Roma children near Sibiu are studying in schools for the handicapped, as fears of an apartheid in learning between Romanians and Roma grow. Ana Maria Nitoi reports
Around 30 children are playing barefoot in the middle of a countryside road. Their dirty clothes do not cover their thin bodies. Some are ripped with sleeves loose or missing after they have played in the dust and the gravel. One of the girls, Petruta, is 14. Although her slim body and small arms give her the appearance of an 11 year-old, she is a happy and savvy young girl.
In a normal Romanian secondary school, a girl her age would be in the eighth grade, studying languages, physics or geometry.
But she is only in the sixth grade of a ‘Special School’ targeting the mentally handicapped.
“I did not learn well enough in the normal school,” says Petruta. Asked what is special about her new place of study, she replies: “Well, there are only Roma there, only us ‘Gypsies’!”
Petruta has four more brothers and sisters and her parents are unemployed. The makeshift building they occupy has four clay walls and a plastic roof. In stormy weather, the wind blows the roof straight off. This leaves the five children packed in two small beds waking up to a grey sky above.
The family lives on the 30 Euro per month job-seeker’s allowance that the father receives from the state and seven Euro for each of his children per month in child benefit. On average, the family lives on two Euro a day.
Sometimes Petruta does housework in some of the nearby homes. “I am good at cleaning the Romanians’ carpets,” she says.
Asked how her education is developing, Petruta admits she cannot really read or write.
But she is not an exception – there are thousands of other children like her in Romania. The young Roma girl lives in the small town of Dumbraveni in Sibiu county, in a poor district which plays host only to Roma. Around 150 children live in this neighbourhood. More than 90 per cent of them go to the Special School - The Center for Inclusive Learning, which the Ministry of Education constructed for physically or mentally handicapped children. Now, only Roma children go there, none of whom are disabled.
On the surface, this situation seems to suit the parents, local authorities and teachers. Children who go to these schools have a certificate declaring them to be handicapped. This allows them to obtain twice as much child benefit - 14 Euro per month. This money goes straight to the parents, most of whom have no steady incomes.
Children stay at the Special School in the mornings and afternoons, where they receive close attention from the teachers. They also have one free meal at lunch-time. The local authority is happy, because this means Roma children are ‘being taken care of’ during the day.
However, kids do not really learn any skills or subjects that can help them build a solid education at the Special School. After they finish this school, few are able to read or write in Romanian.
Most of these children are also forced into this system. Because of their backgrounds and home life, if they go to a typical school, they have fewer chances to excel. Also, when they fail to pass the class two years in a row they are expelled, as any Romanian child.
Half of the community in Dumbraveni does not have electricity. The children have no place to do their homework. Many of them are also undernourished – especially if they do not have access to hot food. Few can afford to buy books, notebooks or pens.
If they are expelled from a typical school, they should have a second chance through the Center for Inclusive Learning and its Special Schools. But in Dumbraveni, many Roma children have started their first grade, aged seven or eight, directly at this Special School.
All parties involved admit heads of the local state school and the local family doctor ‘advise’ the Roma parents to send their children directly to the Special School. They are psychologically evaluated by a Joint County Commission. Then, on average, nine out of ten of these children receive a certificate declaring them to be handicapped, which allows them to attend the Special School.
This school’s psychologist, Vasile Prodan, argues that Roma children are not “mentally equipped” as other children. “They don’t go to the kindergarten and they don’t receive any kind of education from their parents,” he says.
Authorities also argue that it is a situation dictated by the Roma community itself.
“These children don’t want to go to the normal school,” says Traian Dur, Mayor of Dumbraveni. “And the other children are always mocking them because they are dirty, which makes them feel uncomfortable in such an environment. So they go to the Special School. That’s where they feel good because there are only Roma children that come from the same background.”
Despite the illegal nature of the arrangement, the local and central authorities are in agreement that, from a social perspective, this is a workable scenario.
“No abuses are being committed in Dumbraveni, but that doesn’t mean we are dealing with an ideal situation, which, in fact, I don’t believe is unique,” says Diana Trenchea, counsellor to the Minister of Education. “This is convenient for everyone. And it is not the first time when we hear of situations where the parents use their own children to improve their financial situation.”
However, when children grow up, they are not likely to rise above their circumstances. They will probably walk in their parents’ footsteps and live in the same kind of accommodation, without a roof, electricity or a job – and expect to send their children to the same kind of institution.
Ministry breaks its own law
One of the most active NGOs specialised in Roma problems, RomaniCRISS, has filed a complaint to the National Council for Combating Discrimination arguing that, in the case of Dumbraveni, there is a form of educational apartheid.
“Segregation is the physical separation of the children in different facilities based on ethnic, not on linguistic grounds,” says Marian Mandache, head of the Human Rights Department within RomaniCRISS. “We have examples of segregation all over the country, in Dolj county, in Cluj, Mures, Harghita, Neamt and Iasi. But in Dumbraveni’s case it is a clear sign of breaking the law, because only handicapped children can go to a school for the handicapped.”
Mandache says it is up to the Ministry of Education to correct the situation.
One solution for such cases could be an educational allowance, a sum of money that the state gives to families as an incentive to send their children to normal schools and keep them there, on top of child benefit.
“There is no political will for Roma problems to be solved in this country,” says Mandache. “Politicians have the money to build a Cathedral of the Redemption and they can spend cash to repair the roads every year. But they cannot find the money to help poor children.”
But for Gelu Duminica, executive director of NGO Agentia Impreuna, it is not a question of racism. He says the Government has no will to change the state of the poor segments of the Romanian population in general, and not the Roma in particular.
“Poor people are very easy to fool,” says Duminica. “If the local authority gives them some food before the elections, they will give back their votes.”
The Government has allocated two billion Euro from the European funds in the next seven years to solve the problems of categories which face disadvantaged like the handicapped, Roma and people over 45 years old.
Another problem is the welfare trap that entangles some poor families – where they give birth to children only for the monthly 230 Euro child support the states grants them for the first two years of a baby’s life. But what happens when all the kids turn two years of age? Mircea, a 34 year-old Roma father in Dumbraveni, has five children, four of whom are over two. He has barely enough food for them to eat.
“The state asked us to make children when the child support was increased,” he says, “and if the ‘Gypsy’ has no place to work, he makes children, so he can eat.”
Traian Dur, the Mayor of Dumbraveni, a local politician respected by the Roma community, said Roma need greater job opportunities. This would solve the problem. But there are no jobs for them in the town. “On the same day that the Roma cashes in his job seeker’s allowance, he spends it all in the bar next door,” he argues.
A pincer movement is necessary – educating both the Roma and the rest of society at the same time. Gelu Duminica believes the focus should not be on the school itself and state education, but on educating the Roma parents, teachers and the Romanian majority to change their perceptions.
“There are so many misconceptions, like the fact that all ‘Gypsies’ are bad and steal,” says Duminica. “The majority should learn, probably in a cultural understanding class in public schools, to give up their prejudices and realise that Roma are just like any other men or women.”
On the other hand, Roma parents need counselling on how to make the best choices for their children and understand the benefits of education, while teachers should also learn how to treat children that come from poor families, or from a different culture or ethnicity.
Missing nursery school
Roma children do not usually go to kindergarten.
This means they do not have any formal education until they are seven years old – when the mandatory school period begins. Without the rehearsal of a nursery school behind them, these children do not accustom well to the new environment and habits, such as having to stay seated for 50 minutes or how to use a pen. Most of the time, they feel awkward in the situation. After a few weeks, they refuse to go to school. Some sociological studies have shown that Roma children are used to receiving a lot of affection from their families, especially from their mothers. In the first few grades they transfer this affection to their teachers. Such information needs to be known by teachers themselves, so they can understand the background of their children.
If nothing changes, situations such as those in Dumbraveni will continue.
Ilinca Munteanu, public relations executive at the state monitoring Agency for Roma, admits the mentality of the responsible authorities is constructed in such a manner that it is difficult for something to change. “We don’t believe in special measures for Roma like creating jobs only for Roma people, because they only work in the short term and not the long term,” says Munteanu.
However, the self-proclaimed King of all Gypsies, Florin Cioaba, who is also the leader of a Gypsy clan, believes that creating jobs for the poor is the only solution.
“I believe we are talking about discrimination when I don’t know any Roma who have ever been hired by a foreign company in Romania,” says Cioaba. “They don’t even want to hear about the existence of ‘Gypsies’. Now, there is such a huge lack in construction workers and the ‘Gypsies’, who are very good bricklayers and concrete workers, still can’t find a job.”
Cioaba claims the current situation is the result of Roma people not having a country of their own, such as the Hungarian minority in Covasna, Harghita and Mures, who receive support from Hungary.
There is also a lack of a targeted approach.
King Cioaba himself is a very successful businessman. He has companies that deal with processing non-ferrous materials and most of his employees are Roma. In Macedonia, the Government has identified a few sectors of the economy where the Roma excel, like making rubbish bins or benches for public parks, and given them the monopoly on production.
Asked if such a targeted approach to a social problem could work for Romania, Munteanu of the National Agency for Roma, explains this is not possible, arguing that it is “against the European law” to give a monopoly to one group.