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Starting Small: Education, Nonprofits, and the Roma

The lack of windows in the village was shocking, as was the huge volume of garbage that flooded over from yards onto the dirt road. However, what was most striking about the Roma settlement nestled in the peaceful Hungarian countryside was the sheer amount of people milling about in the middle of a perfectly ordinary Tuesday in the month of March. It was a mild spring day in the village of Bag, and work and school seemed all but forgotten. Adults were socializing outside their homes and on street corners, while children played in the grassy hills nearby.

Despite the undeniable presence of extreme poverty all around, the scene was nearly idyllic. As we chatted with some Roma teenagers, finding things we had in common it was very easy to forget the reason for the villagers’ abundance of free time and the reason for our visit. This past spring break, six Yale students, myself included, traveled to Central and Eastern Europe in order to study the oppression of the Roma people.

We met with a variety of activists and human rights groups in Prague, Bucharest, and Budapest, but when we visited the Roma settlement of Bag, all of the facts and statistics we had been absorbing suddenly became real; every disheartening number and figure was reflected in the worn faces of the villagers.

The Roma inhabitants of Bag were idling and chatting in the middle of the day because, like most of the Roma population of Europe, they suffer from a disproportionately high rate of unemployment as compared to the non-Roma European populace.

A 2015 survey of 11 European member states from the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) shows that only 30% of the Roma surveyed were working paid jobs, as compared to the 70% average employment rate within the European Union.

In fact, a report put out by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada showed that as of 2012, the unemployment rate for Roma people was actually above 90% in many underdeveloped areas of Hungary, such as Bag. These extremely low employment rates are accompanied by staggeringly high percentages of Roma adults who never have never completed a secondary education. The exact percentages vary from nation to nation, but according to the FRA in 2011, anywhere from 52% to 92% of Roma living in the European Union stopped going to school before the age of 16.

Although there are many factors that contribute to the high unemployment rates among Roma people, such as residential segregation and employer discrimination, the role that education plays in unemployment cannot be understated. Without a secondary education, much less a college degree, paid work is extremely difficult to find and the cycle of poverty continues. So why exactly don’t Roma children finish school?

The obstacles that Roma children face when it comes to completing their education are varied and complex. Overcoming these obstacles is even more complex, and the responsibility to find solutions must be shared the non-Roma populace and Roma communities alike.

School Segregation

One of the principal challenges faced by Roma children is the segregation of schools. The European Roma Rights Centre asserts that 45% of Roma children are placed in Roma-only classrooms or schools. This segregation can happen in a couple of different ways. In countries across Europe, Roma students are placed into “special schools”; schools that theoretically exist for children with learning disabilities or developmental problems.

These schools do not have age-appropriate curricula or provide the skills that are necessary in order for Roma students to later join the workforce. Additionally, such schools do not provide any sort of motivation for students to continue to attend and reinforce negative racial stereotypes. Roma children are unfairly forced to attend these schools simply because they are Roma, rather than being allowed to obtain an education alongside their non-Roma peers. This unfounded sorting results in an overrepresentation of the number of Roma children in special education.

This kind of segregation is happening less frequently as European governments are implementing preventative legislation; however, this has by no means eliminated or resolved the problem. De-facto school segregation is far more prevalent but less obvious and much harder to address.

There are many towns and villages across Europe in which the population is primarily or only Roma, and as a result, the local schools are also majority or only Roma. Schools that service such communities are typically underfunded with fewer resources and lower quality educators. This is an unfortunate side-effect of the fact that, much like the village of Bag, most areas where Roma make up the majority of the population are also areas plagued by severe poverty.

More than 90% of Roma surveyed by the FRA lived below the national poverty threshold and more than half of those surveyed lived in segregated areas. Integration is made difficult by the fact that many non-Roma parents have racial prejudices or associate Roma children with bad school systems and therefore strive to keep their children away from Roma majority schools or districts. Thus the cycle of segregation and poverty is perpetuated.

Access to Education

Widespread poverty severely limits Roma children’s access to quality education. As mentioned earlier, de facto school segregation results in schools which are not prepared to provide a high-quality education that will prepare students for college or the work force.

However, there are other external factors that also hinder access to education. For example, in lieu of a school bus system, some Roma students need to utilize public transportation in order to get to school. Public transportation can be very expensive for a family living below the poverty line, especially if there are multiple school-aged children in the family. This is particularly problematic for high school students in countries like Romania, where a student cannot attend the closest high school, but must instead apply to high schools and attend whichever institution they have been accepted to.

Language barriers between Roma students and non-Roma teachers also exist in some countries. In some Roma communities, the primary spoken language is not that of the country where the community is located, but rather a localized Romani dialect. This makes it even more difficult for students going to school to learn, as the language of instruction is foreign to them.

The language barrier is further exacerbated by the fact that Roma children often do not participate in early childhood education, which would give them a chance to learn the national language earlier. This happens partly because access to early childhood is limited as a result of cost or distance from the home; however, this lack of early childhood education is also a result of norms present within the Roma community.

Roma parents often don’t understand the importance of sending their children to preschool and instead maintain a precedent of keeping young children at home. The situation in Greece is a particularly grave example of this, with the FRA reporting that only 9% of Roma children from age 4 and up attended preschool in the 2010-2011 school year. Preschools and other forms of early childhood education are necessary to ensure that Roma and non-Roma children start out their education on equal footing.

Social Exclusion

There are also more subtle and pervasive reasons for why it is so difficult for Roma children to finish their education. Roma people are heavily stigmatized and discriminated against. The fact of the matter is that many people in European countries (and elsewhere) hold deep-seated racial prejudices against the Roma and these prejudices can be felt everywhere, from policy-making to the smallest inter-personal interaction.

Even if a school is integrated, Roma students are still frequently bullied, mocked, or not associated with at all because of their ethnicity. This does not make for a healthy or productive school environment, and can, in fact, push Roma students to drop out of school completely. Even worse is when such behavior extends to faculty as well.

Teachers may assume that Roma students are less motivated or less intelligent than their peers, and discriminate against them as a result. This sort of behavior coming from an authority figure can be especially harmful.

Within the Roma Community

With all this being said, a large part of why Roma children don’t finish school is not a result of external factors, but rather a result of the norms established in  Roma communities. In many cases, there is little precedent to finish school. If children grow up in a community in which none of their role models or elders completed an education, they have less motivation to do so themselves.

More importantly, if elders don’t value education, then they will not impart any such values to children. In many Roma communities, there isn’t a culture of learning or literacy, in fact, 20% of Roma respondents told the FRA that they could neither read nor write. Additionally, the Roma traditionally have large families, which means that older children are more useful at home doing chores or caring for younger siblings rather than attending school.

A study coordinated by the Spanish non-profit group, Fundación Secretariado Gitano, shows that on average there are 4.49 individuals living in a Roma home, whereas the average across the European Union is 2.49 individuals per household.  Roma families are started early, girls are expected to be married young and start having babies while still young, rather than continuing their education. In many cases, it is traditional ideas such as these in combination with discriminatory policies and attitudes that impede Roma children from finishing their education.

Roma families are started early, girls are expected to be married young and start having babies while still young, rather than continuing their education. In many cases, it is traditional ideas such as these in combination with discriminatory policies and attitudes that impede Roma children from finishing their education.

Finding Solutions

Solving the education problem for Roma youth is extraordinarily difficult and tragically so. Education is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty, and it is the most powerful tool that Roma people have in the face of oppression. Of all the Roma rights actors that we talked to, the most persuasive and knowledgeable were those that were also Roma themselves. They were highly educated as well as uniquely experienced, and as a result, they were highly effective advocates for their fellow Roma.

Unfortunately, educated self-advocacy is the exception rather than the rule for the Roma. There are many potential ways to remedy this situation, for example, the passage of national education policy that is focused on the Roma may yield positive change. However, governments are reluctant to pass such legislation for a variety of reasons.

When we met with the Czech Council for National Minorities’ Roma Unit, we were told that there was an ongoing discussion about educational policy and minorities, specifically about a proposed bill that made attendance of the last year of preschool mandatory. This was intended to ensure equality in education for ethnic minorities who otherwise would not attend preschool; however, the legislation was not solely targeting the Roma community.

This is a result of an insistence that all ethnicities are equal, and that the recognition of ethnic differences would be a brand of discrimination in and of itself. It is for this same reason that affirmative action is not utilized in Czech schools. The positive effects of the bill remain to be seen, as opponents claim that the law would cost the government too much money and that it is therefore not worth implementing.

In the case of discriminatory practices, the use of litigation to establish precedent can be effective, but only when there is a governmental follow through. Even though European Court of Human Rights’ judgments establishes a precedent of school desegregation, it is up to national governments to use the rulings as a guideline. Many governments do not bother to do so, partly because they face minimal consequences if they ignore rulings, and partly because they want to keep their voters happy, and generally, public sentiment does not tend to sway in favor of the Roma.

Activism and nonprofit work are very important especially when it comes to education. The smallest amount of intervention can go a long way. This was clear in the village of Bag, where the volunteer organization BAGazs provides adult education, after school programs, and a general feeling of empowerment that could be felt throughout the entire village.

However, such work is obviously limited in scope by finances, and even the bigger policy think tanks can lack political leverage and power. Large, Europe-wide establishments, even the European Union, run into the same problem when it comes to Roma inclusion policy. They simply lack leverage or control over the actions of member states or involved parties, while member states lack transparency or accountability.

This is not to say that any of these methods are useless; there is much work to be done, but a combination of all of the above, along with a growing sense of Roma self-advocacy and empowerment is sure to yield slow but steady results.


The ultimate solution for the education problem does not come from the E.U. or the Hungarian government. It comes from inside a brightly decorated storage container classroom where about ten Roma adults from the village of Bag painstakingly finish their grade school education. As they learn basic arithmetic and grammar, they push and inspire their children to do the same. 

Through a translator, we ask a Roma woman what her dreams are for her daughter. She tells us that she hopes her daughter’s life is nothing like her own. We can’t know her exact words, but regardless of the language barrier, we can hear the determination in her voice.

Claudia Macri is a sophomore in Trumbull College.

This piece is the sixth in a multi-part series on Roma Rights. 

Other installments:
1. Europe’s Villified Minority: The Roma Through Pictures by Megan McQueen ’20
2. Charity From Above: George Soros and the Anatomy of Roma Rights Activism by Lisa Qian ’20
3. Law and the Roma: A Fickle Ally by Arvin Anoop ’18

4. Not Yet United: The Challenges of Organizing for Roma Rights by Emma Pred-Sosa ’19
5. Issues with Transnational Advocacy: The Case of the Roma by Arvin Anoop ’18