In October 2007, Memorial organised two events dedicated to the problems of education for Romani young people. A round table on the problems of Roma access to secondary and higher education took place on October 13th. Participating in the discussion were Romani students from various Russian cities, Romani and non-Romani schoolchildren, teachers who work with Romany children, Russian, Swedish and German volunteers who help Romani children at schools in St.Petersburg and Leningrad province, and Olga Granleff, an expert from Sweden.
Memorial supports 13 young people who receive scholarships from the Roma educational fund. They live in various Russian cities: St Petersburg, Moscow, Vologda, Samara, Smolensk, Krasnodar, Rostov-on-Don. Until recently, it was very rare to see a Romani student in Russia. Therefore, the teachers who worked with Romani schoolchildren were curious about everything. For example, did today’s Romani students formerly study in mixed or special Roma classes? How did teachers relate to them? Are there literate people in their families? How did parents allow their daughters to leave for university?
Glafira Frolenkova, today a student at Sholokhov Moscow State Pedagogical University, described how her parents were initially against the idea that she would study. Out of fear that their daughter would be harmed, they did not even allow her to go to kindergarten. However, Glafira convinced her parents that she needed to study, and not only successfully completed secondary school but was accepted at the university in Moscow.
Many Romani parents consider it perfectly sufficient for a girl to take secondary education and afterwards marry and start a family. Yet times and values are changing, and for an ever increasing number of Romani young people, higher education in universities or other institutions is becoming a priority after secondary school. Glafira demonstrated from her own experience that today, a young Romani man or woman is capable of overcoming all obstacles and obtaining higher education, if they only have the desire, firmness of character and willingness to work hard. She mentioned that she has a brother who did not want to study at school. Therefore, a young man without education and a learned young woman grew up in the same family.
Here is a different example. Timur Khalilov, from Krasnodar, comes from a family where everyone has been educated. Therefore, while he studied at school, Timur tried very hard not to commit a faux pas and not to dishonour his family. He achieved one of the best results in his end of school exams, and was accepted at Krasnodar University. He is currently studying in his 5th year at university. Timur Khalilov is studying political science. The segregated Romani class teachers who were participating in the discussion could not believe that Timur was a Rom, so elegant and grammatically correct was his spoken Russian and command of professional vocabulary. Outside of his studies at the university, Timur is an activist at a Romani NGO in Krasnodar.
Olga Granleff, a social tutor from Sweden who was invited to participate in the round table, said that Romani students should collaborate more with journalists so that more articles about the problems of Romani youth would appear in the media. She also talked about a Swedish experiment in integrative education of the most diverse children – healthy with less healthy, Swedish with representatives of minorities. What struck the round table participants most of all was that legislation in Sweden is rigorously complied with. As Olga remarked, ‘if ‘universal education’ is written, ‘universal’ is meant. After the round table session, the students made a short trip to the most attractive places in St. Petersburg, and an excursion to the Hermitage.
The next day, 14th October 2007, a seminar ‘Legal mechanisms for defence of the Romani population of Russia’ was organised for Romani students. Vladimir Luzin, a lawyer from the international organisation ‘Justice Initiative’, described to students how he made a complaint to the European Court on behalf of six Romani families on their unlawful eviction from their own homes. Their homes were demolished, and the residents of a Romany settlement on the outskirts of Kaliningrad found themselves in the most severe living conditions. Many were forced to disperse to various cities, separated from their large family of relatives and friends. As a result of stress and severe living conditions, in many of them already existing illnesses were exacerbated and tragically, some died.
These people made complaints to the local court, but attempts to reach justice through local authorities proved unsuccessful. Luzin used this example to demonstrate how the logic was constructed proving the unlawfulness of the demolition of Romani homes. However, his arguments were ignored by local authorities. Luzin then made an appeal to the European Court for the defence of the rights of the Romani population in Russia. Marina Arefyeva, a lawyer from Memorial, described the problems with which she is faced in the course of her work as co-ordinator of the project, ‘Legal help for Kelderari Roma communities in Russia’. The main problems are the lack of legally confirmed rights to land and a home, the absence of passports and birth certificates, and Romani children’s lack of access to school education. She told of a case in Tyumen, where as a result of collective efforts an agreement was made with a developer who had bought a plot on which Romani homes had stood. He consulted the local administration to decide the areas where the Romani families could be resettled. Arefyeva added that in various Russian cities, Memorial has already secured some agreements with local lawyers, which will protect the rights of the Romani population.
In conclusion, S. Kulayeva, director of Memorial, talked about international human rights organisations and about the protection of human rights at the international level.
At present, the number of Romani students in Russia is small, and the situation with secondary education also leaves progress to be desired. Romani children often only complete elementary classes, and afterwards leave education for various reasons. However, it is evident that more and more Romani young people are aspiring to higher education. For the situation to improve, the collaboration of various people – Romani parents, teachers, human rights experts – is essential. It is also essential that the state has a clear education policy, aiming to attract Romani children to secondary education.