To battle racism, Roma scale Europe's ivory tower

Even in the vaunted halls of higher learning, Europe's Roma minority is subject to flagrant prejudices. Now activists are trying to equip them to fight back via graduate-level education.

Courtesy of Central European University
A student in Central European University's Roma Access Program speaks in a classroom at CEU in Budapest, Hungary, in late April.

The accusation – that Roma mothers willingly accept evaluation of their children as mentally disabled so that they can reap social benefits – was not unusual. Indeed, it's hardly the worst claim made about the Roma, Europe's most marginalized minority. Similarly racist claims can be heard on any street corner across the continent.

What made it particularly frustrating for Jelena Jovanovic, a Roma woman from Serbia, was not what it said, but where she encountered it: in a Serbian academic journal.

Ms. Jovanovic says that this type of cultural racism, that fails to analyze poverty or structural discrimination, is rampant in academia. “There has been no one to challenge this,” she says.

But now she’s one of many young Roma developing the intellectual savvy to hold such scholars accountable for the prejudices they perpetuate.

A program at Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, where Jovanovic is an alumna, aims not to just produce a few “black swans,” as one leader puts it, but build a new academic force in Europe, of Roma masters’ students and PhDs, who go onto become professors, policy analysts, and even politicians.

It's been heralded among those who work towards minority rights in the region. “I think that if a minority has their intellectuals, their elite, they have more chance to articulate their interests, and they can play greater roles in politics, in the economy, or in healthcare,” says Eva Deak, the director of the Partners Hungary Foundation, an NGO in Budapest working towards minority rights.

Racism from the top

Despite two decades of efforts by the Roma rights movements, Roma, who migrated largely to Europe from South Asia centuries ago, remain profoundly disadvantaged. Ninety percent live below the poverty line. Only 15 percent say they have completed upper secondary education, compared to 70 percent of the population at large, according to a 2012 European Union-United Nations study of 11 EU countries.

It is not that there are not already Roma role models, from politicians to artists. But Gabor Daroczi, director of Romaversitas Foundation, an organization that supports Roma students studying undergraduate degrees, says that there is no critical mass. Thus, most Roma leaders are considered “black swans,” he says. “They say, you are the exception. You are not like the others. They forget we come from the very same ghettos.”

And while Roma are depicted as thieves and swindlers in popular culture, many say that the racism is worst when it comes from the top – the "educated" elite who should know better. In Hungary, when one leading journalist wrote that they behaved “like animals” in 2013, the outcry was loud, but no one was shocked. Outside of the EU their situation tends to be even more precarious.

CEU began its Roma Access Programs (RAP), which includes the Roma Graduate Preparation Program, to empower Roma to respond to such ignorance and racism. In operation since 2004, the prep program differs from others in that it specifically serves as a bridge to graduate study, in English, essentially fast-tracking a generation of Roma leadership. A newer program is intended to get English up to the graduate level.

It is finally starting to bear fruit, as 130 have since graduated and set their aims high. Some of them say they couldn’t even string together a sentence in English before they started.

On a recent day in the halls of CEU, a current class learns four-step refutation in a debate class. Their teacher, Viktoria Vajnai, urges them to devise counter-arguments on everything from the volume of advertising to free college education. They do so in nearly fluent English.

And unlike past educational programs which petered out for lack of money, Mr. Daroczi says the RAP program's prospects could help build critical mass. It is housed in a well-respected institution that is not vulnerable to funding cuts. One part of the program focuses on graduate prep work; another newer program is specifically for getting English up to the graduate level.

Still, he says, he worries that the program focuses too heavily on academics, and not on skills like management. “If they want to be a change-maker, they need much more than proper English and an MA from CEU,” he says.

'This is not only about me'

Matyas Szabo, the director of the program, says that donors have voiced some frustrations, eager to see the tangible impact that their graduates are making. He argues that it is still early days: any alumnus knows that a new network only pays off with time.

What they can measure is the percentage of their graduates who have gone onto get masters, about 65 percent, up from just over half in the program’s earlier years. “We know that if you train students to attend graduate schools and PhD programs, this is how their work will be heard,” he says.  “It gives them the potential of becoming Roma leaders.”

On a recent day a group of seven grads spreads out in a conference room at the university to talk about their ambitions, which range from politics to PhDs. Jovanovic, a RAP graduate who once hid her Roma heritage under societal pressure, now wants to help shape research on Roma in a more socially responsible way, eying a PhD program, perhaps in Berlin.

Deniz Selmani, from Macedonia, aims in the long term to return home to help the Roma community. But in the meantime he has joined forces with other Roma graduates from Macedonia to start a blog called Romalitico while he finishes his masters degree in political science. It is intended to serve as a virtual think-tank. “The idea was to combine our knowledge, to put into practice the knowledge we are receiving here,” Mr. Selmani says.

Most of them had already worked as activists for Roma rights at home, but their studies have equipped them with greater skills at critical thinking – and a place to come together. They see themselves as a new generation poised to break down stereotypes at their sources.

“Now there is a group of young Roma who are able to fight back against articles and statements from politicians and academics,” says Sebijan Fejzula, another Romalitico author who got her masters from CEU’s Department of Gender studies. She now works as a gender fellow at the European Roma Rights Center in Budapest.

She says, like many of her peers, she enrolled in the program to get ahead, “to put me a step up,” she says. “But then you can feel the shift from the personal to the collective one. And you realize, this is not only about me.”

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