Young Roma overcome hardships and head to college

Elvis Hajdar grew up in a sprawling Roma settlement where most young men leave school early for the grim world of unemployment and poverty in Eastern and Central Europe. His parents had other ideas. "They told me you must study," says Mr. Hajdar, now 23. "Your future is only studying."

The odds were against him. The region's 5 million to 6 million Gypsies, or Roma, are a scattered, impoverished minority who lag far behind non-Roma in education. In Hajdar's own neighborhood, whose estimated population of 30,000 makes it one of the largest Romany communities in the world, relatively few graduate from high school.

But Hajdar took his parents' admonition to heart. In elementary school, where most of his classmates were Roma, he was awarded a prize for the best student in mathematics. In high school, where he was the only Rom in his class, he struggled but persevered.

Today Hajdar, a personable young man with dark eyes and a ready smile, studies computer programming at the University of Cyril and Methodius, Macedonia's state university. Although still two years from graduating, he has become somewhat of a computer geek in his neighborhood, called Shuto Orizari, or simply "Shutka." "If someone says computer, everyone says my name," Hajdar says. "Elvis is a synonym for computer in Shutka."

Hajdar is one of a small but growing number of young Roma in Eastern and Central Europe who are making their way into the region's universities and overcoming obstacles that have long stood between Roma and higher education. In Macedonia, which has the highest concentration of Roma in the region, the number of Roma studying at a university rose to 97 last year from just nine in 1994, according to the Skopje office of the Open Society Institute.

More young Roma are entering universities today not only because they are persistent but also because organizations like the European Roma Rights Center and the Open Society Institute are offering them scholarships, part of a broader effort to improve Romany education. Other assistance comes from organizations like Roma Versitas, whose center in downtown Skopje offers Romany university students encouragement as well as the use of computers, a library, and a non-Romany mentor.

"There is a dramatically rising number of Romany students in universities in Hungary, Romania, Slovakia - all over," says Claude Cahn, programs director at the European Roma Rights Center in Budapest. "There are more people talking about education not only for economic advancement, but for the Roma in general, for advancing the rights and interests of the Roma as a people. They want not only to attain higher levels of education, but also to give something back to the community."

Such ambitions are hard to fulfill. Studies by the World Bank and other organizations have found that poverty, discrimination, and segregation hold back Roma at every level of education, winnowing out all but the most determined and most fortunate. Most Romany children do not attend preschool programs, and many receive little or no elementary school education. Even the children who make it to eighth grade typically do not go on to high school. Those who do usually drop out before graduating.

A 2002 United Nations study found that fewer than 10 percent of Roma had completed high school in some of the countries with the largest Romany populations, including Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. Even with recent gains, the number of Roma receiving a university education "is so minuscule it's difficult to even count or put a percentage on it," says Christina McDonald, an expert on Romany education at the regional office of the Open Society Institute in Budapest.

Lack of books, clothing

Poverty is the biggest obstacle, say Ms. McDonald and other experts. Most Roma lack jobs and cannot afford books, school supplies, and clothing. In countries where Roma still speak their own language, Romany children struggle in state schools to learn the national language. Often the local authorities shunt them to special schools for slow learners. And many Romany children attend segregated schools, where prejudice, indifference, and low expectations doom their chances.

One of the greatest challenges for young Roma is making the transition from elementary schools with mostly Romany students to ethnically mixed and more competitive high schools.

At first, Elvis Hajdar struggled to make friends, suffered the insults of a few of his teachers, and he suddenly began getting Ds and Fs. For a while he even considered quitting - but only for a while.

Other Roma students acknowledge that to reach the university they not only had to prove themselves to others but to overcome their own doubts. "You do have that feeling of inferiority," says Sangul Shaban, a 22-year-old student of veterinary medicine who also lives in Shuto Orizari. "You come from a school where education is lower, the children are Romany, and yes, you have feelings that you are worth less than everyone else."

Although scholarships from the European Roma Rights Center and the Open Society Institute assist prospective students, the help falls short of the demand. In Macedonia, the institute gave 30 scholarships in 2001 and 2002 but only five for the current school year. A program that encourages Roma to attend high school by providing $50 a month for bus fare receives 200 applications a year for only 50 scholarships.

Experts say the effort to provide better educational opportunities for Roma has so far yielded isolated experiments but has had little widespread effect. "In some ways it's still in its infancy," says Claude Cahn of the European Roma Rights Center.

Parents push kids to learn

Education may never have been so important for the Roma. Under communism, many worked for the state as factory workers, street cleaners, and other low-skill laborers. But factories have closed and jobs have dried up, casting most Roma into the ranks of the unemployed.

In Shuto Orizari, most men who had jobs lost them in the 1990s, and their sons eke out a meager living selling clothing and other cheap consumer goods illegally at the fringes of local markets.

This lesson is not lost on many parents and their children. Each day in Shuto Orizari, Rabija Regdep, who has no schooling herself, walks her 9-year-old daughter, Mirsada, to the overcrowded grade school on top of the hill.

"I say, 'You have to go to school. You can't be anything without school,' " Ms. Regdep says as they waited for school to open. Her daughter seems to agree. "I want to be a doctor," she says shyly. "I want to help people."

Realizing such dreams demands not only scholarships but broad improvements in primary and secondary education, experts say. This means more Romany teachers and teaching assistants, curricula that are sensitive to minorities, and subsidized preschool programs to prepare the youngest Roma for school. "Without preschool, you are setting yourself up for failure," says McDonald.

Breaking the 'cycle of poverty'

The growing interest in Romany education reflects a shift in focus among governmental and nongovernmental organizations from human rights abuses to a broader range of problems, including unemployment, poor healthcare, and poverty.

Next year, the World Bank plans to launch a 10-year effort to improve Romany education in Europe, hoping that better education can break what it calls the "cycle of poverty." This and other efforts are receiving impetus from the impending enlargement of the European Union this May, when 10 Eastern European countries, including some with the largest Romany populations, will join.

Even small increases in the number of Roma going to universities can make "a world of difference," says Dena Ringold, a senior economist at the World Bank who has written several reports on the Roma. University students can be role models in their families and communities and "prove, against conventional wisdom, that Roma can succeed." Many also are activists who work with governments and private organizations on behalf of the Romany people.

For his part, Elvis Hajdar is full of plans. He hopes someday to start his own software company, to write software in the Romany language, and to teach Romany children how to use computers. In the meantime he repairs computers, manages a website for a Romany organization, and helps his father with freelance welding jobs. He is so busy, he confesses, "I don't have time to study." But his father, who never got beyond high school, pushes him on. "Your knowledge," he says, "is nothing without a diploma."

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