Roma and education
Until this century, Roma were basically an illiterate people. Except for a small number of individuals, most Roma in the many countries where they lived were unable to read and write. Some did learn basic reading and writing skills but contributed next to nothing in the way of literature about Roma by Roma. After the First World War, a small Romani intelligentsia appeared in some of the countries of Eastern Europe, and newspapers were published in Romani. In the former Soviet Union, under Communism, there was an attempt to integrate Roma into the educational system and a large number of Roma were educated. Others, living in the villages and the hinterlands remained illiterate. Education among Roma really dates from the end of the Second World War with the Communist governments in the former Soviet Bloc Countries.
Education of Roma under Communism
By the late 1940s, the former Communist governments of Eastern Europe began to take an interest in Roma illiteracy. This interest stemmed from the assimilation plans inaugurated by the Communists to break up Romani settlements in the rural areas where the Roma lived and to resettle the smaller number of Roma who were still following a traditional lifestyle of commercial nomadism or seminomadism. Unlike Western European countries who brought in guest workers from lessdeveloped countries to perform the numerous menial tasks required in the workplace, the Communists used their Romani citizens. Roma are far more numerous in the former Communist countries than they are elsewhere. The three hundred thousand Roma in the Slovakian region of the former Czechoslovakia, three million in Rumania and at least two million in the former Yugoslavia made up a significant part of the populations of these countries, in some cases as much a ten percent.
The Communist assimilation plans resulted in large numbers of Roma being brought into the urbanized areas where the children were sent to the state schools. The aims of these policies were to break up the large Romani communities, resettle the Roma among the general population as members of a new urban-artisan subproletariat, educate the children and hopefully assimilate the Roma into the general population. In most Communist countries, a new generation of Roma children appeared who were literate and while most followed their parents into the urbanized sub-proletariat, a fair number in some countries went on to higher education. In the Soviet Union, the Czech Republic, Hungary and the former Yugoslavia, many Roma became doctors, engineers, teachers, nurses, members of the Communist Party and civic officials. Romani spokespeople and Romani leaders appeared, especially in the area of culture. The Communists, however, were opposed to Romani activism and self-determination at the political or ethnic level. Attempts to establish national Romani organizations and attempts to have the Romani language and culture taught in the school systems where there were large numbers of Romani children were frustrated by the Communist governments. In some countries such as Hungary and the former Yugoslavia under Communism, the Romani language was taught in a few schools, especially in Macedonia. However, despite the attempts of the former Communist governments to introduce mass education among Roma, a considerable number of Roma now arriving in Canada as Conventionf-refugee claimants from Hungary, some areas of Rumania and elsewhere have been found to be totally or functionally illiterate.
After the end of Communism, the education of Roma deteriorated in most former Communist countries. In the former Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic, and in Hungary a new policy of sending large numbers of Roma children to special schools for the mentallychallenged was gradually introduced. Since large numbers of Romani children spoke the Romani language as their first language, teachers found that their lack of fluency in the national language was a handicap to their education and a negative factor on the education of the class in general which was composed of a majority of non-Roma children and a minority of Roma children. Rather than devote extra time to the Roma children in these schools, teachers simply shunted the Roma off to the special schools for the mentally-challenged. Children of Czech-Roma refugees now in Canada who were tested by competent authorities in the Greater Toronto School Board were found to be of normal intelligence and well able to be included in the general school system in Canada despite having been consigned to special schools in the Czech Republic.
It is also suspected that this policy in the Czech Republic and in Hungary is an assimilationist ploy to induce the parents not to teach their children Romani so they will be fluent in Czech or Hungarian. Refugees in Canada from the Czech Republic and Hungary have admitted this is the reason why many of their children do not speak Romani. Furthermore, some schools in Hungary that were teaching the Romani language at the basic level have now had these courses discontinued by the post-Communist governments.
Testimony from Romani students, now refugees in Canada, indicates that it is very difficult for Romani students to gain access to higher education in the former Communist countries, even if they manage to complete the equivalent of Canadian High school to reach universityentrance level. In many cases, their applications were simply not accepted. Some have stated that the local school authorities do not want Roma to excel in higher education and prefer that they remain as an urbanized sub-proletariat condemned to menial blue-collar work.
Prejudice and persecution of Roma in these former Communist countries is also hampering Romani education. Those in elementary and high schools are afraid to go to school and actually prefer to be in the special schools for the mentally-challenged, because there they are not beaten by teachers or fellow students and are not made to feel unwelcome because of discrimination by their peers. Roma who have come from these countries to Canada describe rampant prejudice, discrimination and overt persecution in the school systems at all levels. Special scholarship programs run by Soros Foundation grants have enabled some Romani students to go on to higher education in the Czech Republic, Hungary and elsewhere, but for Romani students in general, the prospects for higher education are becoming more and more limited.
Roma in Western Europe
The education of Roma in Western Europe has followed no general pattern like that in Eastern Europe. Most Western-European countries have laws which make it mandatory for all children to attend school. Since native-born Roma are citizens of these countries, they are entitled to the same general education as any other citizen. However, because a large number of Roma are nomadic in Western Europe, this has created a special problem in education. With families constantly travelling around as they follow their traditional lifestyle of commercial nomadism, children are always attending different schools. It is almost impossible for the authorities to keep track of them to prove school attendance, and not always convenient for the children to get from the official campsite (often near a municipal garbage dump) to the nearest school.
In Spain, where most Roma are sedentary, large numbers of Spanish Cales have received a basic education. Some have gone on to higher education. Where Roma are sedentary in other countries of Western Europe, Romani children also receive a basic education. In Britain, caravan schools have been established which travel around to Romani campsites to teach basic literary skills at the elementary level.
The Western-European situation has now been complicated by the arrival of large numbers of Romani refugees fleeing persecution in the former Communist countries. They constitute a serious issue for the authorities in Italy, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium, the U.K., the Republic of Ireland and elsewhere. These children of Romani refugees are not fluent in the local languages, the parents are awaiting deportation or going through some process in which they hope to gain residency, citizenship or work permits, and their status in the country is in limbo. In effect, most of these children are not receiving education within the national school systems but some are attending special schools run by various organizations dedicated to helping Romani refugees and asylum seekers in these countries.
Even among Roma who were born in Western- European countries, the rate of literacy is not high compared to Romani literacy in the former Communist countries. Large numbers of adults are still illiterate and others barely able to sign their names, read the newspapers, fill out forms or able to pass a driving test. The situation is improving among the younger generation, but mass literacy among Roma in Western Europe is still far from becoming a reality.
Education of Roma in less-economically developed countries where large numbers of non-Roma are totally illiterate can be imagined. The majority of Roma are nomadic or live in rural settlements where they receive next to no education. In Northern Portugal, Roma still travel with carts drawn by donkeys and horses and camp outdoors. In Greece, large numbers of Roma are nomadic or live in rural settlements and villages and earn a living by agricultural labour, middlemen occupations and artisan skills. In Turkey, Roma are travelling entertainers and seasonal labourers. In many ways, these Roma are still following the Romani lifestyle as it was before the Second World War and the later Communist governments of Eastern Europe. Education is sporadic at best.
Canada and the U.S.
The Romani populations of Canada and the US are composed of 5th and 6th generation descendants of Vlach-Roma who migrated to North America between the 1880s and the early 20th century. Canadian and American Vlach- Roma form one community in language, culture and clan identities. In the US there are an estimated one million Vlach-Roma, and in Canada, about 50 thousand. Vlach-Roma are Romani clans who lived for centuries in Wallachia, Moldavia and Transylvania and whose Romani dialects have been heavily influenced by loan words from Rumanian. In Canada and the US, about 70 percent of Vlach- Roma over 40 are totally illiterate. Education is improving among the younger generation but it is still not high. Children are generally taken out of school once they enter high school. The Vlach-Roma are the most traditional of all Romani groups and follow the older Romani beliefs of purity and pollution. They also have the tradition of self-employment and in general, parents see little need for education beyond the acquisition of basic reading and writing skills. Since the parents are successful in traditional middleman occupations and self-employment, they see little need for their children to go on to higher education.
Some younger members of the group have been educated at university level, but for the most part, Vlach-Roma children seldom go beyond high school level. Once boys reach 15 or so, they start to work with their fathers, and girls of this age are kept home because of the strict rules of morality, fear of pollution, potential drug abuse, promiscuity among non-Roma classmates and other factors.
There are also an estimated 20 thousand or so Romanitchels, or Roma whose ancestors came to Canada from the U.K. They have a higher degree of literacy than the Vlach-Roma, but also follow a traditional Romani lifestyle and are mostly self-employed in many conventional occupations such as small businessmen, middle men and as sedentary or itinerant tradesmen. Many individuals have advanced to higher education and work as professionals.
A large number of Romani immigrants have also come to Canada and the US since the end of the Second World War. Many of them had been educated by the Communists and have entered mainstream professions and become businessmen in Canada. Their children are attending elementary, high school and university. Many have graduated in the professions. Others have become skilled trades people and business people. During the Communist regimes, Roma simply entered Canada along with non-Roma nationals of their former countries as refugees from Communism. Since their Romani ethnicity was not the basis of their refugee claims, their arrival went unnoticed by Immigration Canada, the media and the public. For this and other reasons, the size of the immigrant Romani population of Canada cannot be estimated. It is, however, considerable.
A growing number of Roma are now entering Canada seeking Convention refugee status as they flee persecution in the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe where they have been scapegoated and targeted by skinheads and neo-Nazis. The largest group to arrive was the Czech-Roma influx beginning in August, 1997. These Czech Roma had been educated under the Communist system and want their children to be educated in Canada. Despite the fact that many of the children had been placed in schools for the mentally-challenged in the Czech Republic, most of them have fitted into the Canadian school system without any problems. There are also many older Czech-Romani students who wish to go attend University in Canada.
Education in Romani for Roma
Today, Romani linguists in many countries are working towards the creation of a Romani literary language so that Romani children can be educated in Romani and taught their own history and culture. A growing body of literature in Romani is emerging in many countries and there are now Romani authors, poets and journalists among the new Romani intelligentsia. It is important for young Romani students to be able to learn about their own history and culture. The learning tools they need can only be created by fellow Roma and preferably in the Romani language. This is being accomplished by the increasing number of educated Roma.
Copyright © Ronald Lee, October, 1998.
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