Tuesday, June 21, 2011






June 20, 2011
Andi’s grandfather knew his grandson deserved better. Andi was severely hearing impaired, but he couldn’t attend school or receive state assistance because his paperwork was not in order.

We don’t know why Andi’s birth was never registered with the local authorities in Tirana, Albania. Maybe his parents could not afford the cost of a birth certificate. Or perhaps they did not have their own identity documents, further complicating their son’s registration. What we do know is that because of his status, Andi, like far too many undocumented Roma children, did not have access to adequate health care or education.

Ten-year-old Goran was struggling with his Serbian. His family had recently moved back to their native country after spending several years in Germany. Local school officials told Goran’s parents that they needed to pay to have their son enrolled in a special language program, but they could only afford a single month’s attendance.

What happened next is all too common throughout Eastern Europe and the Balkans—the school administrators tried to have Goran placed in a “special” school for the mentally disabled given his poor language skills.

Cases like those of Andi and Goran are why the Roma Education Fund was created in 2005 with support from the Open Society Foundations. Based in Budapest, the fund promotes equal access to education for Roma in Europe. Organizations such as Tirana Legal Aid Services, which helped Andi register so that finally he could begin attending school, and the Minority Rights Centre in Belgrade, which successfully fought against Goran’s unjust categorization as mentally disabled, are among the local organizations that we support.

Once students are enrolled in schools, the Roma Education Fund supports programs and scholarships to make sure they can succeed.

For example, student mentors in the Hungarian city of Szeged help Roma children adjust to a new school setting under a pilot desegregation program that enables them to reach their full potential: important not only for the students but also for local teachers who may doubt the capabilities of their new Roma pupils. Elsewhere, a Roma pride camp in Timisul de Sus, Romania encouraged a young girl named Elena not to drop out of school because she would have been one of the few Roma students in her local high school.

Romaversitas in Hungary, another Roma Education Fund grantee, takes it to the university level. Each year it offers a stipend, language training, and intensive coursework to prepare talented young Roma to attend university. Graduates have gone on to the Commissioner’s Office for Civil Rights in the Hungarian Parliament, the Ministry of Education and Culture, as well as a number of NGOs promoting inclusive education for Roma. A similar program at the university in Novi Sad, Serbia, provides Roma students with additional instruction in particular subjects.

Believing that the promise of education should not be limited to the young, we also support adult education initiatives. In the northern Serbian town of Mol, 40-year-old Marko never finished primary school and was worried about providing for his family. Each day after work, he would bicycle 15 kilometers with his daughter Iva to a pilot program supported by the foundation. Marko was nervous about being the oldest student, but he wanted to set a good example for his daughter and so he kept up his studies and never missed a class. The father and daughter worked as a team: when she struggled with her Serbian, Marko would translate the curriculum into Hungarian, and when he got frustrated with his math and science lessons, Iva would patiently help him out.

Roma inclusion, however, is not just about helping Roma succeed, it also about changing negative attitudes and stereotypes.

When local authorities in Jibou, Romania, attempted to integrate its classrooms, they were met with fierce resistance from the teachers. A particularly vocal math teacher insisted that Roma students only came to school to receive the free breakfast and that they could not keep up with the curriculum. The Roma Education Fund supported an intercultural training for teachers and school administrators which helped to change minds and bring many of the faculty—including the math teacher—on board with the plan to desegregate. Similar intercultural trainings are held for students as well. A program in Bucharest has been so successful that it can now count non-Roma students as some of its biggest advocates and best trainers.

All of this work narrows the gap in educational outcomes for students: whether helping to engage Roma parents in their children’s education in Bosnia Herzegovina or developing a national network of Roma advocates in Moldova. The programs and organizations supported by the Roma Education Fund are truly making a lasting and positive impact in the lives of so many. We aim to scale up the programs that work best and spread these approaches across Europe.

All names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.

Special thanks to the partner organizations who shared their beneficiaries' stories: UNICEF Tirana, Albania; Minority Rights Centre Belgrade, Serbia; Dartke Association Szeged, Hungary; Roma Center for Social Intervention and Studies - Romani CRISS Bucharest, Romania; Faculty of Philosophy in Belgrade – Institute of Pedagogy and Andragogy Belgrade, Serbia.

Article printed from Open Society Foundations:

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