really. I just couldn't imagine how it would go...
Vilo, however, blew my mind. Honestly! And he very quickly showed me that the tiny box I'd thrown him into before I even gave him a chance to say anything wasn't for him at all.
You may be imagining him as a musclehead. A giant hunk of meat and muscle, radiating fear and respect. No, no. Big mistake. There's a calm that comes from Vilo that I still can't understand. He just sat down, said hello, and I felt relaxed in a second. Suddenly the stress disappeared. I didn't feel fear. Just pure serenity.
Viliam is now getting ready for the World Boxing Championships. As he said himself, it's not easy to get there. You have to train a lot and it's not enough to be the very best just in Slovakia. You need to be able to withstand the international level. "To train a lot means to train a lot. I have two training sessions per day. I have 10 training sessions a week. If some drop, I get bored after two days," laughs Viliam. "Besides that, I'm also studying social work. I try to be devoted to my girlfriend, with whom I go on trips around Slovakia. I think I can do more work than I could if I had to work 8-10 hours a day."
10 workouts a week?! That's two a day?! For me, my measly three workouts a week are enough to make me feel like my organs are collapsing. I can'... I don't understand...
However, I don't understand one more thing. Why is he studying social work? Why exactly this field? "I think I've been given a chance for a better life. Thanks to sports. Thanks to the fact that I never gave up, even though it was quite difficult sometimes. That chance was probably when I moved from the tiny village of Tomášikovo to the KO Boxing Club Galanta - Tomi Kid's club. I was given greater opportunities there. I had two training sessions a day. Before that, I was training only twice a week, plus I was attending football training. I was certainly moving a lot, but to train 10 boxing sessions a week? I didn't get to do that at home in one single month. So I got done in a week what others did in a month and a half. That makes a world of a difference. And it adds up over the years. All those experiences... Thanks to Tommy and my results, I had an individual study plan at school. I was able to focus more on myself, sports, and studying. If there was someone who had bad grades, they couldn't train. They had to do better. We were taught to do better so that we wouldn't be knocked out of our heads. As they say about boxers. This was my chance. That I got under Tomi's guidance."
Not that I understand boxing, but Tomi Kid? That's a name everyone knows, and when everyone knows it, I don't think it's that easy to get to him... "We used to meet at matches. I was twelve to thirteen years old. A little boy from a tiny village in the countryside. Whenever his team would arrive, they would have their uniforms, there was such a strength, such a togetherness about them. I always liked that and carried respect for them. They stood out from the others.
One day Tomi reached out to me to ask if I would like to come over. At the time, this thing happened to me where we agreed that I would come, but I didn't have the money for the bus. I didn't know how to get to Galanta. So Tomi reimbursed the trip for me.
At training we talked more, we got to know each other. One day he said he would want me to box full-time. That he would sort it out with my former trainer Ladislav Karácsony, who gave me the basics that I still benefit from. He introduced me to the world of boxing, for which I am very grateful. In 2011 we set out to the European Championships straightaway and then again to Kazakhstan for the World Championships. I was 15 years old back then.
That's how I would like help as well. I would like to offer my professional help to those who find themselves in a difficult life situation. Because I think everyone has the right to a good life. I have been surrounded by good people who have steered me in the right direction. Even though I knew what I wanted to do. I felt it. They just guided me. That's why I decided to study social work."
Viliam is also a passionate traveler. Thanks to boxing he traveled across 26 countries. Most of all he remembers Cuba, Turkey, Armenia. He got to know the people, mentality, and country. "Often, when I travel like this because of boxing, I have to lose 10 - 15 kilos. And it's difficult. Sometimes my body even gives me a red light and I can't handle it. So when I have to lose weight like that, I'm barely dragging my suitcase behind me. I arrive at the hotel and I go to sleep. When boxing, I don't travel to enjoy the country and the city, I go there to work. But when I travel privately, I just go without a plan. For example, in the summer I was in Rome with my girlfriend, we got to know Rome and we even went to the seaside."
Hmm... Such a superb boxer. I just wonder how many times did he get into a fight? At a party or a disco? "I've never fought at a party. I might have slapped somebody. But I've never been some kind of aggressor. When a line is crossed, my hand goes up. But I don't think a fight will solve anything. I can't explain to someone rude that they are rude. Sport cultivates a person. It doesn't just give lessons in sports, but also in life. Discipline, perseverance, purposefulness. Not just being resilient and winning in the ring, but also out of the ring."
Unbelievable! And he seriously doesn't lie, because that calmness and self-discipline seep out of him. Is he this calm even before the match? Isn't he afraid? "If I would be scared, the ring is not a place for me to be. I am stressed. Stress and fear are two different things. If I didn't have stress, it wouldn't be worth it. When I go into the ring and I have those butterflies in my stomach, I know it's going to be good. You have to deal with it. Not everybody knows how to do it. Some people get tense physically and mentally and then they are crampy. You have to be able to work with it. With stress and with fear. You have to put that fear next to you and go through all the hurdles with it.
On the day of the match, I have everything cleaned up. When everything around me is in order, I have order in my head. Right before the match, when I'm warming up, I'm still feeling the stress. But then once I get in the ring, it's a different world. Everything goes away and I focus just on my opponent and my fight. Then anyone can shout as loud as they want - I can't hear them. But the coach tells me in a calm voice "hit the front" and I hit the front. Because we are connected. We know each other. I trust him.
Ever since I know who I'm going to fight, I visualize a lot. I'm used to meditating, and I think about what I'm going to do. Not the opponent. Last night, I didn't sleep most of the time. Just a bit. Two to three hours, maybe. I think in sports, physical preparation is maybe 60%, the rest is in our head.
For example, when my parents were getting divorced and I was confused, I went to a game and lost. I lost to opponents I would normally beat.
William was rarely met with racism. But he did experience hatred... "In 2016, we were supposed to travel to Turkey for the European qualifiers. At that time I had such a drastic weight loss that I had to lose 10 kilos and my body wouldn't let go of the last kilogram and a half. I was completely exhausted, broken. I wished I would pass out. That they would see me pass out and I wouldn't have to box. It was very strenuous and very hard. That time I didn't make it to that weight. I didn't. There's this thing that if you are 10 decagrams over the weight - you are disqualified. And you can't box. It's not like you can go and fight in a higher-weight category. You are simply done.
Back then I heard different things people from home said... "Now he has shown himself to be a true gypsy, now his mentality has shown that he doesn't know how to work." But those people who were saying that they had never stood in the ring in their life, they hadn't even had gloves in their hands let alone on their hands, they hadn't seen how I work, how much I work, what I'm going through, what I have to sacrifice, how hard it is... This was said by people who were still pretty close to me at the time. It hurt me. Tomi stood by my side. He also told those people that it wasn't that easy and that they shouldn't write me off because I was still going to make a show."
Two months later there was another qualification in Azerbaijan. "I didn't go for it because of them, but for myself. And that's when I fulfilled that weight and unboxed pretty good results. I've never had a problem in my life with needing to prove something to someone. I do what I do for myself. If somebody tries to convince me the grass is blue, I tell them well, it's blue. I don't deal with it. What's important is what I want."
And how did those World Championships turn out? "One win, one loss. Just like life. Once you're up and once you're down. Sport and life are not just about winning. Sport is like life. We have goals, we have a mission, a journey. And on that path there are obstacles. It's up to us and in our head how we face them."
Vilo has some great thoughts, doesn't he? And probably I still haven't told you yet that he's the new Personality of the Year 2021 awarded in the Roma Spirit Award. Did your jaw just drop? Mine did, too.
Mikulas Lakatos: I need an hour, two, three for them to realize that I also provide the same health care as a person with white skin.
Miki is a boy who radiates enthusiasm. Even though it's cloudy outside, I'm sleep-deprived, stressed and in need of a coffee, suddenly, when a boy in a pink sweatshirt comes in with a wide smile on his face, I know it's going to be a great conversation. And it was...
The boy in the pink sweatshirt studied at the Medical School, Central European University in Budapest, Princeton, Comenius University in Bratislava. He works at the Office of the Government Plenipotentiary for Roma Communities and has also worked at the Children's Cardiac Centre.
At the Office of the Government Plenipotentiary for Roma Communities, Miki works as an expert consultant on the preparation of public policies on minority health. Yes, I had no idea what that means either... So, let's explain it nicely. Miki collaborates and works on government strategies where various new policies and activities are being created through which improvements in the uptake and delivery of healthcare in Slovakia towards ethnic minorities, specifically the Roma minority, can realistically be achieved in the short term.
But he doesn't just sit in the office, he also goes into the field. "I am the kind of person who likes to combine working from a desk with fieldwork, so I also go to settlements. You also need to go there and see how things work and don't work.
When I was still working with young people, it was sad to see how many young smart people live in often very miserable and difficult conditions, yet they are absolutely amazing and brilliant in different fields. When you see this, you think... How does one manage to work on themselves in these conditions? And yet, all they really need is to lend a helping hand in some way and find opportunities to continue their studies, whether through various scholarship or mentoring programs, or just somehow to get help to leave the community. For a while. For a study visit."
Miki comes from the southwest of Slovakia, where you can't find large Roma groups. He considers himself an assimilated Roma. He was shocked when he first came to the settlement. "I first entered the settlement when I was working for the Office of the Government Plenipotentiary for Roma Communities. It was a settlement near Košice. And I was thunderstruck! How can we allow people to have to exist like this in the 21st century?! It bothered me to see those little children... Very quickly I could see that the children are behind in growth and development. The lack of food is showing on the child as well as the poor hygiene standards. And it bothered me terribly. It bothered me that the children, especially, were going to suffer the most.
When I was there with my colleagues from the youth department, they were talking informally with everyone else except me. I was treated formally. I don't know, maybe it was some kind of respect. But when I explained to them that I was also Roma and where I came from, we got along. But I still felt the "you're not from the East, you're a different Roma". The last barrier came down when we sat down with the kids and started talking about their visions, their dreams…
The kids have big dreams and visions. The problem is that they may know what they want to do, but they say "I would love to do that, but I'll probably never be able to do it". They don't believe in ever achieving their goal and dream. It's as if they would lack the tools to get there. They don't know that they have to take a step now so that they can then take the next one. For example, I've had fantastic teachers my whole life. They have always supported me and pushed me forward. I've had the opportunity to consult with them on how to proceed. And that's what I think is missing. What's missing is a person they can sit down with and get advice from."
Miki studied bachelor's degree at the Secondary Medical School in Bratislava in the field of general nursing. During his studies, he realized that he was interested in pediatrics. Specifically, intensive care in pediatric cardiac surgery. Until recently, he worked in a children's cardiac center in the department of pediatric anesthesiology and pediatric medicine. "I couldn't do internal medicine where there's a steady number of patients. I went in an intensive direction, which means we have difficult cases where we're talking about conditions incompatible with life. Conditions concerning the failure of some organs or complex organ systems. These are very difficult conditions. Mostly we've had babies with developmental heart defects. These were babies from zero to five to ten days old. They needed to get their hearts back together very quickly. My job was to provide complete post-operative care, where a child is completely hooked up to monitors, to breathing machines, full on the medical technology. These are very high-risk and crisis conditions. As medicine has advanced fantastically, the vast majority of children have been very beautifully saved."
As I listen to this, I am in silent awe. Saving tiny babies like that. It must be an unbelievable feeling! However... What if they can't save a child? "When you're doing pediatrics or neonatology, where the babies are half and one kilogram, the physical care is not as demanding as when you're looking after an adult patient. It's the psychological burden that's the hardest. There's always a parent you have to work with. That means you always have two or three patients at the same time. Together with the parents. A lot of times you've got to be the psychological support for a parent who's completely desperate, lost, and you've got to ask them sometimes if they have eaten or drank. It's ten o'clock in the evening and they haven't eaten yet. Those parents are so deeply involved in the whole thing that they forget such basic things. That's where seeing a psychologist has often helped me, which is also a necessity when a patient leaves. We had a condition to undergo a psychological consultation. And very often it helped."
As he works on new strategies in the delivery of health care to minorities, I am interested to hear about racism in health care. Because if they're working on a new strategy, there's probably a problem... "Very often I have taken a Roma patient. Or if there were more than one, I was a support to my colleague. There is a certain bias. It depends on the person, of course, but unfortunately, there is certain discrimination in the health sector. If I said there wasn't, I'd be lying... Its prejudices like the child will have lice, they will smell, they won't know Slovak, how will it be possible to communicate with them then... Whenever it's the beginning of the service and who is going to take care of whom is being arranged, very often I take the Roma child because I don't want it to turn out in 12 hours the way it could turn out if a colleague who doesn't know what to do, how to react to certain situations, would take the patient. And that's exactly what we address in our strategies. We're working on action plans so that health professionals in training have the opportunity to learn how to work in a multicultural environment. So I think if we can pull this strategy off, it could be better
We have a special focus on communication. We want to add a block within the educational programs for health professionals in which we will deal with the basics of the Roma language and the basics of professional communication with a person from a different culture. We hope to be able to put this into practice within three years. I think that my persona plays an important role in this by coming from a clinical background."
What about racism and Miki? Has he also encountered prejudice himself? "All my life, I've had everyone speaking to me in English. Everyone thinks I'm Spanish, Turkish, from Egypt... And then they see that I speak Slovak, so they ask where I'm from. I say that I am Romani, I don't have and never had a problem "admitting" it. Then they are surprised that there is a Romani person who has a degree in medicine. It takes a few hours on duty for even a parent or the duty doctor I work with to get used to the fact that I am a total pro to work with. Until they realize that the Romani is providing the same care as the pre-service nurse. I need to have an hour, two, three for them to realize that I also provide the same health care as the person with white skin."
Aside from medical school, Miki has graduated from so much that I couldn't believe how much there is to know. "At the end of my undergraduate studies, an offer came to study in Budapest. Last year I did a specialization course at two universities simultaneously - I studied public policy at the Central European University with a specialization in Roma Minority Public Policymaking, with a specific focus on health care. Simultaneously, I studied global history from the perspective of the development of national themes at Princeton University. This year I started studying general public policy at Comenius University at the master's level, as I lack this general overview. In doing so, I studied public policy with a focus on the Roma minority only.
Miki wants to be a politician who will only address issues he has the knowledge to address, "I wouldn't comment on astrophysics, for example. I am absolutely amazed if a person, a graduate of a college of musical arts, comments on economics. We have to stick to some framework.
I don't think I can avoid working on public policy. I find it fulfilling. I can use my knowledge, I can offer something. Who else is going to do it, if not us Roma, who know our culture, our community, are educated and know what steps to take? I see it as my duty."
Majo Piskor: The meaning of my days is to fight. Fighting for anything. Because without struggle comes no victory
Majo is 17 years old and comes from Michalovce. This year he will graduate as a pharmaceutical laboratory technician. He enjoys school, but he would like to be a teacher. I thought to myself that he is quite busy with school. After all, you have to study to graduate. And even more so, in this pandemic situation where there is more not going to school than going...
But apart from school, Majko is part of the Palikerav book club, where he is a book reviewer and lecturer. He has read so many books that he can't tell you the exact number. But it's in the hundreds. He also writes poems. He even works at Kaufland to help his mom with the family budget . He has three younger siblings for whom he is a role model. And to make it all even more exciting, he recently returned from France, where he attended a seminar on inclusion.
I don't know about you, but my brain explodes when I think of a 17-year-old boy who can do so many things...
Majko is not a boy who is 5'80 and has big muscles. He's a slim boy with a sweet face. There is a great humility and modesty about him. He doesn't show off. He talks about the things he's done with sincere gratitude. I would say he has little pride in himself.
He got to the seminar on inclusion in France thanks to Renata Pankievič, who approached him. "I went there through the SKEJ Slovak Esperanto Youth organization, which was looking for young people. It was informal education in the form of workshops, presentations, etc."
Apart from being a book club, Palikerav had one project - PalikeravSchool, which was dedicated to helping children during distance learning. They were trying to educate children in an online way. It wasn't easy, especially because of the technical difficulties, as they worked with children living in settlements. "Renata, for example, sometimes had ten children at home on one laptop watching a lecture."
As a lecturer, Majko in Palikerav discussed with the children, for example, the Slovak language curriculum. Majko also experienced a language barrier when teaching Slovak language, as he does not speak Romani. However, he had a person with him who translated. Otherwise, he works with children who know Slovak. "I try to use non-formal education. I use games, activities... When we were discussing The Little Prince, I gave them a task to draw him. How they imagine him. And I read to them. A great activity to review reading comprehension."
As he began to tell me what all he was involved in, the only question that came to mind was why. Why doesn't a 17-year-old boy play football? Why is he involved in inclusion?
27,30 "Three years ago, I was standing in front of Kaufland and I saw little kids going from car to car, person to person, asking for change for food. It made such a strong impression on me that I said to myself, this is what I want to work with and this is what I want to help. I want to show people that even if this child is literally begging, they don't have to be stupid and they don't have to be the underdog in society."
But I want to know more. Not that I don't believe his story with the kids outside Kaufland, I do. However, I know that his motivation certainly stems from something more personal.
When asked about his childhood, he simply says: "It was a black and white rainbow." A black and white rainbow? What does that mean? "There were brighter and less bright moments in my childhood. Ultimately, I had a nice and joyful childhood.
What you will remember most are the bruises inflicted by someone close to you. Bruises. A black eye. It wasn't always easy and joyful. You'll remember those for a long time. Maybe forever. They will affect you for a long time. You'll long wonder why it happened. What I took away from it is that I never want to be like that. It dragged on with me for a long time. I was absorbing it for a long time. Until I finally had to seek professional help. It's fine now. It's after experiences like this, when I process something unpleasant, that I write a poem. I call them spitballs because it just falls out," where is the joy he mentioned? "Sunday visits to my grandmother's house, when my grandmother gives me schnitzel and a salad and stands over me until I finish it. Weekends at my grandfather's house, fixing my broken bike and laughing about it. Walks with my mom in the park. The playground...
After his parents divorced, he had to become a sibling - a father. "I set an example for them and love them more than anything. They are the closest people I have. They are the people who will always be there for me, just as I am for them."
His goal is to graduate high school, get into college, and keep pushing his kids forward. I'm rooting for him to do that. A man with that kind of character will be a great teacher.