Muhamed reaching his goal thanks to model programme
Far from insisting that Muhamed stays in school, his parents have encouraged him to join them in Germany – a move which would spell the end of both his education and his ambitions to join the police.
“I want to join the police force,” says Muhamed Jeseti.
The 18-year-old from Kraljevo in southern Serbia certainly looks a prime candidate, with a muscular build seemingly made for maintaining public order (“I work out a little in the gym,” he shrugs).
But it is not just his appearance which is impressive.
A short time in Muhamed’s company reveals him to be a thoughtful and articulate young man who has had to overcome considerable challenges to keep his ambitions alive.
Given his situation, even completing his high school education could be considered an achievement – let alone gaining the grades required to enroll in training for the police.
Muhamed lives on the outskirts of Kraljevo in a ramshackle settlement constructed, in large part, from corrugated iron and un-plastered breezeblocks.
A horse-drawn cart bumps and jangles its way down the rutted and muddy tracks between the makeshift dwellings. All the visual shorthand is there to illustrate the marginal status of the Roma people who call this place home.
But in Muhamed’s case, something is missing which is even more important than decent housing and basic infrastructure: his family.
None of his three brothers or two sisters live here; neither do his mother nor father.
His parents live in Germany with his youngest brother, while his other siblings live in other European cities.
So Muhamed stays with his uncle while he completes his education at the Dr Djordje Radic Secondary School of Agriculture and Chemistry in Kraljevo.
This has not been a simple matter. Far from insisting that Muhamed stays in school, his parents have encouraged him to join them in Germany – a move which would spell the end of both his education and his ambitions to join the police.
“It’s a great shame,” says Muhamed.
“Many people in the Roma community don’t understand how important education is. It can be really difficult to explain it to them – they simply do not accept it and do not understand.”
Muhamed himself has no doubts about the benefits of completing his schooling.
“It’s very important to go to school. Roma children usually don’t go to primary school, let alone high school. And I really want to go to school – I have my goal. I want to complete high school and enroll in police academy.”
Goals and support
Nevertheless, it has been difficult for Muhamed to reconcile the pull of his family with his own ambitions. At one point he left school for three months to join his parents in Germany.
But, sticking to his goal, he returned to a school which had realised the importance of giving children like Muhamed the support they need to complete their education and give themselves the chance of breaking the cycle of poverty and social exclusion which affects so many Roma families.
Dr Djordje Radic is one of ten schools in Serbia taking part in a model programme which started in April 2014, aimed at preventing dropouts, or early school-leaving (ESL).
UNICEF is running the project alongside a local NGO, the Centre for Education Policy, and Serbia’s Ministry of Education, Science and Technological Development, with financial support from UNIQLO and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).
The aim is for schools to intervene and take proactive measures to prevent students dropping out – especially those from vulnerable backgrounds, like Muhamed.
The programme is modelling different approaches – and the potential rewards are high. For individuals, completing high school can mean access to higher-paying jobs, better health and longer life expectancy.
Meanwhile the country as a whole should stand to benefit from higher tax revenues, lower crime rates and healthier citizens. As it stands, only half of Serbia’s people complete high school.
At Dr Djordje Radic, the programme involves the entire school community – from students to teachers and support staff.
The aim is to promote partnerships between parents and teachers, strengthen peer support among students and involve the local community in the life of the school.
All children should feel welcome in classes, regardless of their backgrounds or ethnicity.
The school’s principal, Svetlana Mladenovic, says she has seen clear progress since the start of the programme.
“We have intensified our cooperation with parents, enlightening them on the importance of education to Roma children – and we have organised workshops for teachers so they can adapt their methods to Roma children.”
Ms Mladenovic notes that parents are the key to keeping children in classes – and expresses gratitude to Blue Flower, a Roma community organisation which has worked with the school since the start of the ESL prevention programme.
Her colleague, pedagogue Marsela Eskenazi Milutinović, reinforces the importance of the organisation in helping Muhamed to stay in school.
“We encouraged the Roma community to convince Muhamed’s parents,” she says. “When we couldn’t meet his needs, the community president was the link between us and Muhamed.”
But the school has done a great deal to create a nurturing environment for individual students at risk of dropping out.
In Muhamed’s case, he initially struggled at Djordje Radic, both socially and academically, and complained of discrimination.
The school’s response was to encourage him to take part in the student parliament and initiate a peer education programme to alter ingrained attitudes about Roma pupils.
Muhamed is now so well-accepted that he has been elected president of his class.
“UNICEF organised seminars to sensitise teachers on how to work with vulnerable groups – and arranged a mentor for our peer educators,” says Ms Milutinović.
On the academic side, the school offered specially-tailored tuition in Mathematics and Physics which helped Muhamed to make up for the classes he had missed while he was in Germany.
Now he is on target to achieve the grades he needs – and relishing his experience of education.
“I love going to school – I like my friends, practical classes and school in general,” he says.
“I give advice to people in my community to continue learning and have their goal – and become an independent, educated person.”
For Muhamed, the model programme is already achieving its goal.
Once complete, in October 2016, it should form the basis of a national model for helping other vulnerable children to stay in school – and improve their lives.