Suleyman Yanopol, a volunteer in a Roma encampment

Suleyman Yanopol lives in a Kotlyar Roma encampment in Chudovo, Novgorod region. He is now completing his school education and is getting ready to follow in the footsteps of his older brother and go to college. In his hometown he has a lot to do, too: he worked as a volunteer for several years now, helping elderly people and teaching small children in a local Roma school in the encampment.

– For how many years have you been a volunteer and how it has all started?

– Since the ninth grade, that is three years now. Once a person came to our school from Chudovo town hall and asked pupils to help an elderly woman to chop firewood. This wasn’t a big deal for me – I’ve been chopping wood since I was a small boy. That’s how it has started and now we have a group of volunteers in Chudovo which helps elderly people. We do everything we are asked for – cleaning, carrying things, firing an oven, building a shack, sweeping floors. I already have two diplomas from the regional authorities for being “Volunteer of the year”. I like it a lot, this volunteer work, as I have a lot of friends now. And of course we like to help people. When I see the happy faces of old women whom I had helped, I don’t need more than that – I’m happy.

We also distribute leaflets and hold various events – against smoking and drugs, against suicide. So far I haven’t seen the effect of this work when people go through the streets and shout ”Smoking kills!” These actions are largely formal, but on the other hand somebody should speak up against this – maybe some people will start thinking about these problems.

About a year ago I started cooperating with ADC “Memorial”. I have known about this organization for some time now and met with people who help to deal with the problems of Roma people. Last year I learnt that ADC “Memorial” organized a summer camp for Roma children and decided to join them. Now I work at the camp one or two times per week, teaching kids in school which is located right in our encampment. I teach them to draw, write, speak Russian correctly, give them some general lessons. Mostly I work with pre-school kids and younger pupils.

Do you see any results – that children read and speak better, start thinking more profoundly?

Sure. I can’t say that results are terrific, but there is some effect, no doubt about that. The main thing I have realized is that kids like to learn. In the beginning I was afraid that no children will attend my classes, that they will laugh at me, but it turned out that these fears were groundless. Now I already don’t know where to place all the children that come to the classes. They constantly come running to me and ask whether there will be classes on Saturday. My group now consists of 37 children aged 7 to 12, the class lasts for an hour or two and after the class I have a feeling that I have unloaded three trucks of firewood.

Who was the first to come up with an idea to teach additional classes to Roma children?

The initiative was mine. When I saw Roma kids of school age who cannot read and write in the summer camp, I felt really sorry for them and volunteered to teach them.

It is clear that in the circumstances of ethnic segregation it is necessary to have extra classes of Russian for these children. But it is not less important to foster in them interest in their own language.

Is it important for you that they realize that you can also read books and write in their own native Roma tongue?

Sure! I always try to combine Russian and Roma languages. For example, I say something in Russian and then ask to translate it into Roma language, or vice versa. To those who have mastered reading in Russian, I show special letters of Roma alphabet and make dictations.

Do you think education should be obligatory?

Yes, at least for 11 years, so that one learns how to read and write properly. One should complete his school studies, there is no way around it these days. In general I don’t think that education is the main thing in life, I don’t see any universal value in it. I know some people with two university diplomas, but they work as salespersons in the stores. I learn because it’s interesting for me, but that’s not the main thing in life. The main thing for me is family, children.

Where do you plan to study after finishing school? And where would you like to work?

I want to study in Saint Petersburg to become a medical attendant. And I want to work in our encampment. Doctors are very needed here.

What other professions are needed in the encampment?

All. There is hardly anything here – no infrastructure at all. Teachers, doctors, fire-fighters… It’s only police, which is not needed – there is too much police everywhere. At the same time almost all dwellers of the encampment are good builders, even though they lack any education. But they are also good psychologists, especially women. Even a psychologist with a diploma sometimes can’t understand a person as fast as a Roma woman with only three classes of education.

What professions are most common within the encampment?

Men work. In the old days they worked with metal, made cauldrons. Now crafts are not in big demand anymore and many people deal with selling unsold equipment or work in construction – they go around country cottages, offer various construction services. They hide the fact that they are Roma and that’s a pity. They say they are Moldavian or somebody else – this sounds more appropriate (he laughs).

Are traditions important to you? What traditions are worth preserving and what could be changed?

Nothing should be changed, it’s best to get back to old traditions. Of course, one shouldn’t be nomadic, but I mean national culture. I remember people gathering together in the evenings, dancing, singing through the night till the morning. Now everybody sits at home and hardly talks to the others anymore, everybody is for himself now.

Why does this happen like that?

The world changes and the values change with it, too. The ways to spend free time change – earlier, when there was nothing to do, people were playing guitars by the fire, now they spend time on the Internet.