Create chances, overcome discrimination: Shared experiences in education projects for young Roma

Conference report

How can Romani people become part of European societies, and yet retain their identity? How can an intercultural dialogue be initiated between Romani people, the largest ethnic minority in Europe, and the majority society? A central element of such a mul-ticultural society is common communication. This must first and foremost be created by equal educational opportunities for all members of society, in addition to social justice.

The Brussels office of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation addressed this challenge with the conference “Opening up Opportunities, Overcoming Discrimination – Common Experiences in Educational Projects for Romani Young People”, held in Brussels from December 11-13, 2009. The goal of the conference was to connect such left issues as the human right to an education, the self-organisation of social groups, and the struggle against exclusion, with an exchange about positive examples in projects for one of the most severely disadvantaged minorities in Europe.

Staff of such international organisations as Amnesty International, the Council of Europe, European Dialogue and ERIO (Euro-pean Roma Information Office), and some thirty activists of local NGOs, primarily from eastern and south-eastern Europe, were invited. The European aspect was particularly interesting in this regard, since it is primarily the EU and such pan-European institutions as the OSCE and the Council of Europe which deal with the situation of the Romani people; the interest of the nation-states and regions in the issue is still slight. However, particularly the improvement of the education of Romani children is currently a major topic in EU circles, and educational projects will also be a central topic at the second EU-Romani Summit in Cordoba on April 8, 2010.

Where parents are unemployed and live in inadequate housing, the organisation of a difficult daily routine is often more important than the education and training of the children. The lack of education amongst Romani people at the same time prevents their breaking out of poverty. A vicious circle of exclusion, poverty and lack of education of the Romani minority thus appears. The application of strict anti-discrimination laws is not sufficient to achieve the necessary education of Romani people, and hence their real integration. Political stakeholders must in addition propagate the active integration of Romani young people into the national educational systems, and develop realisable programmes for their participation in education, with the participation of Romani organisations.

The projects presented at the conference are essentially aimed at the implementation of three goals:

• Improvement in access to kindergartens, pre-schools and primary schools for Romani children
• Integration into elementary and secondary schools
• Inclusion of Romani people in professional training pro-grammes, and improved access to the labour market and to higher education; in addition, confidence-building and the development of individual personalities.

The conference participants presented their ambitious and generally successful projects in the context of three different forums which addressed the above goals. The problems and challenges with which many of the projects have had to grapple were also discussed.

Projects for Children of Pre-School Age

The projects presented for children of pre-school age are, like many other projects, oriented towards preventing the segregation of Romani children by forcing them to attend special schools. In addition to preparing the children to visit regular schools, the projects therefore aim to propagate the idea of mixed educational institutions as means for intercultural exchange and mutual under-standing.

Another goal is the constant inclusion of parents in the educational progress of their children. This inclusion of the parents is very important, especially for little children, for parents’ motiva-tion to send their children to kindergarten, or to register them at school, depends largely on their confidence in the educational institutions. This applies particularly to children of immigrant back-ground, as in the case of the project “Social Integration in the City of Cologne” for refugee families from former Yugoslavia. Here, mediators accompany the children to kindergarten and school, and thus contribute to reducing concerns and mistrust of the parents, which is often based on bad experiences of their own.

Overcoming language problems is an important prerequisite for success in primary school; it is therefore a central element of many projects. Moreover, at the official level, the integration of Romani children is also an important prerequisite for fostering multicultural diversity in schools. Thus, for example, the project “Inclusion of Romani Children in the Public Kindergartens” in Skopje not only has the goal of familiarising children with the Ma-cedonian language and alerting parents to the importance of edu-cation. In cooperation with the Ministry for Social Affairs, the main partner in this project, the initiative has managed to register forty-five children without birth certificates at school, and to have them registered with the Ministry of the Interior. Multi-ethnicity is pos-sible only with the formal and active integration of children.
Projects in Primary and Secondary Schools

Even in school, language problems often present an insur-mountable barrier for Romani children. In response, the project “Education Service for New Communities and Travellers” in Bradford, Great Britain, has responded to this challenge. In the project, interpreters from the Romani community are employed to make access to elementary and secondary schools possible for children and young people from central and eastern Europe, who are for the most part Romani. The interpreters are present during the recesses, so that the pupils can discuss problems in their own language. This project has been very well accepted by pupils, parents and teachers. The social educational institution employs an assistant to facilitate access to school for Romani children, and to work together with the families with regard to school attendance. In addition, the assistant project is supplemented by lessons on Romani history and traditions, to promote acceptance of the Romani people, through knowledge of their identity.

In many European countries, children from Romani families have a higher risk of being sent to special schools by local authorities. This trend is to be counteracted not only by political action, but also by projects using supporting teachers, and mentoring teachers specifically for Romani children. Sometimes this approach is combined with lessons in Romani, as is the case in a project in Skopje, Macedonia. Moreover, many conference participants saw the employment of Romani teachers or assistants as a useful method for strengthening the trust of parents in the schools. This approach is also being pursued in projects in Hungary and Italy.

For example, the “DARTKE Student Mentoring Programme” in the Hungarian city of Szeged promotes the integration of Romani children by use of mediators between children, families and schools. In Szeged, the Móra Special Primary School was closed in the context of de-segregation measures, and 129 pupils were distributed amongst eleven schools, to which mentors were sent. As a result, most pupils were integrated into their classes, the pupils supported by mentors had a better attitude towards the school and towards learning, their performance at school improved, and their absence times dropped. Their social behaviour also changed positively, and their communications with teachers and class-mates has improved.

Many children who grow up in a socially disadvantaged environment get less support from their parents in mastering the school routine. At the project “Schooling for Romani Young People” in Rome, social workers constitute a bridge between teachers, non-Romani people and Romani families who live in the so-called camps in the countryside around Rome. The children from the Romani camps now trust the social workers, and it is possible to successfully support them.

The mere presence of Romani teacher helps the pupils, since it contributes to fighting the invisibility of the Romani people. In those projects in which Romani mentoring teachers also actually have a Romani background themselves, they thus also confirm the children in taking pride in their own origins; for non-Romani children, that makes the acceptance of their classmates more natural.

The Amnesty International project “Fighting the Discrimination of Romani Children in the Educational System” in Slovakia has chosen a different approaches. Amnesty is pursuing a campaign in Slovakia and Czechia for equal access to education and for protection from discrimination. A prime example was the case of a school in Pavlovce on the Uh, in which 99.5% of the pupils are Romani. Many children were assigned to this special school for children with mental disabilities with no previous testing or consent by their parents.

The goal of the Amnesty project is to initiate legal and political change at the central level to prevent the segregation of Romani children in the educational system in Slovakia. At a local level, assignment of children to special schools is to be re-examined, and the authorities are to ensure that children no longer be assigned to special schools.

These goals could be promoted by insistent lobbying at the national level, by support from local NGOs and other local stakeholders, such as schools, municipalities and churches. For instance, a new education law has now been enacted which confirms the ban on discrimination particularly in the form of segregation in the educational system. At the local level, twenty children were transferred from a special school to a general school, and the majority of Romani children were assigned to general schools in the 2009-‘10 school year.

However, while the focus of the project is on the original en-rolment of pupils in special schools, the problem of segregation in education must be addressed at the level of the general schools as well. The will of these schools to train pupils with different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds must be promoted.

Vocational Training and Extra-Curricular Education: Projects for Young People

This extremely diverse area is the focus, for example, of the project “Self-Confidence Training for Romani Girls”, which is targeted at women and girls of the Romani community in the Spanish region of Catalonia. The project includes two major meet-ings a year, with some 300 participants. This is a transgenerational project that creates a space in which girls and young women can exchange experiences about their lives and their professions. The Romani women participate directly in the organisation of the meetings, and female Romani students are involved to promote solidarity networks and thus to mutually support their academic careers.

A youth exchange of a special kind was made possible by the project “Similarities and Differences of Different Realities of Romani People”, launched by the Hungarian foundation Ro-maversitas. In the autumn of 2009, young representatives of eight Romani organisations had met for a week in Budapest. There, they discussed a different topic every day, each with reference to the identity of Romani young people. Among other things, participants could exchange their thoughts on the topics of tradition, language and discrimination in their countries of origin. For most participants, the project provided them with their first opportunity to spend any considerable time with Romani people from other countries, and enabled them to establish contacts.

Another successful transnational youth project is the construction of a “European Romani Youth Network” by dedicated Romani and non-Romani young people from Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania and Slovakia. The goal of the project is to expand intercultural dialogue between Romani children and young people and non-Romani people of the same age, and to fight together against stereotyping, racism and prejudice. Meetings with Romani young people or groups were organised in each country, and the work results in these countries were then compiled at regular network meetings with representative from all participating countries. A website for Romani young people was established which also serves the purpose of exchanging ideas ( The project “United Romani Youth” started by German young people is primarily aimed at countering anti-Gypsyism and discrimination by means of information campaigns.

The “Support Initiative for Higher Education for Romani People” in Bulgaria is a project designed to improve access to higher education for Romani young people, and to promote academic studies on the Romani people. The project offers support for Romani students through the founding of the Romani Study Centre of Excellence, a kind of career centre for Romani students. At the same time, secondary school pupils are provided with information to help them prepare for entering university. Romani students already in college are to serve as an example for them, and promote respect for higher education within the Romani community.

Cultural Programme

In the context of a cultural programme, the conference participants were involved directly in the project work. One of two German bands which came out of the Göttingen hip-hop project Flying Dreamz, which was introduced at the conference, presented hip-hop rhythms and elements of traditional Romani music. The Göttingen project is aimed at school pupils, drop-outs and unem-ployed young people who are intensely involved in all aspects of the project: They constitute the band, write, organise concerts and do public relations. In this way, the project develops and promotes such skills as teamwork and self-confidence, and helps the young people to express themselves.

Another part of the cultural programme was the public presentation of the documentation "Me, My Gypsy Family and Woody Allen". The film is about the dreams of a young Romani woman in Italy, and the challenges with which she is confronted in her various identities. After the presentation, the audience discussed the problems raised in the award-winning film with the twenty-year-old director, Laura Halilovic.

Successes and Lasting Challenges

These single projects have removed many problems and achieved remarkable successes. The following results demonstrate the successes of the projects in concrete terms:

• Infrastructure: By the provision of school materials and the means of transport to get to school, many children are for the first time being enabled to take part in education. The rate of enrolment in primary school has increased.
• Parents and pupils are motivated to participate in schooling with the aid of mediators, so that the drop-out rate has declined.
• There has been success in fighting prejudice among children and young people, and often even in sparking their own initia-tive to create projects.
• Capacity building has enabled such societal stakeholders as government, local authorities, municipalities and Romani associations to make possible or launch an educational process oriented towards Romani people, including with regard to public policy and legislation.
• Data which has been lacking has now been collected, and the needs of Romani children in the educational process are being investigated for the first time, and indicators are being made measurable.

However, the conference did not present only best practice examples, but also identified flaws, and discussed unsuccessful and ineffective approaches. Problems are often of a more structural nature, and can be fought only with great perseverance.

• The governments and local authorities support Romani projects; however, they do not propagate this openly, since they are afraid of not having the approval of the majority of the non-Romani people.
• Due to their experience of exclusion and discrimination, many Romani young people, particularly those with a higher educational level, conceal their origins.
• Authorities do not provide the necessary financial and personnel resources to organise projects for the overall integration of Romani people. Moreover, continuity cannot be upheld, even though that is of great importance, precisely for youth and children’s projects (reliable reference persons).
• Romani is only rarely included in the school curriculum as a language of instruction. Romani children thus have communications difficulties; the language and identity of the Romani people are denigrated, or are lost.
• Children get little knowledge about the history and culture of various ethnic groups and nationalities. The diversity of the pupils is seldom reflected amongst the teachers.
• EU guidelines and national legislation against segregation in education are not implemented at the local level.
• There is a lack of data on the situation of young Romani people in school. Governments do not collect data separately by ethnic origin, and are not able to assess the extent and charac-ter of discrimination correctly.

As the conference has shown, the problems towards which single projects are directed are often comparable, and similar solutions are conceivable. On the other hand, the fact that different socio-economic backgrounds and different local environments exist within Europe’s Romani communities, should not be ignored. But precisely for that reason, networking and cooperation between projects and programmes are urgently necessary.

The development of a comprehensive political strategy for the in-tegration of Romani people into the educational process must, like every action or measure for social inclusion, be multidimensional if it is to be successful. The successes of the projects presented show that there is a rich variety of ideas for breaking out of the vicious circle of exclusion, and for making knowledge accessible to all, as a subjective appropriation of the world. These ideas need only to be applied and politically supported.

Anna Striethorst and Daniela Glagla

Date: 11-13 Dec. 2009
Venue: RLF Brussels, Ave. Michel-Ange 11, 1000 Brussels
Organisation: Rosa Luxemburg Foundation Brussels Office

Contact: Anna Striethorst

Description of the Seminar