A smile that was a long time coming

They did not want to enrol Aca into school when he was seven, which is the usual age for children to start school.

Vladimir Banic
Aca Cvetkovic studying mathematics.
UNICEF Serbia/2017/Pancic

19 July 2017

Aca Cvetkovic is nine years old. He lives in a Roma settlement in Belgrade, where many families live in small dilapidated houses.

Some houses collapse on their own, like the house of Aca's neighbour. One wall gave way and the rest followed.

Luckily, the neighbours heard the concrete cracking and ran outside just in time. They are now removing the debris, which is partly in Aca's yard, where he usually plays football.

Aca likes football very much. He plays it with his brothers and cousins.

There are seven children living in one household, in one house. They all take care of and love each other. And Aca is everyone's favourite.

He is big for his age, but he has gentle, penetrating eyes, that look at everything in great detail. His eyes are those of a curious child.

Aca always has questions about the world around him and likes listening to the answers. He looks carefully at the person answering, waits for them to finish, and then asks a new question.

Clearly, Aca likes to talk. And to laugh. He laughs quite a lot.

Aca and his mom Milena practicing pronunciation.
UNICEF Serbia/2017/Pancic
Aca and his mom Milena practicing pronunciation.

"For a long time he was not able to speak clearly. He was not laughing back then," says his mom Milena Cvetkovic, while she practices word pronunciation with Aca and teaches him numbers.

"Although it's the summer break, he can't let go of his textbooks. He really loves going to school", she says.

Aca repeats after her: "I like school very much". And he laughs.

"If it wasn't for Mima, I wonder whether he would have started speaking clearly, and whether he’d be going to school", says mom Milena.

"She was the first to notice his developmental delay when he was four years old. We then went to a speech therapist for three years. The mediator also helped us with the health insurance cards, so that we can also realise this right."

Roma health mediator Mima Gajic teaches children how to properly wash their hands.
UNICEF Serbia/2017/Pancic
Roma health mediator Mima Gajic teaches children how to properly wash their hands.

"If it wasn't for Mima, I wonder whether Aca would have started speaking clearly, and whether he’d be going to school"

Milena (mother)

Mima, a Roma health mediator, has been visiting the Cvetkovic household for eight years.

She knows the problems of the community, and the fact that she is Roma herself makes it much easier for her to establish a rapport with those who need her help.

While visiting the Cvetkovic family she asks the parents about any news since her last visit, she talks to the children and prepares a workshop about hygiene.

Children love her and uncomplainingly follow her instructions on how to lather their hands and how long to rinse.

They repeat the same thing with their feet and manage to make a game out of it.

From a distance, in her interaction with the children, Mima looks like an older cousin or an aunt.

Aca's mom continues talking about how much Mima's visits mean to her.

"They did not want to enrol Aca into school when he was seven, which is the usual age for children to start school. He was still not talking very well and their advice was to enrol him into a special education school, but I was against it. I asked Mima what to do and her advice was not to enrol him there, because there are also children with speech problems in regular schools. And two years later we enrolled him into a regular school."

Mima, the Roma health mediator, and Aca Cvetkovic talk about school.
UNICEF Serbia/2017/Pancic
Mima, the Roma health mediator, and Aca Cvetkovic talk about school.

Mima has been visiting the Cvetkovic household for eight years. She knows the problems of the community, and the fact that she is Roma herself makes it much easier for her to establish a rapport with those who need her help.

Aca, she says, doesn’t want to get rid of his textbooks, even now that he has completed first grade.

He repeats the words he's looking at on one page: "A cat, a frog, a fish, a dog, a rabbit, a ship..."

Then he counts to eighteen, and his brother tries to teach him two more numbers, so he can count to twenty.

When he asks Aca if he likes school, he replies: "It’s very nice. I have friends and a good teacher. During recess and in the physical education classes we play football!"

The Roma health mediator, Mima Gajic, says that the Cvetkovic family is one of the many families who, with her assistance, were able to realise their rights; such as the right to health care and Aca's right to education.

She believes that the family has made great effort so that he can attend a regular school.

"The parents were persistent and brave and listened to both me and the doctors and that’s why their child has made significant progress", says Mima.

"It means a lot to them that they are not feeling lonely trying to realise their rights in the system. They are entitled to those rights, but unfortunately, many people are not well informed."

In 2009, the Ministry of Health of the Republic of Serbia initiated the Roma Health Mediator project to respond to the needs of the Roma population, particularly in the health sector.

UNICEF, in partnership with Telenor, supports this initiative in order to strengthen the capacities of Roma health mediators.