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On being a Roma in Romania

Cristiana Grigore is a 24-year-old Roma woman who has just been awarded a Fulbright scholarship. Soon she will be going to the US to do a master's degree at a top university. As one of only a small group of Roma female university graduates ready to embrace her ethnic identity, she is hardly typical. But she has been through all the usual Roma experiences, is proud of her ethnicity and is happy to talk about what it means. Her answers give plenty of food for thought, especially to those who may think they have all the answers to the problems faced by Roma.

Cristiana Grigore, Fullbright Scholar

So what's it like to be a Roma?
When I was about 22, I started to accept my identity as a Roma. I have since managed to see myself as an individual who happens to be a Roma, and not in terms of the negative Roma stereotype, which unfortunately is how most Roma are perceived and some perceive themselves. I remember the shock I felt when my mother first told me I was a Roma. I was about six at the time, and it was like she had told me I had a terminal disease. All I had ever heard about Roma in the schoolyard and elsewhere was negative:  that “gypsies are lazy and dirty” and even worse. So it turned my life upside down when I learned that I was one of “them”. It was too much for me to cope with and I lived in denial until I came to terms with my ethnicity several years later.

Ovidiu Rom/ Amarjit Sidhu
Girl studying at school 147 in Bucharest

In the 2002 census, around 500,000 citizens identified themselves as Roma. Yet most demogra-phic estimates suggest there are at least two million Roma in Romania. Why the discrepancy?
It's true that the majority of Roma are reluctant to admit their ethnic roots. They are in denial, just like I was. It's not being a Roma per se that people are denying, but rather the negative stereotypes which society has attached to us. Separating one's identity from the negative stereotype is vital, but most find this difficult to do, so they just live in denial. A case of “when a Roma, do as the Roma do”! In my case, getting a decent education was the key to gaining the personal strength to accept who I was. But most of my people do not take advantage of educational opportunities. Eventually, I would like to work on training programmes to build Roma self-esteem and help the Roma people to escape the stereotypes.

Speaking of education, why do so many Roma not go to school  in spite of all the initiatives to promote Roma education? 
These initiatives are well meaning, but their approach is often wrong. There is a tendency to talk down to people, telling them their problems and what to do. As a result, there is resistance - no matter how poor someone is, they still don't like to be ordered about. Roma perceptions of a problem may be quite different from those of the policymaker or project manager. There is not enough involvement from the Roma community in identifying and devising solutions. I think there would be much better results if people took a more humble approach to the community. Ask them what they think the answers are, rather than telling them. Offer alternatives and ask them to think about it, rather than just making rigid prescriptions based on inappropriate models or assumptions. It's also very important to be patient and allow communities time to think about alternatives. I think it's probably stating the obvious that you won't see an increase in Roma school attendance unless you get the understanding and support of parents and the community. The only way to get this support, in my opinion, is patiently to involve them and not to force change. However, almost all projects aimed at increasing school attendance have strict timelines and budgets which allow little scope for patience, flexibility or indeed parent and community involvement.  

What do you think would be the most effective way to persuade Roma parents to send their children to school for at least the 10 years of compulsory education?
I think persuading them through Roma education mediators is a good way to do it. I realise that the quality of the mediators can vary a lot and they have not always met with success. However, the idea is basically sound, since they understand the mentality of the people. Also, their job involves face-to-face contact with parents and families in their homes, and that's a good way to communicate. Perhaps further training and incentives for the mediators would help  but I think the potential to make a big difference is definitely there and needs to be examined so we can see how it could work better.

I wouldn't be inclined to pay cash incentives to parents for sending their children to school. This has been tried in the past and it didn't work. But non-cash incentives, such as uniforms, schoolbags, notebooks, calculators and pens, could have an impact. Looking at ways of making the school more inviting for Roma kids would also be good. This could include offering the Romani language as a subject, including Roma culture in the curriculum and ensuring Roma teachers are properly trained. The feeling that discrimination against Roma exists in some schools can also be a deterrent and is something which needs to be addressed.

What would you say is the single most important thing that could be done to improve the situation of the Roma?  
I would say education. It gives a child a chance in life. Without education, there is no real chance, and the child is doomed to an adulthood of probably living in poverty, with a poor quality of life and low self-esteem. I feel education made the difference in my life. Even though I came from a family of modest means, education made me feel empowered and gave me the self-confidence to realise who I was and how I could contribute to society as an equal. It taught me to feel proud of my ethnic identity.







Unite for Children
No 4, 2009

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