From the field: working with Roma youth in Kosovo

Guest post by Joanne Brucker

Recently, I was helping Faton, a Roma friend of mine, fill out his college application. He had arrived at the question of ‘Father’s Occupation,’ when he looked up and asked me, “Can I write social assistance for father’s occupation.” All I could do was to shake my head and reply, “How about unemployed?”

In the community in which Faton grew up, unemployment has been at about 98 percent since the War in 1999. As Serbian speaking Roma, few in his town have found employment in the new country of Kosovo. Unemployment was high even before the War. Additionally, the town suffers from a problem of 95 percent adult illiteracy. If he is accepted to the university, Faton will be the first in his family to attend any form of higher education.

Roma Children. Courtesy of Joanna Brucker

The question of literacy and poor academics in the community is one which has troubled me since my arrival in Kosovo. I currently manage a series of education support centers for Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian youth across Kosovo.

Faton’s hometown of Plemetina hosts one of the longest running centers. However, the importance of education continues to be a problem within the community. Despite their inability to provide academic support for their children, parents are still reluctant to send their children to our educational center. Some parents cite the lack of proper footwear and warm cloths in winter months for their children. Others invoke historic family feuds. Last year, when a lack of funding caused us to cut the “hot meal” program, our numbers dropped significantly.

The most frustrating reason parents cite for not sending their kids is a simple: “What is the point? They will not get a job anyhow.”

Throughout the past year, I have seen so many kids grow and develop because of attending our centers. I have watched children, who had been forcibly returned from Germany, learn the Serbian language and move on to attend school successfully.

I have seen the magic of children learning to count, to read and to do the simple task of spelling their names.

But the cards are stacked against these children. As Roma, many students report discrimination in the schools both in terms of classroom learning, segregated classrooms and school grades. Kosovar Roma children overwhelmingly attend schools taught in the Serbian language while at least 80 percent of the new country of Kosovo speaks Albanian.

Thus, not only are Roma discriminated against in terms of their skin color and culture, but also the language that comes out of their mouths. Few speak Albanian and even fewer speak enough to hold a job in the language. Despite having both a Serbian and Kosovar school in Plemetina, overwhelmingly the Roma there attend the Serbian school.

How does a student like Faton grow up and make the decision to go to college? How does he become part of the 2 percent of the town population able to hold a job and then to give that up to attend university? Remember, even attending high school is a rarity.

Joanna Laursen Brucker has been working in Kosovo for the last year and a half as Educational Coordinator managing a series of 4 educational centers for Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian youth. Previously, Joanna worked as a public high school teacher in the Czech Republic. Joanna holds an Ed.M. from Harvard Graduate School of Education in International Educational Policy and a B.A. from the George Washington University in Anthropology.

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