Education: Exchanging experiences

In November 2008, several different events all addressing one specific issue took place at ADC Memorial:  improving the quality of education of Roma children.  While in countries around Europe measures are increasingly being taken to improve the quality of education of Roma children (specialized classes are being created, teachers are being trained with a knowledge of the Roma language, programs are being implemented for the support of Roma youth), in the Russian Federation there is no clear plan aimed at solving any of these problems.  Moreover, at the local level, schools that are located near compact Roma settlements are finding themselves in a difficult situation, receiving no kind of consistent support from the governmental structures that are responsible for education.  Hundreds of children attend such schools, with practically no knowledge of the Russian language, not prepared at the level that is recommended as standard by elementary schools in the Russian Federation.

An answer to this problem for many schools has become the creation of separate Roma classes, where Roma children find themselves isolated from non-Roma children of their own age groups, even though they are studying on the same program as all other students.  In the end, this type of a “solution” does not solve the problem, but worsens it.  It is clear that the creation of special Roma-only classes could only be justified if additional instruction were being offered, allowing the Roma children to both fully learn their own language (including in a written form) and their non-native language, Russian.  It is also clear that any such additional instruction should not be accompanied by segregation of Roma children that prevents them from taking all other subjects with the non-Roma students of the school, from participating as equals in school life, or from integrating with similarly-aged (non-Roma) children.

On November 1 and 2, 2008, at the office of the Anti-Discrimination Center “Memorial,” a round table discussion and seminar and training session took place on the problem of the education of Roma children.  Leaders of various Keldarari-Roma communities and directors and educators from schools in Leningrad, Novgorod, and Tula Regions and the cities of Volgograd, Lipetsk, Penza, Riazan’, and Tiumen’ all came to St. Petersburg for the occasion.  They were each called to take part in a project developed by ADC “Memorial” with the support of the Swedish organization “Save the Children.”  Participants in the discussion shared their opinions and experiences about the problem of the education of children from Roma families who speak only in the Romani language at home but study in school only in Russian, a problem which to this very day has received scant attention.

With the support of these Roma elementary students in mind, two textbooks were created within the framework of the project:  The ABCs for Learners of Russian as a Non-Native Language and A Short Handbook to the Romani Language (Caldarari dialect).  In the course of the round table discussion, presentations were given on each of these textbooks by their respective authors—I. P. Lysakova (the head of the Department of Cross-Cultural Communication at St. Petersburg’s Herzen Pedagogical University) and V. V. Shapoval (from Moscow Pedagogical University).  Roma university students studying in various cities of the Russian Federation with financial support from the Romani Educational Fund (Hungary) were also invited to the round table and seminar.

The ABCs for Learners of Russian as a Non-Native Language is presented by its author, I. P. Lysakova (Herzen Pedagogical University).  On the left is Aleksei Jur’evich Mironov, the director of school No. 9 of Penza.

From left to right:  Viktor Vasil’evich Shapoval, author of A Short Handbook to the Romani Language (Caldarari dialect); Roma expert and writer Nikolai Bessonov; Andrei Ogly, a Roma student (Krasnodar Territory).

 Participants in the discussion—educators, Roma leaders, and human rights workers alike—all spoke of the need to do everything possible to improve the quality of education of Roma children and to overcome the problem of language- and ethnically-based discrimination that these children often face within the system of elementary education.  The right to equal access to education is a fundamental principle both of domestic Russian legislation, guaranteed by the Russian Constitution and domestic laws on education, and by international human rights documents that have been ratified by the Russian Federation:  the European Convention on Human Rights, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.

From left to right:  Roma expert N. Bessonov and the Romani students Andrei Olgy and Sergei Aslanov

On the invitation of the organization “Save the Children” (Sweden) several participants of the project—Roma leaders and some school directors—visited Stockholm.  The trip was only five days long, but even in that short time, we were able to see and learn a lot.

On the invitation of the organization “Save the Children” (Sweden) several participants of the project—Roma leaders and some school directors—visited Stockholm.  The trip was only five days long, but even in that short time, we were able to see and learn a lot..

A strong impression was made upon the delegation by their visit to a unique school where Caldarari-Roma children study, a school in which a husband and wife team teach the children—Mikael and Angelina Dimiter.  Instruction in the school is carried out in the Romani language (Mikael teaches mathematics and Romani; Angelina teaches the natural sciences and sewing; and their daughter Kati, English and computer science).  The children attending this school are also given the opportunity to transfer to a regular Swedish school in the vicinity, to finish their elementary education, and to apply to college.

Mike, with sincere Roma hospitality, greets his guests from Russia.  The Dimiter family, having moved to Sweden from Russia about 100 years ago, belongs to the Caldarari group of Roma, and they therefore speak the same Romani dialect as their Russian Roma visitors.  The Dimiters and their guests were thus able to understand each other perfectly.  The traditions of the Russian and Swedish Caldarari also turned out to be similar.

Angelina Dimiter—energetic, charming, sociable—delighted everyone.  Coming from a traditional Roma family, having lived in a simple tent at one point in her life, Angelina, as an adult who had already reared three children, decided to study education and become a teacher.  And not just a teacher, but also a social activist, author, and co-author of books in Romani.  Within the Dimiter family, Romani traditions are carefully preserved, but this has not prevented the new generation of Dimiter children from studying and becoming regular members of integrated Swedish society.

Elza Mikhai, an employee of ADC “Memorial” and a representative of the parents’ committee of Roma schools in Leningrad Region, standing among Mikael and Angelina’s students.  These students receive a fully-certified education through the ninth grade in their school.

The guests from Russia paid great attention to the Swedish methods of instruction of Roma children.  For their part, the Russian participants of the discussion shared their experiences in solving the problem of educating children who live in the tabor:  for example, Gennadii Vinogradov (on the left) supports a primary school in the Roma settlement of Tiumen with his own funds.  Jono Grigor’evich Mikhai (on the right) makes great efforts to ensure that residents of the Roma village Plekhanovo (Tula Region) study in school.  Vladimir Vladimirovich Mikhai (in the center) “campaigns,” as he puts it, among the children in his tabor in Penza, to convince them of the importance of receiving an education.

In the evening, Mikael and Angelina invited everyone to a celebratory dinner.  Jono Mikhai makes introductory remarks.

Everyone felt at home while visiting Mike and Angelina’s house.  Ulrika Persson (on the left) and Britta Ostrjom (the third from the left) are employees of the organization “Save the Children,” which invited our delegation to Sweden.

As the Roma from Russia and from Sweden had many things to discuss, we even met with these friendly leaders of the Swedish Roma School in the less formal setting of the hallway in our hotel.  Vladimir Mikhai (on the left), Jono Mikhai (in the center), and Mikael Demetri (on the right).

Our colleagues from the organization “Save the Children” organized a meeting with a Swedish Roma social activist who is the chief editor of a magazine published in Swedish and Romani, Fred Tajkon.  He spoke of the educational opportunities that are arising for the Roma in Europe today and of measures that are being taken by European organizations to improve of the lives of the Roma.

A visit to the National University of Stockholm was interesting for everyone.  This educational institution has evening classes:  those who have, for whatever reason, cut their education short but now would like to complete their studies and find a good job upon receiving a diploma are invited to study here.  A whole group of Roma students become qualified to work as “assistants to school teachers.”

 Sofia—a student and young mother.  She and her husband, also a student, take their young daughter to class.  The administration of the university strives to create all of the conditions necessary for young people to complete their education.

V. V. Mikhai among Finnish Roma students.  The girls are wearing very fine, traditional clothing.

Kati Dimiter (on the left)—an educator at the Roma school and the editor of a magazine.  She interviewed Svetlana Mikhai, who told her about life in the Roma village Plekhanovo.

Adam Soppe (on the right)—a Roma graduate of National University who has become a journalist.  He conducted an interview for Roma radio with the guests from Russia.  Jono Mikhai (on the left) is answering questions.

Many of those who participated in the delegation to Sweden were travelling abroad for the first time.  Everyone happily had their pictures taken against the background of beautiful Stockholm.

Sweden is a country by the sea, and you can even see ships from the metro.  The scarlet sail of one of the ships seemed symbolic to us (“scarlet sails” figure in a famous Russian story and are of symbolic importance for residents of St. Petersburg, who have a “Scarlet Sails” celebration at the end of each school year).

 We returned home filled with strong impressions.  An energetic discussion of all that we had seen continued as we made our way back home.

V. V. Mikhai (on the left) and E. G. Mikhai at Pulkovo International Airport.


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