I am an American immigrant in Slovakia. But I suppose I am a somewhat atypical immigrant, because all of my grandparents were born in Slovakia.
Photo: Gregory Fabian J.D.
Atypical immigrant – all my grandparents were Slovaks who emigrated to United States
My maternal grandparents were from a small village near Levoča called Nižné Repaše, and my fraternal grandparents were from two small villages near Vranov nad Toplou, Čaklov and Hlinné. Because of my Slovak ancestry, I have been granted the status of „Slovak Living Abroad“ by the Slovak Government´s Office for Slovaks Living Abroad.
All four of my grandparents emigrated separately from Slovakia (then part of Austria-Hungary) to the United States at the turn of the 20th century where they met, married and raised their families near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Thus my parents were first-generation Americans and I am a second-generation American.
Eventually my grandparents settled in townships near Sharon, Pennsylvania where I was born. My grandfathers were first miners and eventually, mill workers in western Pennsylvania, and my grandmothers also worked outside the home as domestic servants for wealthy Anglo-Saxon families.
Love at first sight
I first visited Czechoslovakia in 1986 with my Father, John G. Fabian. We visited his relatives in Čaklov (Zemplin), and my Mother´s relatives who live in Harichovce (Spiš). And I fell in love with the country. For someone who was born and raised in the US, it is uncommon to have four grandparents who are all of the same nationality. And when I visited Slovakia I realised how much of Slovakia they brought with them to the U.S., including the homes that they lived in, the traditions and customs they kept, and the way they raised their children. So my love affair with Slovakia began in 1986.
After 1989, I began contemplating how I might help Slovakia in its transition to democracy and a market economy. I had been living in New York City, in Manhattan since 1974 and had two careers. First I worked as a professional actor in New York (I have a Bachelor of Arts in Theater and a Masters degree in Acting). Later, I changed careers, went to law school in NYC earning a J.D. degree, became a member of the New York Bar, and worked as a corporate real estate attorney on Wall Street in the headquarters of two transnational financial services corporations until 1991. Afterwards, I had a diverse private legal practice doing public interest advocacy in New York.
Attractive newly established country
In October 1993, after the Soft Revolution, the Soft Divorce, and 19 years of living and working in NYC, I came with a partner to Bratislava. She had been a Slovak emigre and was offered a position in the Slovak Government, and I came as the trailing partner with no employment but with ambition to be of assistance to Slovakia which had become an independent country on 1 January 1993.
First, I did volunteer work in organizing the American Chamber of Commerce in the Slovak Republic which was founded in 1993. I was a founding member and served on its Board of Directors and on various committees. Also I organized its first Annual Thanksgiving Fund-Raising Drive which was organized as part of the Chamber´s American Thanksgiving Day celebration in Slovakia, and I ran the Fund-Raising Drive for four years.
In 1995, I founded a solo business consultancy in Bratislave with the goal of assisting international small and medium sized businesses who want to do business in Slovakia. As I am a New York lawyer, I partnered with Slovak law firms to assist these companies in setting up a business in Slovakia. But as Mečiar regime began to consolidate its power during that time, it discouraged foreign investment and hampered my ability to find work as a business consultant. And I realized that the biggest challenge in Slovakia´s transition would not be the change to a market economy, but rather it would be it´s transition to a democracy which respected human rights and the rule of law.
In July, 1995, I was hired by the former Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) which was the umbrella organization for Helsinki human rights monitoring NGOs throughout Europe. I worked as a project coordinator/consultant to the IHF in Bratislava in service to its member organization, the Slovak Helsinki Committee (SHC) to develop its human rights monitoring and fund raising capacities. Also I worked in Slovakia as a human rights lecturer, trainer, OSCE and IHF election observer, and activist in Slovakia during the tumultuous years of the Mečiar regime. Thus, I realized my third career, i.e. I became an international human rights lawyer.
Photo: Gregory Fabian J.D.
Helping Balkan countries with Human rights and transformation
After the end of the Kosovo conflict in July 1999, I was seconded by the U.S. State Department to work for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), beginning in January 2000, as a Human Rights Training Coordinator in the Human Rights Department of OSCE Mission to Kosovo based in Prishtine. As part of my external training activities, I delivered training sessions on Human Rights for Civil Servants to over 500 civil servants in various municipalities in Kosovo.
In November, 2001, I was named the Senior Legal Adviser on Non-discrimination in the Human Rights Department of the OSCE Mission to Kosovo. I led a successful campaign to promote the Kosovo Government to propose, and the Kosovo Assembly to adopt a comprehensive anti-discrimination law which was compliant with the EU Equality Directives. I served as a consultant to the Government in the development of the law by drafting a model comprehensive anti-discrimination law which government lawyers used as model legislation. The Anti-Discrimination Law in Kosovo came into effect in September 2004.
In April 2004, I was again seconded by the US State Department to work for the OSCE as the Legal Adviser/Coordinator of the Economic, Social Rights and Equality Unit within the Human Rights Department of the OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina, based in Sarajevo. The Unit was focused in particular on advancing the rights to social assistance and social security, adequate housing, and health and a healthy environment for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups.
Second immigration to Slovakia
On 1 February, 2009 I returned to Bratislava, Slovakia and established a consultancy as an independent international human rights lawyer and training consultant, serving intergovernmental organizations, national governments, national human rights and academic institutions, and international and national human rights NGOs, both within Slovakia and internationally.
Throughout 2009, I served the Danish Refugee Council – Belgrade Office as a Consultant/Senior Trainer on international and European human rights law relating to housing and property restitution for staff lawyers of the EU-funded project entitled “Legal Assistance Programme to the institutions of the Government of Serbia dealing with Refugees and IDPs.”
Each year, I am an external lecturer on health and human rights for international medical and dental students at the Institute for Social Medicine and Medical Ethics at the Medical Faculty of Comenius University in Bratislava, and I am an individual member of the International Federation for Health and Human Rights Organizations (IFHHRO) which is based in Utrecht, The Netherlands. I also was invited by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) in Warsaw to serve as an expert in the drafting of “Guidelines on Human Rights Education for Health Workers.”
I also have been a guest lecturer on human rights topics at Pan European University, The Economic and Social Sciences Faculty at Comenius University and The Leaf Academy in Bratislava and I have done human rights training sessions for the Human Rights Institute in Bratislava.
Rapidly developing and international Bratislava
My OSCE colleagues were surprised when I told them in 2008 that I was returning to Slovakia to live and work rather than to the US. I explained that it was in Bratislava that I discovered what I wanted to do when “I grew up” and where I wanted to live for the rest of my life. Also, it was about my ancestral roots, as well as my love for Bratislava, and for life in Slovakia and central Europe generally. Further, I am fascinated by the the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And while it is beautiful to visit western European countries, central Europe was where I felt I belonged.
Also I had an emotional investment in Slovakia given all the human rights work I had done here during what were difficult and possibly dangerous times for human rights defenders during the Mečiar regime in the 90s. I had family and friends who had suffered during the totalitarian period and I wanted to ensure that they would not suffer from an authoritarian regime again. And during the 9 years I was living and working in the Balkans, Slovakia had become a member of the European Union and NATO in 2004. That was a dream come true for me from a human rights perspective. So I returned on 1 February 2009.
Upon my return, I felt like I was in a different country from the one from which I had departed 9 years earlier. Consumer goods and services and public services had developed to a great degree which made it easier to address one´s needs. Commercial and residential real estate (for better or for worse) was also developing rapidly. Also historic buildings in Staré Mesto and other parts of Bratislava were being restored to their former grandeur. And there was a Christmas Market in Staré Mesto! After 9 years of living and working in post-conflict environments, it was heaven.
And what is most important, Slovakia became much more international, with many foreigners coming to live and work. Sadly though, some of those who came often were not welcomed by Slovaks, such as migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.
As a human rights lawyer, what is most difficult for me in Slovakia is that the Roma community, migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers still suffer an unacceptable level of discrimination and racism. And while there certainly was improvement for these vulnerable groups during the 9 years that I was in the Balkans, racism is still is a problem within a large portion of the majority population. But also, thankfully, human rights organizations have further developed to defend these groups, including and especially the Human Rights League. I always offer to volunteer my services to assist Slovak human rights organizations whenever and where ever they feel I can assist them. I am also a member of Rotary Club Bratislava International, one of Bratislava´s 3 Rotary Clubs, and I served as President for Rotary Year 2018-2019.
Living pandemic in Slovakia
While government officials have been heavily criticized for their conflicting approaches to addressing the spread of the COVID-19 Virus in Slovakia and treatment for those who need hospitalization, somehow Slovakia has still reached a decent level of protective measures and low inflection and death levels compared to other countries. Also the program for testing all inhabitants on the national level has been cited as a possible measure for other countries to take to control the spread of the Virus.
Certainly during this second wave, infection and death rates are increasing rapidly. But as a vaccine has been developed, it is now up to the Government to develop a national strategy and plan of action for vaccinating the entire population. It will be a massive effort, but given the results of the national testing conducted previously, there is good reason to think that public health authorities will be up to the task. I certainly feel safer living here in Slovakia during this pandemic.
A Migrant Platform Representative Organisation
Since 2019, I have been most pleased to have been asked with a number of other foreigners living in Slovakia to participate with the Milan Simecka Foundation, the Human Rights League, and their partners in the KapaCity Project – Supporting the Integration of Foreigners at the Local Level. We have had meetings with the Mayor of Bratislava as well as representatives of the Metropolitan Institute of Bratislava on such subjects as our view on community life, public spaces, and library services in Slovakia and how they might be improved from a foreigner´s perspective. Further, we have discussed in general with the Mayor and other local government representatives how integration of foreigners might be improved from the foreigner´s perspective. These discussions would serve well as a starting point to further develop and formalize a migrant platform-representative organization in the near future. I applaud these efforts to do so thus far.
What do I say about Slovaks to newcomers from abroad?
At first, people in Slovakia may seem a bit aloof and quiet toward you generally, but don´t let that stop you from making friends with them. There are also many persons from Slovakia who will be pleased to meet you and who will enjoy conversation with you using English as a lingua franca. Through them you will make friends and be welcomed into Slovak society. While naturally you will associate with other foreigners living in Slovakia, do try to be a part of mainstream society. There are many beautiful aspects of Slovak culture and tradition. You will find it culturally enriching, and also, you will also have a chance to share the culture of your homeland with them.
Also a word on learning Slovak: while it is a difficult language grammatically, don´t let that stop you. The best way to learn is by focusing primarily on conversation and reading rather than trying to learn all the grammar first. If you try to converse and read as much as possible and supplement it with Slovak lessons, you will learn more quickly. Also try watching Slovak TV serials and comedies.
I have been a student of the Slovak language, my ancestral tongue, for the last 8 years. I have a 1.5 hour private lesson four days a week alternating between two different teachers, plus I do 1 hour of homework in preparation for each lesson.
Fotka: Gregory Fabian J.D.
Back to acting, but Slovak classical plays in English
I also began working as an actor again in Bratislava after 34 years. Previously I had worked as a professional actor in New York and regionally, in 40 productions Off-Broadway, Off-Off Broadway, and in summer, university, and community theaters. Also, I did television commercials and appeared on daytime television serials. Some of my favorite lead roles on stage were “Stanley” in Tennessee William´s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Henry” in “The Lion in Winter” ( a comedy based on the lives of King Henry II of England and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine), and “Will” in “a Cry of Players,” a drama about the young life of William Shakespeare.
In NYC, I have performed Off Broadway in Eugene O´Neill´s “The Hairy Ape” with Ray Wise (US TV serial „Twin Peaks“, and the US film „Good Night and Good Luck“) and Jonathan Frakes (Commander William Riker in „Star Trek – The Next Generation“), and Off-Off Broadway in „Caesar”, a modern dress production of Julius Caesar with the late Brian Dennehy who won two TONY awards and an Olivier Award for his theater performances, 6 Emmy Award nominations for TV performances, and a Golden Globe Award for film. Also, Richard Dean Anderson (MacGyver) was a year ahead of me in our professional actor training program at Ohio University.
In 2013, The Bridge - English Language Center in Bratislava began an English-speaking theater group, Bridgin´ Drama which performs classic Slovak folk tales and plays in English. In 2014-2015, I played the lead role of Adam Mole in “Kukucheers” an English adaptation of the classic Slovak folk tale “Rysavá jalovica” by Martin Kukučin. Next, I played various minor characters in “Just Another Cup of Tea” an English adaptation of “Čaj u pána Senátora” by Ivan Stodola. And in February 2020, in what was my best role since I left acting in NYC, I played Adam Greško, the lead role in Ivan Bukovčan´s three-character tragicomedy “A Loop for Two,” an English adaptation of his play “Slučka pre dvoch.” The play was performed at the Malá scéna STU theater in Bratislava. I have also done voice-over and dubbing work in Bratislava.
All my work experience came together in Bratislava
Thus, I am very emotionally attached to Slovakia and Bratislava, as I finally found here “what I wanted to do when I grew up” i.e. to be an international human rights lawyer. But I also have used my business skills in Bratislava as a New York lawyer in the organization of the American Chamber of Commerce, and in serving foreign companies to enable them to do business in Slovakia. Further, my acting skills have served me well as a human rights trainer in Slovakia and elsewhere, and also in my work here in the theater. So all of my work skills and experience came together in Slovakia, and I have made it my home. And as Slovakia is my ancestral homeland, I am pleased that I have been able to contribute to Slovakia´s political, economic, and cultural development. I think my grandparents would have been proud.
Gregory Fabian J.D.
Personal testimonies of foreigners were published as part of activities of the KapaCITY project, which is co-funded by the European Union from the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund and the Internal Affairs Funds.