Roma Education: a Joint Victory Over Illiteracy

Fund Progress

The difference between the educated and uneducated person is the same as between the alive and the dead person. These words of the Greek philosopher Aristotle were said as early as 322 BC, but they are still relevant today.
Common education of the people has always been the engine of development in the country. Only backward authoritarian regimes preferred ruling the illiterate people, because they are much easier to manage. The leaders who wish to get their states to a new level begin with education.

All without exception European countries passed this way, some earlier, some later. In the former USSR the goal was to make at least a basic primary education mandatory. In Transcarpathia, the Czechoslovak government in the 30s started seriously improving the situation around the common education of the population. The organization “Prosvita” furthered literacy of villagers very strongly.

All this has led to the fact that, despite the economic difficulties, now, in Ukraine is the largest percentage of educated people in the world. And the question, whether to give the child an education or not, is not even considered. Compulsory secondary education is mentioned in the Constitution of Ukraine. In addition, no one from parents haven’t the thoughts to forbid to their child the opportunity to learn to read, write, count, learn the history of the native people and get acquainted with the cultural heritage of their ancestors.

Only one category of Ukrainian people is almost completely falling out of the overall process – it is the Roma.

Traditional Romani education is irrelevant

At some time, the Roma were not in mainstream education from an early age because of their lifestyle – nomadic moving from place to place did not contribute to the obtaining of school education. There was no sense to send their children to school, because the Roma knew that in a short time the camp will change the place.
However, we cannot say that the Roma do not receive any education. It just was not what we traditionally imagine. Roma traditional education is more like an old rural education when children learn by observing the work of their parents, and eventually recruit enough skills to make a living in the same profession as their parents.

Mukachevo Human Rights Center
The Roma childer are attending the school (Svaliava)

In other words, Roma education in the camps has always been as traditional Roma crafts. Thus, girls were taught to take care of themselves and be good wives because skillful wife was very valued in society. Senior Roma women taught young girls tarot cards and the ability to trading from house to house. Children were taught to offer goods and sell it in way that the customer was satisfied. Boys learned the craft of blacksmithing and other traditional crafts from their parents. Both boys and girls learn folk songs and dances.

In addition, the traditional education of Romani children taught to respect their elders, to follow the traditions of Roma people, etc. As you can see, education has been completely designed to obtain the skills needed for survival. All Romani people graduated the “school” like that, and it was an absolute norm.

Another thing is that with the development of civilization, approaches to children’s education have changed a lot – there was a system of kindergartens and schools. But Roma never really understood the general education. They could not understand how the knowledge of geometry or literature can help the child to survive. Therefore, the Roma schools, and technical schools, which would help Roma to get the professional knowledge, they never existed in the former USSR. Except maybe the 30s, when the Romani schools, colleges, technical schools, and the groups at the factories were actively opened.

However, all this has led to the current picture. Many Roma do not receive education in a traditional way, in our understanding, and with the transition to a settled way of life, have lost their skills in traditional crafts, and therefore the Roma education, as it was earlier in the camps, is no longer valid.

The educational process is a delicate thing. It starts from an early age – from kindergartens, where children are taught the first skills and start their overall development. This is very important, because the grown up person cannot stand on the one place. If one does not develop, then one begins to regress. As a result, up to 8 years old children who did not develop are delayed in development. We cannot turn back this process. You can learn how to read and write later in life, but you will never be a real member of the society.

It’s easier to give a certificate of mental retardation

As with many other issues related to Roma, illiteracy in the camps turned into a vicious circle, which is incredibly hard to break. Illiterate parents are not able to give an impetus to the development of their children; in addition most of them do not see a great importance of education, because they themselves do not need it. Illiterate children get married, have children, and they do not know how to bring them up to receive an education – and the circle is closed.

Romani woman Wilma, who lives with her four children in a cold house without a foundation, complains about the poor living conditions and lack of money, because she earns by collecting bottles and different stuff, for which you can have a few coins. “I do not know the other ways of earning, because my parents didn’t teach me – says Wilma to the social worker of the Fund “Progress “- and I left the school at age of 9 and I haven’t any professional skills”. Is the majority Roma in Transcarpathian Roma camps are like Wilma. 10-11 years – the average age in which Romani children leave schools. Usually, they do not have time to learn the elementary things – how to read and to write.
The bad reputation of Roma people also prevents Roma from getting the education. They are always treated with caution; Ukrainian parents do not want their children to study with Roma requiring the school authorities to isolate the Roma children in a separate class, a separate school (if possible), or they pick up the kids from school. One way or another, but the class / school eventually turns into a purely Roma school and exclusion continues.

In addition, Romani children come to school less prepared than their “white” peers. But government’s experts instead of paying more attention to Roma children and helping them to catch up with other children in the class prefer to call them mentally retarded. The problem is not unique to our country. The Russian Roma complains on this too. In order not to “suffer” with problem like Romani children, they wash their hands making them mentally retarded, and say, that they cannot do anything, so the Roma kids have no ability to learn.

Therefore, the official percentage of mentally retarded children among the Roma population is much higher than among the indigenous. But in fact, perfectly normal children are born in the Roma families, just no one wants to teach them. Like in a story about Mukachevo Roma – orphan Stas. We present story about him on our site (see here.). The orphanage recognized Stas as mentally retarded and never taught him, saying, he is hopeless. Up to 17 years the boy was in an orphanage, and even didn’t learn the elementary, how to read and to write. And then some commission came to check, and unexpectedly made the conclusion that this child is quite okay.

But it was too late. When Stas became adult, in age 18 for him were allocated in a room in the hostel and he started a “free life”, but in fact he started slowly dying completely not adapted to the life in the society. Finally, the “good” government experts have come up with a way out of the situation that Stas needs medical help for mental retardation, and then he can be sent to the special orphanage and get a pension for disability.
Actually, the experts of Fund “Progress” learned about the existence of Stas only because they were asked to assist in obtaining a medical opinion on the mental abilities of a child. And we found out that he is an adequate boy, and unsociable, and he did not want to move only because he did not know what else to do instead of lying in bed.

The Fund took the care of boy. He is taught to read and write and to sing up the documents. He was lucky, but we have a lot of children like Stas. Only because nobody wants to work with them. Normal healthy young persons, who could build own lives and bring benefit to the state, condemned to the existence of semi-vegetable in institutions like orphanages, and of course “hanging” on the necks of taxpayers. Is it not a crime against own country?

Special schools only exacerbate isolation

We do not blame the Ukrainians on a hostile attitude towards the Roma. Stereotypes about Roma were, unfortunately, not without a reason. A rejection of the Roma community to indigenous local population is typical for all, without exception, European countries in which Roma live compactly. Even in Spain, which is considered a leader in the social integration of Roma, they complain about the unfriendly attitude to them and the inability to find a job, except the primitive and the most severe work.

In Bulgaria, where Roma make up nearly a third part of the country’s population, indigenous peoples are openly hostile to them, does not wanting to mix with Roma, live or go to school with them. Districts are clearly divided into one and the other (as well as in the Ukraine), and Romani children should go to school, which abruptly turns into a purely Roma one, because Bulgarians take out their children from these schools.

“In Bulgaria, the Roma are integrated into society worse than animals, – explains a representative of the Bulgarian Roma community for “Euronews” channel. – And I will explain why. Because the money of the European funds do not reach the main target audience, the Roma children. Successful integration requires money, education and work”.
Roma question is the same in Europe and obviously it needs a unified solution strategy. In this way, the European institutions already got a lot of bumps. Therefore, in Ukraine we have an opportunity to explore negative experiences in Europe (not to repeat their mistakes), and use the positive ones.

In particular, a very interesting experience of our neighbors, the Slovaks. In Kosice, it is one of the largest Roma communities in Slovakia. In general, their way of life is not much different from the life of the Transcarpathian Roma, who live in camps. Yes, they live in poverty, poor housing conditions and do not care about the development of their children. Unlike Ukraine, Slovak legislation insists that if the Roma want to receive social assistance for their children, they need to send them to school. Therefore, in contrast to our Roma, in Slovakia, all Roma of school age attend school.

However, experts of the Charitable fund “Progress”, who worked in the camp, came to the conclusion that the real reason for skipping studying is that Romani children come to school totally unprepared to classes, they feel uncomfortable in classes and try leaving the uncomfortable institution as soon as possible, and never return back. They do not get pre-school education and do not receive the necessary basis at home. They do not even have the basic skills of hygiene and discipline.

Therefore, in order to prepare children for school, camps open pre-school centers. The lessons here are with both Slovak and Romani teachers. An important innovation, which is not available in ordinary Slovak schools: children study the history of the Roma people. Experts believe, that the new generation of Roma should know their history. Now, Roma who managed to get a decent education and a profession leave their camps and prefer not to think about their nationality once again.

Therefore, the Roma elite who could be example for the other Roma is still weak and almost incapacitated. Instilling the love for their people must change this trend.


Slovakian, as well as Ukrainians, are not too optimistic about studying in schools with Roma. This reinforces the isolation of minorities and hinders young Roma to learn and follow the example of the other students who are stronger in training.

This problem was almost solved in the Slovak town Kremnica. It has a private school in which the Romani and Slovak children study. It specializes in training of talented young people from socially unstable families. For Romani pupils this is a completely new experience, because, as a rule, they are learning in specialized Roma schools. So, first they go to school with apprehension, fearing ridicule classmates, but eventually get used to and begin to make friends.

It is too early to say how successful this experience will be, but at the moment, the school’s staff believes that students can give much more than they receive in special institutions. “We want Roma children to learn in regular educational institutions. Usually, they are sent to special schools, where in 9 years they receive education equivalent to only 4 years of study in a regular school. This is economically disadvantageous”- says the director of the school in Kremnica.

Regarding to our experience we can say that the Roma school in Mukachevo is very good and progressive. Children learn at school two foreign languages, English and French, have at school the computer lab, where children learn how to use computers and the Internet. But that is a segregated Roma school! Children learn the Hungarian language and the state Ukrainian language became a third foreign language. Therefore, even a technically equipped school does not make it possible to integrate Romani children in the Ukrainian society. It should be the other way out: a daily education in the state language, and Hungarian, English, French as foreign. A good example in this sense is a primary school in the city Svaliava, where children learn the Ukrainian language. From the fourth grade children go to the Ukrainian school and continue full training there, and therefore the percentage of children who have completed the 9th grade, and already have the opportunity to receive professional education is much higher than in Mukachevo.

Our school has a lot of talented Roma children, whose talent was buried after 10 years, because most of the children at this age have left school, and parents are not against that.

Education is a duty

The right and even the duty of education is guaranteed by numerous laws, regulations, declarations and other official documents of both Ukrainian and international law. In addition, this is a prescribed duty of the parents to the children. Viewing these documents shows that in Roma communities, most of them are not implemented at all.
In particular, according to the Family Code, parents are not allowed to exploit children (should not be forced to beg – Ed.). They should take care of the child’s health and physical, spiritual and moral development. Parents are obliged to ensure that the child obtains full general secondary education, to prepare them for independent live. The code stated that minor parents have the same obligations towards their children as well as adults.

Declaration of the Rights of the Child states: The child has the right to receive education, which shall be free and compulsory, at least in the initial stage. Education should promote their general culture, through which, on the basis of equal opportunity, they could develop their individual judgment, and become a useful member of society. The declaration states that the primary responsibility for this lies on the child’s parents.
Another paragraph of the Declaration states that the child should be protected from all forms of neglecting, cruelty and exploitation. In particular, it is impossible to entrust the child to work, which may be detrimental to his health or education, or to interfere his physical, mental or moral development.

Ukraine Law on Education states: the state guarantees the right of young people to complete secondary education and pays for it. Complete general secondary education in Ukraine is optional and can be purchased in various types of educational institutions. And the students’ responsibilities include the systematic and in-depth mastery of knowledge, practical skills, professional skills, raising the general cultural level.

According to the Education Act, parents or guardians should encourage children to receive education in schools or provide a complete education at home, in accordance with the requirements concerning its content, level and volume.
In the end, the obligation to receive an education is recorded in the main law of Ukraine – the Constitution. Article 53 states: full general secondary education is compulsory.

Responsible parents – responsible children

Again, most of these are not rights but rather duties, the Roma in masse do not comply. However, they are only partially guilty. There are a lot of reasons why they ignore education. We have already mentioned them in this article and previous articles. At the moment, one thing is clear: for the Roma, it is difficult to fight illiteracy alone, without help. Without a helping hand from the Ukrainian and international funds, next generation of Roma will live in marginal environments on the sidelines of civilization. And nobody will win from it.

Using the experience of the European Union, Ukraine may start a long and slow, but no less necessary process of involvement of Roma children. To do this, experimental preschool centers should be created in encampments at the legislative level, to introduce children to adapt programs. These two steps have already led to serious progress in achieving the goal.

In addition, the Charitable fund “Progress” proposes the introduction of a pilot special adapted program “parental responsibility” preparation of which is currently running. The program should convey to young parents the importance of starting the education of children at the age of already 4-5 years, so that they were not degraded and did not stop in the development.

The development of the level of education of the Roma, improving their material conditions, search jobs for Roma – this is the strategy that is now implemented in the European Union. Sticking to it should be the policy of Ukraine and the Carpathian region in particular.

Of course, this is a very long process. It must grow a whole generation of Roma who were educated in a modern way, educated in our sense of the word, and moved away from the traditional way of life. However, a problem that only increased and got more complicated by decades, if not hundreds of years, cannot be solved in a short time.
Only thorough long-term work aimed to obtain complete secondary education required for Roma children is able to break the age-old way of life of the Roma. Other democratic methods have not yet been made up.

Author Oleg Grigoryev