TOLERANCE DEVELOPMENT: The dialogue between Roma and non-Roma – a path towards mutual understanding

I am a volunteer from Germany. I have already worked for several months at Memorial. I care for elderly people and work with Romany schoolchildren. As part of my volunteer work I participated in two seminars organized by the initiative ‘Dialogue between Roma and Non-Roma’ (Roma-Gadje Dialogue).  In September 2006, having only just arrived in Russia, I was invited to Oradja (Romania).

The seminar started with the introductory topic ‘Roma and Education’, since the majority of the volunteers mainly work with children. We visited the local primary school, where a big crowd had gathered: on that day the school had made an application for state support, so besides children, many parents had arrived. Yet there were also saddening moments – for example, one teacher would tell children that they were stupid and had no prospects because they were Roma. Nevertheless, schools where volunteers work are more successful than others, because thanks to volunteers’ efforts both children and their parents have adopted a new, more progressive attitude to education.

We participated in discussions which would result in the working out of a common conclusion. On the one hand, the debates were intense and stimulating because the groups consisted of different people, and accordingly a very interesting difference would come to light between the opinions of the Romany and non-Romany participants. On the other hand, it was quite hard work, because every contribution had to be translated. The most interesting aspect for me was the fact that many Roma participated in the seminar, which threw light on the problems of Romany children’s education both ‘from the inside’ and ‘from the outside’.  I very easily found a common language with Romany volunteers who, in contrast with me, were gathering experience in Western Europe. I even learned to speak a little of the Romany language.  I also remember a surprising moment when there were simply dances instead of discussions!

The second seminar took place in February 2007 in Ukraine. The organizers chose a complex topic – “The Environment, the Family and Youth”. Here, again, there were many discussions and presentations. Each volunteer had the opportunity to present their own project. Again a visit to a school had been planned, and we went to the neighbouring settlement. As our group was being led through the settlement, I was struck by the poverty that many Roma families live in. I felt that my efforts were too small to make even a small improvement. Later there was a common discussion in the school building and I couldn’t get rid of the feeling that there were too many hopes being placed on the volunteers.

Thanks to these two seminars, I met interesting people and learnt new ideas, yet for all this, many things seemed very abstract to me. Since almost none of the volunteers have qualifications – they are invariable young people still at university – I thought that it is essential for us to exchange fresh ideas which we could apply directly to our work. Without much deliberation, I created a forum where volunteers exchange information about educational games, songs or handicrafts – every aspect of their work with the children. Perhaps our forum will become a significant element of future seminars. In summer 2007 another gathering of volunteers will take place in Slovakia.  The seminars in which I participated benefited me a lot. A new country, new friends, new experiences – all these things give me strength for further work at the school.

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