8th of April – International Day of the Roma

A round table discussion dedicated to the problems of education for Romani children was held on this day in the office of “Memorial”. It was organized by the North-Western Center for Social and Legal Protection of the Roma.

The theme of the education of Romani children is not new one: in September 2003 the center held a round table discussion about this topic, but the recent discussion was broader, both in terms of its “geography” and the topics discussed. The event was attended by representatives of the St. Petersburg school administrations and committees of education, their equivalents from the Leningrad region, Pskov, Novgorod region and also guests from Moscow and Finland. An exhibition of Romani children’s paintings was organized for the guests – the work of Kristina Martsinkevich from Volodarskaya School, and also the work of Valera, Anvar, Yaroslav, Emela, Shota and Anvar Mikhaev, Ratmir Merkulov, Sergei Vinogradov, Artur Tomash and Lia Ganesh, under the guidance of Nadezhda Mikhailovna Klubovaya from Osel’kovskaya School.

The chairman of the managing committee of the St. Petersburg branch of Memorial, S. D Khakhaev, congratulated all present for International Roma Day and stressed that the problem of negative attitudes towards the Roma had worsened in recent times, the extremists’ cry of “Russian for the Russians” is heard more frequently and so it is all the more important to support ethnic minorities’ various rights regarding education.

S.B. Kulaeva, the head of the North-Western Center for the Protection of the Roma, spoke about the center’s schools project, in which several schools from St. Petersburg and the Leningrad region take part, which is directed towards overcoming the social exclusion of Romani children. Of course, Memorial’s project is not a substitute for the general State education; it only supports it and encourages greater interest towards school. Monitoring, carried out by the center, shows an indisputable rise in illiteracy among the Roma population. Sometimes school is inaccessible for some reason (the school is far away and there is no school bus, the family is very poor), sometimes children suffer for their parents’ irresponsibility. Correspondingly, the problem of receiving high school education has also worsened, not to mention higher education, although there are extra possibilities in that area now.

I.S. Berdishev, the psychologist of the center, spoke about the integrated approach to education. He spoke about the experience of various countries in creating conditions for the best integration of children of different cultures, while still allowing them to preserve their cultural distinctiveness. He emphasized that children who are “different” for some reason (whether for health reasons or by ethnic background) should have the opportunity to mix with and learn alongside “normal” children.

Cecilia Rinne spoke about the situation regarding the education of Roma children in Finland. There are about 10 thousand Roma in Finland; their ancestors arrived there 500 years ago from England, Sweden and Denmark. Until recently they spoke their own language Kali, but then young people started to forget their language, because the State pursued a policy of erasing national characteristics. The situation improved in the Sixties, when a movement for the rights of Kali was founded. The constitution was amended to allow ethnic minorities (not only the Roma) the right to the preservation and support of their culture. For example, if there are even only 4 Romani children in a school or kindergarten, then at least 2 hours of lessons per week should be in their native language. Naturally, there are problems: not enough teachers or textbooks, and sometimes the Roma do not want their language to be printed (they are scared that if anybody can learn their language it will not be “theirs”). Many Roma aren’t aware of their rights to education in their own language and often schools and Romani communities don’t display much enthusiasm for the idea.

G.B Chernil’nikov, the specialist of the educational committee of Chudovo, and B.G.Yahosh, head of the Chudovo Romani community, spoke about the situation with the Roma’s school in that town. The Roma understand that education in our day is necessary, but children from families who had arrived from Gomel’ in 1986 had difficulty learning in an ordinary school as they spoke Russian badly. Recently the Romani community built a school with their own funds; it received a license this year. From the point of view of both the administration and the Roma there is a huge desire to solve the problem and to transfer the school to State control – it is very difficult for them to pay the teachers and pay for the upkeep of the school buildings. We would like for our local initiative and good will to be supported by those, on whom the decision to solve this problem rests, and our round table discussion went some way towards allowing this to happen. Much of what is written about the Roma is not true, but in our situation the decision should be taken on an individual basis, taking into account the particular situation. Otherwise, essentially, these children’s access to education will be endangered.

Z.G. Tsarevaya, the headmistress of the Osel’kovskaya high school, touched upon the problems of selecting teachers and methods of teaching Romani children, taking into account their cultural background. She emphasized that today teachers were filling the role of psychologists, social workers and even medical workers, and that their selfless work was paying off: slowly but surely education in a Romani school was growing in prestige and many children now wanted to continue their education. It is very offensive to read articles in the press that belittle the efforts of the teachers and pupils, who do their work in very difficult circumstances.

The participants in the event then had a free discussion about their views on the problems facing the Roma and their access to education. Among the most important mentioned were: promotion of education among the Romani intelligentsia, the creation of special programs and textbooks for Romani children, flexibility and an individual approach to solving problems, integrated method of educating children.

The round table discussion ended with a short performance by the children’s dance group from Osel’kovskaya school.




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