In post-Maidan Ukraine, many Roma citizens continue to face discrimination in accessing employment, education, and basic services. Education is essential for integrating Roma youth into a changing Ukrainian society. Ensuring Roma and other minorities are educated can help to make Ukraine a better, fairer, and ultimately more productive country.
According to Chiricli, a charity that assists Roma and advocates on their behalf, a quarter of the Roma population in today’s Ukraine are illiterate. This lack of formal education serves to isolate Roma communities from wider Ukrainian society, while also limiting opportunities to receive government social assistance and interface with the authorities productively. The impact this has on Roma communities is clear when looking at employment opportunities. Many Roma spend their lives involved in difficult, low-paying and often exploitative physical labor due to a lack of other options. This too increases their marginalization from society and fuels asocial behavior from generation to generation.
Access to education is, in policy if not practice, equal for all Ukrainian citizens. The reality is often different. It is also important to note that Roma face more obstacles to education than other minorities. The vast majority of Roma families live below the poverty line and struggle to pay for school supplies or comply with the widespread practice of unofficial but expected monthly contributions to the upkeep of the school. Families may also worry about the discrimination their children will face at school. As one Roma parent puts it: “Is it worth sending our child to a school where he will be humiliated by teachers in front of the whole class and his peers will laugh at him?”
Learning from the Transcarpathian region
“Educating Roma requires new approaches in teaching methods and creative instruction,” explains a teacher from Uzhhorod in Ukraine’s Transcarpathian region. “Quite often, teachers perceive Roma children as “special”, believing they need only to write and read. This approach is incorrect. Although all children are different, this does not mean that Roma children are less capable of learning.”
The Transcarpathian region is one of the most diverse in Ukraine and hosts the country’s largest Roma population. Whereas enrollment of Roma students is stagnant throughout most of Ukraine, in recent years it has been increasing in the Transcarpathian capital city Uzhhorod. The city has a vibrant civil society that includes numerous Roma professionals. One such professional is Denys Varodi, director of Uzhhorod’s School No. 13 and head of the “Heart with Love” charity that helps foster children, troubled adolescents, orphans, disabled persons and children from needy families in the Transcarpathian region.
School No. 13 in Uzhhorod is an example of a school where only Roma children study. Since children in this school have the same cultural background, they feel protected and more comfortable than in mixed school environments. However, the model is not ideal in that Roma children do not integrate through interaction with their non-Roma peers. This does not contribute to understanding between Roma and non-Roma. In fact, in many ways it “preserves” segregation in society and the distinction of “insiders” and “outsiders”.
Recognizing this, the International Renaissance Foundation has provided funding for the “Heart with Love” Charity to launch a program encouraging Roma families to send their children to the local schools closest to them. Mr. Vorodi, together with a psychologist and a teacher-coordinator, work with Roma children four times a week, host additional classes in preparation for lessons, teach in an after-school group, and conduct outreach in the Roma community. According to Mr. Varodi, it is crucial to establish personal contact with Roma families. Family relationships are one of the core values of Roma culture. Making connections between families, teachers, and school leadership is key to increasing enrollment and retention.
Mr. Varodi invites teachers from other schools to School No. 13 to learn about Roma children, their educational needs, and how best to instruct them. Eight teachers have given classes to Roma pupils at School No. 13 including the head of the Uzhhorod Department of Education Oksana Babunych, who credited these exchanges with helping her colleagues to meet the needs of their Roma students.
Civic organizations, charitable foundations, Roma groups, and faith-based organizations are all involved in promoting access to education for Roma children in Uzhhorod. Working together, they have developed a regional strategy for educating Roma youth. As an example, the Charity Fund “Welfare” has launched seven-month courses during which teachers and psychologists work with children to prepare them for school. Uzhgorod City Council Member Myroslav Govrat regularly visits Roma settlements to communicate with Roma families and leaders about education and other issues. The church also plays an important role in encouraging families to enroll their children and keep them in school. Most Roma in the region are religiously observant and take the guidance of clergy on education and other issues seriously.
The Transcarpathian experience indicates that when local government, local schools, and civil society work together with Roma families, enrollment of Roma youth in Ukraine’s education system will increase. These results can be replicated across Ukraine. The treatment of minorities such as Roma, including their access to education, remains an important indicator of the quality of Ukraine’s democracy and its European integration. Local initiatives like those in Uzhhorod provide Ukraine with an indication of the possibilities on the national stage.