"Roma Luck" on the outskirts of Tirana
"A – B – C – D – E – F – G..." shouts a colorful little classroom full of six-year-olds. "Who knows how to count that on their fingers?" asks the 50-year-old teacher with the pageboy haircut. A boy in a red sweater jumps up and waves his hand so the teacher will call on him. She nods. "Nine!" the boy shouts. There is a tense silence in the classroom, broken by the teacher responding "Bravo!"
It is 8 AM on a Friday at the kindergarten run by the Albanian Roma association Rromani Baxt (Roma Luck) in a Tirana suburb, and "grade zero" undergoes an hour of instruction every day here. Behind the large glass entrance door the colorful children's cabinets, pasted over with figures their owners have cut out of magazines, cannot be missed. The walls are decorated with murals depicting scenes from the television serials Rebecca, Kit and Balu, or Teletubbies. The endless scraping of wooden chairs and the children's laughter can be heard through the closed doors. In one of the two classrooms, children between the ages of three and five and learning to paint flowers.
All kinds of children
Almost 20 children are crowded into a room and are listening closely to the instructions of their Albanian teacher. A Roma instructor interprets into Romanes for those who do not understand Albanian. The situation eloquently illustrates the basis of Rromani Baxt's education programs. Most of the Roma children living in the suburb of Allias do not speak Albanian. To a significant extent this reduces their chances for a successful start in education. According to the association's director, Pellumb Furtuna, most Roma children's educational careers end in failure. Insufficient progress is not the only reason - abuse and ridicule of Roma pupils by Albanian ones is also a factor. Bullied Roma children easily shut down with respect to those around them and drop out of school after a short while.
With the aid of Albanian and Roma pedagogues, the Roma nursery school is doing its best to prepare its charges linguistically for their journey to the classroom. "Often when the children come to us they know almost no Albanian. When they leave here, they are able to express themselves nicely in Albanian, they know the basics of reading and writing. That increases their chances of making it to higher education," director Furtuna, whom everyone in the suburb calls "Gimi", explains.
The nursery school is attended not only by Roma children, but also by the children of Egyptians (see note below) and several Albanian children, whom Gimi says are being sent to the nursery school by enlightened parents interested in breaking down stereotypes and raising their children multiculturally. It is not unusual to see non-Roma children reciting verses in Romanes at Rromani Baxt.
Albanian language for greater opportunity
While the three-to-five-year-olds are learning about the colors and shapes of flowers, regular instruction is taking place in the classroom next door. Since its founding in 1992, kindergarten education in the so-called "Year Zero" has been promoted in addition to the Roma nursery school. There the children master the basics of counting, reading and writing before entering mainstream primary education. As in the nursery school, instructors at the kindergarten emphasize perfecting the children's Albanian language skills. When transferring to the majority-population school, they will then be able to build upon their knowledge of Albanian.
Rromani Baxt continues to provide assistance to those children who succeed in mainstream primary school (according to Gimi, most of those who attend the organization's program are successful). Association staff regularly visit the elementary schools and keep tabs on the children's progress. They also visit the children at home and explain to their parents the importance of their children completing the highest possible educational level.
"It is customary for the families here to remove their children, girls in particular, from elementary school in the fourth or fifth grade. The children then work on the streets as either beggars or street vendors. The family needs their income to survive," says Anita, a social worker at Rromani Baxt. The organization does its best to convince parents that these days education may be the only way their children can eventually find good jobs and ascend the social ladder.
Blessed mashed potatoes with brown gravy
The school desks are now slowly starting to be cluttered with painted plastic plates containing mashed potatoes and brown gravy with a bit of meat. It is noon and the preschool program activities are over for today. Before the children are sent home they fill their stomachs with a hot lunch, provided by the organization for free.
Meal money and tuition costs are two more reasons Roma parents do not send their children to majority-population schools in Albania, as they simply do not have the money. Rromani Baxt also financially assists Roma parents interested in enrolling their children at public nursery schools, covering most of the expenses related to their attendance.
"These programs have really delivered results for us. Today we already have several students at academic high schools, and several have continued on to college during the almost 20 years we have been in existence," Furtuna estimates.
Recycling for education
Because the options for financing Rromani Baxt's programs are very limited (it is regularly supported by the Roma Education Fund), Furtuna decided to set up a waste sorting business to maintain the economic side of the association's activities in future. "The Albanian government has only given us financial support for some small, restricted projects. That's why we had to come up with a way to continue to operate. We cannot rely only on financing from foreign foundations and social funds," he explains.
The association has concluded an agreement with several bureaucracies, embassies and supermarkets in Tirana to deliver their paper and plastic waste to it sorting facility. Young boys regularly retrieve the waste from these affiliated institutions and four permanent employees sort and bale the waste. The paper and plastic is then taken in a rented truck by the staff to factories for further processing. Rromani Baxt is then paid for the recycling. However, for the time being the association still does not have enough money to buy its own truck, which would make it easier to bring the waste to the sorting facility and then transport it to the factories. The association is paying no small amount of money to rent a truck and therefore can't increase its output by hiring more unemployed people.
Rusila! Rusila! – Lorena! Lorena!
"Lo-re-na! Lo-re-na! Lo-re-na! Lo-re-na!" we hear from a silver minivan plowing through the dusty streets of Allias. The 10 children on board have decided to say goodbye to their friend Lorena. It's 3 PM. This is the time when the public nursery school's program ends, and 10 children from Rromani Baxt are attending that school as part of a pilot program. The organization placed them at the public nursery school to test the impacts of integrated schooling on their charges. Most of the children attending the nursery school are Albanian.
Gimi has arrived with his minivan as usual in front of the school to pick up the nine Roma girls and one boy and drive them home. The children are crawling out from beneath blue comforters to change back into their holiday clothes. The teacher gives them each a sweet bun and they get into the dusty Mercedes. "Who do we let off now? Whose time is up?" Gimi asks the laughing children. They are quiet for a moment and then start to surreptitiously look over their fellow passengers. It's decided! "Ru-si-la! Ru-si-la!" Gimi soon joins the children in their shouting and in a few moments we are parked in front of Rusila's home, where the driver hands her over to her parents. A few words are exchanged about what happened at the nursery school today. The parents offer Gimi coffee, but he has to refuse. He must deliver the children to their homes. He gets in the care once again and the next child is chosen - it's Klaudia.
How long will Roma Luck last?
Even though at first glance it might seem like it would not be so easy for Rromani Baxt to be closed down thanks to its reliable, strong, and very well-liked preschool education programs, the association has had many unpleasant skirmishes. The latent racism of Albanian authorities and institutions is a particular problem. When the authorities turn their backs on the organization's activities, the group is forced to rely on international aid.
"I don't understand it," Gimi says sadly. "I believe we are doing good work. Our results testify to that. People like us, Roma people recognize us. We have been in operation for 20 years. Despite that, here in Albania only the projects of non-Roma organizations are supported. They organize all kinds of conferences and seminars that are not of any particular significance. We can show concrete results, but nobody listens to us here," he ends frustratedly.
There is no doubt that Rromani Baxt has positively influenced both Roma and non-Roma society in the area. The appreciative looks and smiles from Roma parents, as well as the many friendly greetings given to Gimi and the staff of the preschool center on the streets of Allias, are a testament to that. However, it is a question whether the organization will succeed despite the drying-up of resources from international funds or whether it will succeed in its courageous project of creating a central waste-sorting facility. There is no doubt that if its activities were to stop it would be an enormous loss for dozens of families.
Note on Egyptians: In addition to Roma people, a minority known as the "Egyptians or "Jevgs" lives in Albania. The Albanian majority society considers these people, together with the Roma, to be so-called "Gypsies" and often makes no distinction between these groups, calling them both "dora e zeze" ("black hands"), while other minorities living in Albania are referred to as "dora e bardhe" ("white hands"). The origin of the Egyptians is not completely clear. One theory espouses the opinion that these are descendants of Egyptians who came to Albanian in the 3rd or 4th century, or that they are the descendants of Egyptian slaves imported there during the Ottoman Empire (1299-1923). Another theory (recognized by most experts) is that the Jevgs are assimilated Roma who abandoned their language, traditions and the traveling way of life earlier than other Roma groups did. The Jevgs speak only Albanian. Unlike the majority population of Albania, which views them as the same, Jevgs and Roma do their best to maintain the differences between them. However, both groups face similar problems, particularly social exclusion in the areas of access to basic infrastructure, education and employment. The living standard of Egyptians is somewhat higher than that of Roma people. We will also see a similar distinction among groups of Roma in Kosovo, where there are three groups, Ashkali, Egyptians, and Roma people.
Lukáš Houdek, Zdenka Kainarová
Translated by Gwendolyn Albert