Recently, I was invited to speak at a human rights training seminar for teachers. I was required to talk about Memorial’s work for the integration into the school environment of children from migrant and ethnic minority families, and the education situation in Romani settlements.
Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The audience was teachers who were participating voluntarily in the training session, which meant that the concept of human rights was by no means alien to them. It seemed that they would all be sure to understand and support our attempts to convince people and authorities of the simple truth: children in schools should not be divided into different classes, or even herded into separate buildings, on a national scale; Romani children, like any others, should not have to attend year after year the same combined class for children of all ages, from young to old; all children in Russia, without exception, must have equal access to education, and not only to primary, but also to secondary and higher education. In this sense, the very selection of participants for the training seminar seemed already to promise success, since humanity, kindness and fairness are qualities which, in theory, a person who has chosen the altruistic profession of teacher possesses.
During the training session there were role-plays of situations which tested the reaction of participants to a specified ‘stimulus’, for example, the nationality of the pupil, disability, and others. All teachers reacted ‘correctly’ or ‘nearly correctly’: of course, they did not want to and would never judge someone based on their nationality or other features; of course, they wanted to solve problems using principles of higher justice which overruled any prejudices.
Watching the teachers and listening to their true stories, yet being also aware of the usually extremely negative reactions of people when conversation touches on the subject of Roma and their problems, I thought to myself, how would this group, which had already developed great solidarity during several days of training, divide after my talk?
The reaction surpassed all my expectations. I had not managed to talk for one minute before questions started to flood from all sides: puzzled, sympathising, indignant. Teachers incited by our attempts to help Roma asked about everything relating to Memorial’s work in the field of Roma rights protection. Many faces expressed genuine feelings, without pretense or ‘theory’. People were confronted with practicalities, with real life. This was very unexpected for them – the theme proved to be too difficult to grasp. Unfortunately, starting to show their true colours (yet our debate lasted only around an hour), certain participants showed themselves once and for all intolerant and unprepared to understand what human rights is, not in theory, but in practise. Questions of the following type were quite unceremoniously asked: ‘Why are you concerned with Roma, while in one Petersburg school Russian children are oppressed by Georgian children?’ ‘Why give Roma passports?’ ‘There are schools like that here? Really? [Having seen a video documentary] Okay, but why do they need a school? They don’t want to study!’ ‘Study in order to get a job? But they are drug dealers, they earn a living from that.’ ‘Their houses are destroyed? But why do they need houses? They will leave anyway.’ And, finally, the most stunning question of all: ‘Why do you bother with Roma? Have you conducted a statistical investigation into whether or not they want to live?’ asked one teacher, visibly completely losing control of herself. A deathly silence fell, like in Gogol’sThe Government Inspector. Everyone was motionless, and in the absolute silence I could think only to mutter, ‘We have not carried out an investigation, but they do, of course, want to live…’
It is completely impossible to understand these questions and the logic of these people’s thinking. Of course, it is possible to answer them, but it starts to seem somewhat out of place when after a several day long human rights training seminar, it is necessary to explain that everyone has the right to housing, everyone has rights to education, and, finally, that everyone has the right to life.
However, there were others who sincerely sympathised with the current situation of Roma in Russia, who were at a loss to understand how children could not be given the opportunity to study, how all Roma children could be declared stupid and sent to classes for children with learning difficulties in a separate building, or why Russian parents are discontent and do not want to see Romani children alongside their own.
My talk ended with a presentation of short video-clips taken in various regions of Russia. Everywhere the problem is the same – a lack of access to a normal school education, connected with discrimination on a national scale. Finally a film taken in the Pashino Novosibirsk region was shown. ‘We want very much for our children to go to school with Russian children, to live peacefully alongside Russian children. We want our children to finish school and to be literate,’ said one resident of the settlement, where all Romani children study in the same class in a rural school and remain in that class for a first, a second, a third and a fourth year…
Is this too high and unattainable a hope on the part of Roma – to be literate and live in peace?
Involuntarily one has the thought that training seminars, so fashionable these days, do not cultivate genuine tolerance, but form a particular split personality in the participants: they now know how they ‘should’ relate to children with particular characteristics, but in their hearts they harbour xenophobia and intolerance. The Romani theme is a very effective indicator of this intolerance.