Last year, the ranks of children on the streets of Bosnia and Herzegovina were swelled with hundreds of Roma children who hung out around parks, restaurants and parking lots with the hope of being given a coin or two that would help buy food for their family.
These Roma children belong to one of the most disadvantaged groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina; they are part of a unique minority with no historic homeland in Europe and encounter age-old prejudice, racism and rejection every day.
Surveys undertaken by UNICEF and Save the Children UK in specific areas of Bosnia and Herzegovina confirmed that almost 100 per cent of Roma are unemployed. Up to 80 per cent of Roma children are not enrolled in school, even though national school enrolment rates in the country are at 92 per cent.
Those Roma children who are in school often drop out early to seek work or because there is no money to continue their education. The underlying problem is one of prejudice and discrimination within local social services and the community, rather than a lack of infrastructure or services.
Non-governmental organizations aid Roma children
Ten-year-old Mustafa is a tidy-looking boy from Modrica, in western Bosnia and Herzegovina. He is somewhat luckier than some of the Roma street children. He and his family were refugees during the Bosnian war and returned back to their own community when a fragile peace was finally brokered.
However, the Roma family's return was met with the same prejudice and bias that they experienced prior to the war.
It was only through an effort of the local non-governmental organization (NGO) Hi Neighbour, whose child rights projects are supported by UNICEF, that he was accepted by the community and finally went to school.
Learning from the experience of Hi Neighbour, UNICEF also supported a similar project, carried out by the NGO Lighthouse, in Prijedor in the north-west. This project actively works to bring dozens of Roma children and adolescents into the community and keeps them off the street.
Cultural pride, not prejudice
Adisa has not been so fortunate. The fourteen-year-old was not able to continue going to school as her family does not have the money to pay for her transport. She has already missed a few years, and it may be difficult to get her to return to the classroom.
Her experience at school, like many Roma children, was an unhappy one. It was difficult for her to find a non-Roma peer who was happy to sit next to her on the same bench.
Between 1999 and 2001, UNICEF began supporting educational programmes for Roma children, refugees from the Former Republic of Yugoslavia, in cooperation with NGO World Vision.
The classes, offering education and psychosocial care, replaced normal schooling and during this period a slow process of assimilation of Roma children into ordinary schools began to take place.
But it is not always easy for the Roma children
"I go to school every day but I have to fight with children since they tease me and say I'm dirty," says Tarik, one of the few boys who attends school. Although Tarik appears to be one of life's survivors, he needs psychosocial support to help him stay at school.
Such is the pressure on children like Tarik that they deny speaking Romani and only speak the local languages. It is a survival tactic adopted to win acceptance by the community.
Education and assimilation
UNICEF and other international agencies are targeting the educational needs and the integration of Roma in cooperation with a host of increasingly well-organized local Roma associations. For example, Roma children have participated in inter-ethnic group activities that have helped them make friends while writing, painting and dancing.
Preparation for school, both educational and social, is the most important step in enabling disadvantaged children to meet the requirements of formal education. UNICEF has helped open five kindergartens in areas with large Roma populations, including access to more than 300 community workers and teachers.
Only with more resources and support focused on changing attitudes, customs and behaviour at all levels of society, can Roma children like Mustafa and Tarik continue to make progress and encourage their less fortunate peers to abandon the streets.