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Roma Culture: Education

Serb and Roma schoolchildren in Gracanica, circa 1960s


"The rich Roma families- their children actually finished primary school (eight years). But people like us finished only four years. We could work as cleaners, or physical laborers; we didn’t think a lot about school."

- Sabedin Musliu, Gracanica, Kosovo


"Many Roma children aren’t interested in school; they don’t want to learn, and they are taught in a language they don’t know well. These are the main problems. (Roma) parents must talk to their children about school; they must tell them that school is what their future will be based on."

- Ibrahim Eljšani, Prizren, Kosovo

"More Roma went to school; they could read and write. A very small number of Roma, though, finished primary school, less for secondary school, and concerning University- hardly anyone. One or Two Roma in Kosovo (finished University), but none from Gracanica ever did."

- Afrim Osmani, Gracanica, Kosovo

This article is based upon my own personal observations and experience in Mahalas across Kosovo.

The majority of Kosovar Roma children speak minimal Serbian. There is little tradition of school attendance. Kosovar Roma parents, and children as well, are resistant to the idea of school because of both the way they are treated by the community-at-large and by earlier, half-hearted attempts to integrate them without taking into account their circumstance and the majority community’s perception of them. Attempts to integrate Roma children into Albanian/ Serbian schools consistently failed because no special remedial programs were created to help them catch up to the instructional language level of their peers before they were enrolled, nor were Roma teachers included. Roma children were enrolled in school and were made fun of because of their ethnicity and appearance. They could not speak the language of instruction and therefore could not learn. They failed and withdrew, continuing the same cycle of poverty and marginalization as their parents.

Roma parents do not enroll their children in school because they frankly do not appreciate education or understand its value. They themselves were denied an education; how can they be expected to know its worth? Other Roma who have been educated remain unemployed; they themselves grow bitter from the experience, while other Roma decide that, due to an inherent racism across the Kosovar cultural-economic environment, such an education is a false promise. Despite Tito-era assimilation policies in regard to schooling, a minority or Roma actually benefited from these policies. The majority of Roma have been generationally excluded from education; a common attitude among Roma is that learning is ‘not for us.’ During the interviews conducted in this course of this project, when asked if they attended school, many old Roma said ‘there weren’t schools for us back then,’ or ‘they didn’t want to teach us.’

Parents cannot expect to have any appreciation of education when they, their grandparents, and so on were excluded. When uneducated parents do enroll their children in school, those children often face hostility from majority-ethnicity children, whether they be Serbs or Albanians; Roma children are ridiculed because of their dark skin (lighter-skinned Roma children face less hostility), lack of hygiene, the condition of their clothes, their lack of money for books and supplies, and their inability to communicate effectively in the language of instruction. This makes them a target for their classmates and an object of frustration for their teachers, who have no idea what these children face when first introduced to the classroom. A teacher will not say, ‘this child has no indoor plumbing, and it’s minus two Celsius’- a teacher will simply say, ‘the kid’s dirty.’ Another problem with Roma children is caused by infrequent attendance. A Roma child may be ‘employed’ already- in collecting cans and bottles for recycling, in helping their fathers, older brothers or uncles in menial/ field labor, or in caring for the younger children in the home. Weather conditions also play a role: a child may be kept home on rainy days because the parents cannot afford a raincoat or umbrella. The distance between schools and Roma Mahalas, often on the edges of villages/ towns, may be too far a walk for younger Roma children. These circumstances are not taken into account.

Another issue regarding school enrollment concerns ‘school fees’- basic costs such as the cost of books, book bags, pens and other needed school equipment. Clothing is also an important issue; many Roma families are too poor to afford good clothes for their children, and as a consequence the children are ridiculed.

Hygiene is another issue. Many Roma families have only outside water taps; in the winter, it is impossible to keep adequately clean. Racist teachers use the hygiene issue as a way to exclude Roma children from school- ‘they’re dirty, and that means that they may have lice…’ and racism takes on the guise of a public health issue. A Roma remedial education center in northern Kosovo brilliantly removed this issue by installing showers for any Roma child that wished to use them.

These children, when ridiculed for the above reasons, come home crying; their parents, because of the lack of understanding of the importance of education due to their own exclusion, often simply shrug their shoulders. It’s up to the child; the child won’t go back.

Educating Roma children in Romanes is an idea slow to take hold in Eastern Europe, and not simply for racist reasons. Roma must be fluent in the language of the majority to succeed in whatever country they reside in. In Kosovo, this is problematic; Roma living in Serb enclaves learn Serbian- the language of a people that are even more endangered than them. Roma children must learn Albanian to have any future in Kosovo. So, for that matter, should Serb children.

Romanes-language education occurs in several remedial programs in Kosovo, including those instituted by UNMIK (the Blue Door School, Gnjilane/ Gjilan Mahala), Balkan Sunflowers (Plemetina, Gracanica, the Gnjilane/ Gjilan Roma Resource Center, and the Žitkovac IDP camp), Caritas (Čezmin Lug, Mitrovica) and the International Rescue Committee (Kosovo Polje/ Fushë Kosovë and Lipljan/ Lipjan). Most of these programs prepare children for an eventual education in Serbian- not Albanian.

Two schools in the Vojvodina (Northern Serbia) and one primary school in Obrenovac (near Belgrade) offer elective Romanes classes.

The traditional marginalization of Roma- and their stereotypical status as ditchdiggers, menial laborers, unemployables or illiterates- continues. And Kosovo’s educational system- underfunded in the best of times- has enough difficulty accomodating majority children (Kosovo has the highest birthrate in Europe). Teachers are underpaid; classrooms are packed full; the dire educational situation Kosovar Roma find themselves in is not simply a product of racism. It's also basic economics.

The following sample statistics- regarding Roma education in Gracanica & Plemetina, Kosovo- reflect higher instances of assimilation and education than other Kosovar Roma areas. They are indicative of the state of Roma school enrolment through Serbian areas of Kosovo.

Gracanica:
~350 Roma from 72 families live in Gracanica 
89 are under the age of 18 
The majority (~80%) of these 89 are not in school 
Many children do not speak Serbian 
Many Roma adults can only read and write the Serbian language with difficulty 

Plemetina:
~410 Roma individuals from 87 families live in Plemetina’s two Mahalas. 100 are under age 10, and 120 are aged 11-20 
70 Roma children attend school 
At least 17 Roma children attending school cannot speak adequate Serbian 
At least 25 Roma children aged 7-10 have never attended school, and speak no Serbian 
The majority of Plemetina’s Roma adults are functionally illiterate 

Roma school attendance in Albanian areas depends on the child's proficiency in the Albanian language. In Gnjilane/ Gjilan, Kosovo, school attendance for Roma is zero. Roma children attend the 'Blue Door School' within the Gnjilane/ Gjilan city Mahala. A few Ashkalija families present in town send their children to Albanian schools. Roma in Prizren have an excellent tradition of school attendance; children there are fluent in Albanian, and often Turkish and Serbian. Ashkalija children attend schools in Uroševac/ Ferizaj, Obilic Town, Kosovo Polje/ Fushë Kosovë, Vucitrn/ Vushtrri and other areas. Egyptian children attend Albanian schools in Djakovica/ Gjakovë, Pec/ Pejë and other towns. 

Those who are identified as Roma, as opposed to Ashkalija/ Egyptians, are the ones most traditionally removed from the education environment, and this is more true in the new Kosovo, where their use of the Serbian language marks them as targets. Ashkalija and Egyptian students, despite the shield that their use of the majority language affords them, are targets of abuse as well. 

Three proactive measures are deemed indispensable for Roma educational programming by UNMIK’s Department of Education, Science and Technology in their 2001 Policy Development and Action Plan for non-Serb Minorities:

  • Professional Roma teachers and teacher’s assistants

  • Corresponding adult literacy and numeracy education

  • Community outreach including attendance-promoting programs and public awareness campaigns

The key to successful integration is community involvement and interaction. Roma educational integration projects require sustained community work with both Roma and majority communities and a commitment to monitoring and follow-up from the implementing group, be it a municipal government or NGO. Equal amounts of energy must be dedicated to the outreach component and the classroom. 

Alternative teaching methods are required with Roma children, to foster interest and promote learning—in preference to rote-learning methods favored in Eastern Europe’s recent past. An alternative approach takes on added importance when dealing with younger children who have never experienced a structured classroom/educational setting before. Serbian/ Albanian language & literacy classes and numeracy classes should be interspersed with alternative arts & crafts/ folklore activities that emphasize Roma culture and creative expression.

Roma children cannot be instantly integrated. At the bare minimum they must be highly proficient in the language of instruction, in order to bond with majority-community classmates and absorb lessons with less frustration.

Many older Roma children would not, were it offered, attend school. A 16-year old Roma who has never attended school will not be able to graduate with his peers, or even those a few years younger. These children and young adults need a start in the educational system regardless, and need to improve their literacy and numeracy skills so that they may better themselves professionally. Illiterate parents wanting to improve themselves through educational programs will be better models for their children to do the same. An understanding of, and appreciation of, education by Roma adults is a vital step for Roma communities to eventually develop traditions of education near to their majority-community neighbors.



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