BUDAPEST, HUNGARY — Like many Roma here, Janos Kozak grew up in poverty with parents who never finished elementary school. There was no money for shoes, school supplies, or, when Mr. Kozak proved a top-notch student, to pay exam fees.
"I had the knowledge in my head and I wanted to go there and take the exam, but we couldn't pay for it," he recalls. The $20 fee was "a fortune" for his family, and it nearly derailed his ambitions to finish high school, he says.
But officials in his hometown of Tisazafured agreed to loan his mother the money, and today Kozak is attending university.
Kozak's story is unusual. Most Roma - also known as Gypsies - in this part of the world don't make it beyond primary school and live in dire conditions.
But the region's leaders are under increasing pressure to improve the Roma's circumstances, as eight Eastern European nations prepare to join the European Union on May 1. With membership comes a host of tough minority rights laws, as well as lucrative agreements for the free movement of labor that will not be extended to the new members as long as millions of their citizens live in conditions that some liken to sub-Saharan Africa.
A 2003 study by the United Nations Development Program found that 1 in 6 Roma in Central and Eastern Europe face "constant starvation," and their unemployment rates are as high as 80 percent in some countries. In extreme cases such as Slovakia, Roma have been pushed into designated ghettos on the edge of their cities, while at school their children are sometimes moved to separate playgrounds.
"The largest ethnic minority in Europe is also the most discriminated against," says Dimitrina Petrova, executive director of the European Roma Rights Center in Budapest.
Roma are thought to be descended from a mix of peoples who lived on the Indian subcontinent in the 11th century and then migrated to the Balkans, appearing in Central Europe around the 15th century. Enslaved in Romania and prohibited from entering towns in much of the rest of Europe, Roma lived at the margins of society, often not speaking the local languages. They were victims of repeated pogroms, and an estimated 220,000 to 500,000 were killed in the Nazi Holocaust.
Roma now account for 10 percent of the population of Slovakia, 3 to 5 percent of Hungary's, and 3 percent in the Czech Republic. Accession has spurred these three countries in particular to address the Roma's problems.
"A lot of concrete things have been done to improve the situation of Roma in this country, and most of them are due to pressure from the EU," notes Czech political analyst Jiri Pehe, who was an adviser to former President Vaclav Havel.
Under EU pressure, Czech authorities have pledged to implement affirmative action plans in housing, education, and employment. Slovakia has hired social workers to visit Roma slums, and plans to open two college-preparatory high schools for Roma children. Hungary is in the process of desegregating its public school system - where most Roma children are placed in separate remedial classes - with the help of a $36 million EU grant.
Mr. Pehe says he has no doubt that these policy measures will be carried out, but he says they only begin to address the underlying problem. "This is a problem that is not only legal and constitutional, but also cultural, so it will take many years before the situation is truly satisfactory," he says.
Ian Hancock, a Roma who served as his people's special ambassador to the United Nations throughout the 1990s, says education is key, as real progress will take place only when the region's Roma have a cadre of educated representatives. "The only way we are going to stop being reliant on outsiders is to have our own teachers, attorneys, scientists, engineers, and physicians," he says.
But there is a long way to go. In Hungary, less than a third of Roma children enroll in secondary education, compared to 90 percent of the population as a whole. Only 4 to 5 percent of Roma graduate from secondary school, and a mere 0.22 percent go to college.
One contributing factor is that in all three countries, large numbers of Roma children are sent to schools for the mentally disabled - often because they cannot speak the national language, not because of any intellectual shortcomings. An estimated 70 percent of Roma children in Slovakia are sent to such schools, while in the Czech Republic ethnic Roma children are 15 times more likely to be placed in them than their ethnic Czech counterparts.
Hungary is currently retesting some 6,000 pupils at the remedial schools to determine if they have been misdiagnosed, says Viktoria Mohacsi Bernath, a Roma official at Hungary's Ministry of Education.
While there clearly have been signs of progress, some Roma leaders fear that progress may stall after their countries join the EU.
"The EU must continue monitoring progress on these issues because I feel our governments aren't really interested in eliminating the Roma's problems," says Agnes Daroczi of the Hungarian Institute for Culture. "It's in the Western countries' interest to do this because otherwise they may receive a mass of people with terrible problems."