SKOPJE | Ramush Muarem, a prominent Romani journalist in Macedonia, remembers the resistance civil society activists encountered from Roma when, in the mid-1990s, they began trying to raise awareness of the importance of integrating Macedonia’s most marginalized community into schools.
Certainly, poverty kept many Romani children from getting an education. Families often relied on their children going to work to make ends meet. But economics weren’t the only issue. Many Romani parents worked at Skopje’s outdoor markets and earned more than enough to send their kids into classrooms, and still would not. “You could often hear a Rom say, ‘My dad didn’t go to school, so why would I need an education?’ ” Muarem recalled.
Today, though, a typical family conversation in his Shuto Orizari neighborhood is likely to be all about schools and scholarships.
More and more Roma in Shuto Orizari – “Shutka” for short, thought to be the biggest majority-Roma settlement in the world – see education as the key to a better future for their sons and, increasingly, their daughters. Two decades ago, a typical girl from Shutka would have been expected to stay at home and marry by age 16. Today, many Romani girls attend secondary schools, and they make up nearly half of all Roma in Macedonian schools and universities.
In a community still rent by discrimination, significantly poorer and shorter-lived than any other Macedonian ethnic group, the steadily growing awareness of the importance of education is a success story. Initially this was thanks to civil activists, but since the middle of the last decade the state has taken the issue on board in earnest, implementing overdue policies – and stumping up funds – to provide educational opportunities for Roma and other marginalized groups.
Philanthropist George Soros’ Open Society Foundations was at the forefront of those efforts, launching a program in 1996 to raise Romani enrollment, retention, and graduation rates at all education levels. [Editor’s note: TOL is the recipient of an Open Society Institute grant to support education reporting.] Its activities ranged from information campaigns and supplying new equipment to underfunded schools to providing scholarships for Romani students.
At the time, the government did not see serving marginalized groups as a priority, said Spomenka Lazarevska, director of education programs for the Open Society Foundation Macedonia. “Until 2005, not a single state institution offered help for the serious development of education for the Roma, apart from declaring their support,” she said.
2005 was the year the governments of Macedonia and seven other Balkan and Central European states declared the opening of the Decade of Roma Inclusion, committing to working toward a set of ambitious objectives aimed at eliminating discrimination and closing social and economic gaps. The initiative, since expanded to 12 countries, was the brainchild of international funders, chiefly the Open Society network and the World Bank. Education was set as one of four overarching priorities, along with health, housing, and employment. National action plans followed, yet the Macedonian government only started putting money where its mouth was in 2008, and even then at levels experts argue are far from sufficient.
Poverty plays the most direct role in precluding many Romani kids from the benefits of an educational head start. To enroll a child in an accredited preschool that provides early education, play facilities, and meals, parents must pay the equivalent of about $30 per month. This is a substantial cost for many Romani families, four-fifths of which receive state support for the poor averaging about $40 per month.
According to the National Statistics Office, just 501 of the 25,056 Macedonian children aged 6 and under attending preschool in the 2010-2011 school year were Roma – about 2 percent of enrollment. Based on the most recent census in 2002, the country’s 54,000 Roma represent about 2.7 percent of the overall population, but their seemingly moderate representation in preschools is probably much greater, as the census almost certainly undercounts minorities. (More realistic estimates put the Roma population as high as 135,000, or 6.8 percent of the population.)
With support from a Roma Decade program called the Roma Education Fund (REF), the national government and 18 municipal authorities have been implementing a project aimed at increasing preschool numbers among Romani children. As of October, the project was helping 400 children attend preschool, according to officials from the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy.
Backed by the EU and REF, a pilot project called A Good Start is helping more kids go to nursery school and kindergarten. It provides daylong preschool for 57 children in Shuto Orizari.
Latifa Shikovska, executive director of the project’s Macedonian partner organization, Umbrella, said two of its main goals are to help children acquire basic school habits and to overcome the language barrier, a precondition for future success in school. The Macedonian educational system does not yet provide tuition in Romani, which for many Roma is their first language.
In Topaana, Skopje’s second-biggest Romani neighborhood, the education and community development organization Sumnal helps 94 children attend preschool and runs workshops designed to help mothers prepare their kids for school.
“When we started out, we worked directly with people every day. We went from house to house. We had to do it that way in order to gain trust among the local residents, and then to raise parents’ awareness of the importance of education,” acting director Stance Dimkovska said. Sumnal has since broadened its scope to run additional services for Romani children and their families in the neighborhood of 5,000 residents.
Shikovska and other activists argue that preschool education should be made obligatory and free, as is the case with primary and secondary schooling. “If preschool education were a legal requirement, the inclusion of children in kindergartens would be 100 percent,” she said.
Roma are better represented in primary school. During the 2011-2012 school year, 9,924 Romani children attended primary school, according to the Education Ministry. Still, they lag far behind other groups.
While primary education is mandatory, UNICEF estimated in 2011 that only 63 percent of Romani 7-year-olds were enrolled in school, compared to 86 percent in the poorest households overall. The rate of irregular attendance is also high, partly because of children accompanying their families abroad. Visa liberalization, which enables Macedonian citizens to travel freely to most of the European Union, has seen thousands of Romani families opting to leave for long periods, visiting family and friends, doing seasonal labor, or even claiming asylum in prosperous Western countries.
Unlike preschool education, primary schooling has so far seen relatively little intervention by civil society groups, possibly because primary education is considered to be chiefly the state’s responsibility. Senad Mustafov, the Macedonia country facilitator for the Roma Education Fund, said REF has done only a few small-scale projects in primary schools.
“We are a foundation that finances projects rather than implementing them. We do not receive proposals from NGOs to fund projects in the field of primary education,” he said.
Proposals do not abound, but problems do. In Shuto Orizari – where 13,342 of the 22,017 inhabitants are Roma, according to the 2002 census – there are two primary schools, Braka Ramiz Hamid and 26 July. At Braka Ramiz Hamid, classes are held in three shifts to accommodate 2,300 pupils – almost three times the intended capacity – and two teaching shifts are needed at 26 July School.
Recent negative publicity about the overcrowding in Shutka’s schools seems to have prompted the authorities to take steps. According to Redzep Ali Chupi, a Ministry of Education official responsible for minority-language education support, Braka Ramiz Hamid School will soon have 20 new classrooms and four new offices.
“Local authorities submitted planning documentation in the fastest possible manner and new classrooms are expected to be functional in 2013, so the problems with the classroom space in the school will be solved once and for all,” said Chupi, who also sits on the Open Society Foundation Macedonia’s executive board.
The prospect delights Shutka parents like Senat Zekir. His daughter, Eleonara, is a fifth grader Braka Ramiz Hamid and one of the best pupils in her class, regularly getting outstanding grades.
“Even though she is still a small child, she is interested in school. She sometimes even cries if she gets a lower mark … but then she immediately starts to study in order to improve,” Zekir said. When the expansion is finished, he added, “the kids will have proper conditions for learning.”
High schools have seen the most rapid advances among Romani students, in absolute numbers. Less than two decades ago, only 300 or so Roma attended secondary schools, but that figure is now over 1,700.
The state has established several inducements to stay in school, some available to all students (like free public transport), others targeted at minorities.
But the measure usually cited as the most effective in helping Roma progress from primary to secondary school is the scholarship and mentoring program developed initially by the Open Society Foundation and operated since 2009 by the Education Ministry, with support from the Roma Education Fund. For the current two-year phase ending in June, the fund allotted 335,000 euros ($447,000) to help 800 students per year. Scholarship winners receive a monthly stipend of 1,500 to 2,500 dinars ($32-$53), which they are free to use for educational or living expenses.
Chupi said the numbers speak for the project’s success. In its first year, only 433 of a planned 700 grants were awarded because not enough applicants met the minimum requirement of an average grade of 3 on the 1-to-5 system. “But last year, the average mark level increased. Only 120 of the successful applicants had an average of 3, while the rest had a higher average,” he said. “That means that the scholarship is a motivator for learning more and is thus improving the quality of outcomes.”
Because those Roma who do attend high school typically go to vocational training schools, another Education Ministry initiative launched in 2009 is trying to steer Romani youngsters into more challenging institutions by permitting them to enroll with a grade average less than that required for other applicants.
The measure “allows Romani children to get into more attractive schools across the country,” Chupi said. “More Roma are now enrolling in schools where the emphasis is on business and legal education – also secondary medicine schools, grammar schools, art schools, etc.”
But enrollment itself is not the only hurdle. Last fall a business- and law-oriented high school in Skopje, Arseni Jovkov, formed two all-Roma classes, raising concerns among activists about cracks in the official policy of integration.
School officials said the separation policy was implemented for the security of the Roma students, most of whom live in nearby Shuto Orizari. “We believe that these pupils should go home together after classes,” said Zoran Zlatkovski, the deputy principal at Arseni Jovkov, which is also attended by students of Macedonian, Albanian, Turkish, and Serbian background.
When some Romani students expressed dissatisfaction with the arrangement, the school called a meeting with parents, whose “attitudes were different,” Zlatkovski said. “Most wanted these classes to remain as they are now. Some did want to break up the classes and have the Roma kids study with pupils of other ethnic backgrounds. But the main argument was the protection of the children on their way home. The final decision was made based on the views of the majority of parents who did not want to break up the classes.”
The Romani students themselves are divided on the issue. One, Leonard Abaz, said the school’s Roma tend to isolate themselves. “During the main break we socialize only within each other. Whenever we need something we turn only to each other. Basically, we don’t mingle with the others.”
The number of Romani university students, while still proportionally lower than in the population at large, has climbed steadily, from 17 in 1994 to 35 in 1998, 126 in 2002, and 350 now. The completion rate is less encouraging. According to data from the National Statistics Office, just 42 Roma graduated between 2001 and 2008. More recently, the rate has been on an upward trend, with 28 Roma, including 17 women, graduating in 2009 and 22, including 11 women, in 2011. The total number of Macedonian Roma with university degrees is thought to be only about 100.
A major factor in the rising enrollment is a quota system, whereby university applicants who do not meet the admission criteria or are unable to pay a higher fee as private students can qualify for a government-funded place. The student quota is directly proportional to the Roma share of the national population, about 2.7 percent.
Universities are also beginning to introduce their own affirmative action measures. At Goce Delchev University in Stip, students of Romani background are exempt from most fees in the first and second year of study.
Tuition represents only part of the cost of study. Considering their often poor backgrounds, many Roma would be unable to attend university without extra help covering the overall costs of higher education, provided initially by the Open Society Foundation and now by the Roma Education Fund. Open Society’s Lazarevska says that without direct aid to Romani secondary school and university students, there would have been very little progress in raising enrollment. Scholarships and mentoring help have increased both the quantity and quality of Romani students, she says.
Senad Mamet is a final-year student in the food and agriculture faculty at Skopje’s Sts. Cyril and Methodius University and an activist with Romani organizations. He won a scholarship through Open Society’s Romaversitas program, adapted from a similar venture in Hungary, that has helped at least 80 Macedonian Roma graduate from university since 2001.
“It was an additional incentive to continue with my studies,” Mamet said. “The scholarship is really important for us students, considering the financial situation of the Roma.”
Whether Romani, or other, graduates will find a job in their field of study is another matter in a country where the unemployment rate tops 30 percent, among the highest in Europe. Various quota schemes have helped place a significant number of Roma in public sector and government jobs, though not necessarily in their area of expertise. There are, for example, very few practicing Romani doctors. As of the 2011-2012 academic year some 15 Roma had graduated from Macedonian medical schools but only two were working in the profession, according to the Roma Education Fund.
“If you want to work in your field, your parents have to have worked in that field, or they must have a close relationship with a politician,” said Shaip Iseni, who graduated with a dentistry degree and now works for Sumnal.
Still, there has been significant progress for Roma who, a generation ago, had little better to look forward to in the way of employment than work as a bazaar trader. Expanded early education, scholarships, and affirmative action policies, often focused on professional education, are opening doors that were largely closed as recently as a few years ago. Underprivileged parents are increasingly persuaded to focus on education, via both soft methods such as one-to-one outreach by civil society groups and concrete inducements like direct government support to families, conditional on their kids staying in school.
Senat Zekir, the father of a high-achieving Shuto Orizari fifth-grader, said families like his are thankful for such policies. “Instead of having to find additional money from our domestic budget for my child,” he said, “now I know there is a scholarship that can help me and relieve the burden of my child’s education.”
Daniel Petrovski is a freelance journalist in Skopje. This article was produced for the Next in Line project, which is co-funded by the European Union. The contents of this project are the sole responsibility of Transitions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.