Photo: Karim (left), a tour guide at Pragulic, leads a group through the streets of Prague at night.
Prague attracts millions of tourists each year. All over the city, and especially from the beginning of spring when the weather gets warmer, tourists gather around Old Town Square, Charles Bridge, and Prague Castle.
If you ask the locals – from a city known for showing visitors its charm – whether they frequent the city centre or other landmarks that tourists are so eager to snap photos of, the answer is an unmistakable no.
In spite of this, a group of twenty locals gathered one Friday evening outside Prague main railway station and could be easily mistaken for a crowd of tourists.
They huddled around Karim, 39, one of Pragulic’s tour guides and an ex-drug addict and gay prostitute who lived on the streets.
“I learned about this tour through my school,” said one participant, who was interested in knowing more about people living on the streets.
Founded by Katarina Chalupková, Ondřej Klügl, and Tereza Jurečková, students from Charles University, Pragulic is a social business that employs homeless people to give walking tours of Prague. The tour, costing 200 CZK (10 USD) per person, is catered to locals who are shown the side of Prague beyond picturesque architecture and who want to understand the part of their city that is little understood.
That Friday evening, Karim brought the group through much of the city’s Old Town just west of Prague main railway station.
Karim, who left Slovakia for Czech Republic as a teenager and lived on the streets in Prague for twenty years, gave the group an overview of how prostitution works. Standing on the corner of Rytířská and Perlová, he points to where female prostitution typically occurs, and on the opposite side where their male counterparts work.
Ever since the early 1990s, after Czechoslovakia dissolved into Czech Republic and Slovakia, prostitution had been on the rise together with the number of tourists to the city. Karim explained that many get into prostution as early as 13.
Over the last ten years, there have been increased efforts in Czech Repubic to crackdown on prostitution. Anti-trafficking measures had been implemented. At the same time, thousands of people remain homeless in Prague and many more are unaccounted for.
“According to official statistics there are 4,000 homeless people in Prague,” said Jurečková.
In the middle of the tour, the group stopped at Café Louvre on Národní, a main road buzzing with tourists. During the 1990s, Café Louvre was a nightclub called Riviera where prostitution occurred. It was also the place where Karim used to work. That evening, he brought the group to the café for a beverage where they got the opportunity to ask him questions.
Karim revealed that he never had a good relationship with his parents – one never accepted the fact that he was gay while the other, who thought that he would live a tough life ever since he was young, was never able to communicate well with him. Karim has a free-spirited personality and didn’t want anyone to dictate him. He left home and started living on the streets at 15, where he got involved in prostitution and drugs for the next twenty years.
When asked what made him break the cycle, Karim explained that a client had given him HIV and that he saw his best friend die from a drug overdose. These led him to think of the more important things in life.
Does he have any regrets? “No,” Karim said resoundingly. And if it wasn’t for contracting HIV, Karim said he would probably still be in prostitution. In total, it took him two years to quit drugs.
Today, he spends most of his time working at a homeless theatre, painting, and giving people tours at Pragulic.
A young teen once asked Karim to show him how to enter prostitution. Although he doesn’t have any regrets, Karim doesn’t want to bring anyone into the business. So when he learned about Pragulic, he wanted to give tours to tell his story and discourage others from entering the trade.
Last year, Hub Prague launched the first Social Impact Award (SIA) for university students to encourage them to look beyond a traditional career and provide them with an opportunity to start a social enterprise.
“We had an idea that homeless people could guide people in Prague because they knew the streets in a different way,” said Klügl.
Pragulic began as a written concept on paper and, after winning the SIA, launched in March 2012.
Although the concept looked good on paper, there were many challenges and risks, such as trying to find homeless guides and wondering whether there would be reliability issues.
“We contacted charity houses and those who work with homeless people long-term,” said Klügl.
The students gave presentations to those who were interested, among them Karim, and now employ five tour guides, each with their own story.
Honza is one guide. “Ten years ago, he was at the top of society, had a very high salary, and was a creative director. And then his wife left him with his money so he ended up on the street. He went to jail because he didn’t pay for their kids. And then he started to drink,” said Jurečková.
While Karim has experience with drugs, crime, and prostitution, Honza’s tour features second-hand bookshops. But what the guides have in common are their willingness to be independent.
For Karim, that’s also why he’s keeping active with theatre and the arts. He explains that no one will give you anything unless you work for it.
“The guides that we’re working with are very independent,” said Jurečková. “For example, they sell Big Issue magazines. They are very active.”
Karim has been off the street for four years now. Still, if you ask about his outlook on life, he will say that he feels the worst is yet to come.
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