Gypsies use education to rise to middle class

Posted January 30, 2011 By Karel Janiecek and Vanessa Gera

The Balazova family lived on nothing but potatoes and rice one month as they struggled to pull together the money to buy an electric typewriter for their teenage daughter.

It was one of many sacrifices that paid off. Today, 31-year-old Zuzana Balazova teaches at a university in Slovakia while finishing a doctorate in sociology.

She’s among a small but growing number of Gypsies who are rising into the ranks of an educated middle class across Europe — offering some hope that the minority may one day be able to use schooling to break through walls of prejudice that have kept them in misery for centuries.

The issue flared this past summer and fall when France stepped up an aggressive deportation program against Gypsies, or Roma, casting them as ignorant beggars who were a strain on society.

“It was always clear to me that I didn’t want to do ordinary work somewhere in a factory, getting up early in the morning, doing the same thing over and over,” said Ms. Balazova, who also has founded a nonprofit group that helps disadvantaged Gypsy children in Skalica, a small town in western Slovakia. “My parents sacrificed a lot,” Ms. Balazova said, slipping out of the office she shares with two other instructors at the University of Central Europe to share her story in a quiet room nearby. “I appreciate it and am trying to return something to them now.”

Such success comes against many odds: deeply rooted anti-Gypsy stigma, segregated schooling in some countries that often condemns Roma to an inferior education, stifling social codes in their own traditions that discourage contact with the non-Gypsy world.

Many of Europe’s roughly 8 million Roma still live in extreme poverty and are reviled by mainstream society. In the French expulsions, the government rounded up hundreds of Eastern European Roma and deported them to Romania and Bulgaria, in a program that attracted worldwide condemnation.

But for some, new opportunities are opening up, thanks to affirmative action programs in countries like Hungary, private scholarships, the determination of people like Ms. Balazova — and the sacrifices of parents who are themselves sometimes illiterate.

There are no hard statistics on how many Roma across Europe make it to university because most countries in Central and Eastern Europe, where most Roma live, do not gather statistics on ethnicity — still a potentially disruptive force across much of the region. The Roma Education Fund says about 25 percent of Roma are still illiterate, and the United Nations says as much as 50 percent of Roma do not complete primary school.

However, Judit Szira, a senior adviser at the Roma Education Fund in Budapest, Hungary, said the number of university-educated Roma is “absolutely growing.”

It’s an observation echoed by many who work on Roma issues.

“We’re facing a new phenomenon,” said Lucia Nicholsonova, Slovakia‘s deputy minister for labor, social affairs and family. “In the past, we had to deal mostly with poorly educated Roma. Now, there’s a new generation of them with a decent education.”

But a decent education doesn’t protect Europe’s Roma from prejudice, which is based largely on a belief that many steal or don’t want to work. Activists acknowledge that some Roma — who often stand out because of darker complexions — do steal, but they stress it is generally only a visible minority. Many, they say, do want to work and are desperate because they can’t find jobs.

Ms. Balazova said she didn’t feel discriminated against by her teachers because she was always an excellent student, but that shop assistants sometimes watch her with suspicion, as if she wants to steal.

More devastating is the discrimination that many face in the job market.

Viera Samkova, a 27-year-old from Lubenik, in eastern Slovakia, graduated from university in 2006 and had hoped to start working right away as a teacher. But four years later, she still can’t find a school that will hire her.

“No employer directly said that my Roma origin is a problem, but they always come up with other reasons to reject me,” said Ms. Samkova.

To make ends meet, she has a temporary job advising the government on the education of Roma children and is pursuing a second university degree that would qualify her to teach disabled children. Anti-Gypsy sentiment explains why so many Roma in the past have tried to pass as “white” once they make it.

Emese Balogh, a 29-year-old Hungarian Gypsy, once tried to hide her heritage. She applied for a job as a customs officer a couple of years ago and was asked during her interview if she was a Gypsy. She decided to lie, worried the truth would kill her chances, and her light skin helped her deception. But her boss eventually found out and fired her.

Furious, she grew determined to channel her energies to help other Roma and now directs an organization in Demecser, Hungary, that promotes education among young Gypsies, called the “Charitable Association For a Happy Life.” She also dreams of going to college.

“When I was fired, I decided to fight,” Ms. Balogh said.

The Roma are originally from India and began migrating to Europe about 1,000 years ago, as they fled Islamic raids into northern India. They still speak their own language, Romani, which is related to Hindi, and keep a number of cultural practices that set them apart from mainstream Europe.

“We are a square peg in a round hole,” said Ian Hancock, a British Gypsy who is the director of the Romani Archives and Documentation Center at the University of Texas at Austin and a professor of linguistics. “Roma today still have no voice and no power and are distinctively different.”

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