Zeljana’s dreams are about to come true

Zeljana (17) is one of the many children whose families belong to the poorest part of the Serbian population.

Vladimir Banic
Zeljana Ambrus (17), drawing a recycling diagram
UNICEF Serbia/2018/Shubuckl

28 September 2018

“It is my big desire to enrol in university, but I do not know if I will be able to. My parents do not have the money, but I will try to earn it myself because I want to work as a preschool teacher more than anything, and for that I need a University degree,” says Zeljana Ambrus, a 17-year-old student in the Technical School “23 May” in Pancevo, Serbia.

Zeljana is one of the many children whose families belong to the poorest part of the Serbian population. Her parents work on temporary jobs, mostly in agriculture, and Zeljana often helps them in the field.

She says that when she started a secondary school, she was not being accepted by all of her classmates.

“One girl was teasing me because my Mom is a Roma. I had an argument with her. When I got home, I told my mother that I wanted to drop out of school. She did not know what to do, and maybe she would have allowed me to drop out had I not talked to my homeroom teacher Natasa the following day.

She explained to me that the same girl who was giving me hard time would become my friend as the time went by and as she got to know me better. And that is exactly what happened. So I decided to stay in school”, says Zeljana.

She goes on to say that her big family lives in a small house, and that social welfare payments are often their only income.

“When the cash assistance was three months late one winter, we weren’t able to pay our outstanding electricity bills and they cut it off. It was snowing heavily. I didn't have appropriate shoes to go out in such a weather. So I didn’t go to school and I missed my classes”, Zeljana recalls through tears.

She was afraid that the school would have no understanding for her difficult financial situation and that she would be expelled.

When the cash assistance was three months late one winter, we weren’t able to pay our outstanding electricity bills and they cut it off. It was snowing heavily. I didn't have appropriate shoes to go out in such a weather. So I didn’t go to school and I missed my classes.

Zeljana (17)

Zorica Prpa, the school psychologist, remembers this problem of Zeljana's.

She says that many students in the school are in a similar position and that the school is working on keeping in school the students who, for numerous reasons, want to drop out.

The school learned about the mechanisms and methods for being successful in this endeavour through their participation in the project “Prevention of early school leaving from the education system in the Republic of Serbia”.

The project was implemented by UNICEF, the Center for Educational Policies and the Serbian Ministry of Education, Science and Technological Development, with the financial support of UNIQLO.

Zorica Prpa, the school psychologist
UNICEF Serbia/2018/Shubuckl

“Poverty is one of the most frequent reasons for drop-out. Parents usually cannot afford to pay transport costs, meals and clothes, so children are forced to leave school and start to work.”

Zorica Prpa, the school psychologist

Around 30 per cent of students in Serbia complete only primary education, which later makes it more difficult for them to find jobs and which makes them more likely to fall into the vicious circle of poverty.

In the Technical school in Pancevo, even 45 out of 50 students who were at risk of dropping out are now completing or have already completed secondary school.

“In line with UNICEF’s guidelines, we have set up teams who work on individualized support measures for students at risk of dropping out. Each team includes representatives from the Centre for Social Work, the school's pedagogy and psychology department, a homeroom teacher, the child at risk of dropping out and his/her parents.

In practice, this means that when a child at risk of drop out is identified, the social work service is alerted. They then provide us with the information on the income status of the family and help families get the state's welfare assistance they are entitled to”, explains Zorica Prpa.

Around 30 per cent of students in Serbia complete only primary education, which later makes it more difficult for them to find jobs and which makes them more likely to fall into the vicious circle of poverty.

She adds that children with financial problems receive free meals in school and that thanks to the project, the school had received a donation which covered the three years’ cost of bus fares for students who could not afford them.

The provision of free textbooks to these students also makes it easier for the family to send their child to school.

“Homeroom teachers and we, the school psychologists and pedagogues, talk to the child and parents and explain them the benefits of education. Also, a child at risk is appointed a friend-mentor who assists him/her”, says Ms Prpa.

Zeljana Ambrus in a class
UNICEF Serbia/2018/Shubuckl
Zeljana Ambrus in a class.

Zeljana's homeroom teacher Natasa Sekulic, who is following her throughout her education, is convinced that Zeljana will obtain her secondary school diploma in a couple of months.

“It is very important to continuously talk to students, and particularly when they express the desire to leave school or when we notice their long absence from classes. Zeljana and I have had many honest and open conversations since this happened to her the first time”, says Natasa Sekulic.

She explains that such conversations help her to get to know children better and to learn the reasons for them wanting to leave school.

“Most often this is not because they don't like going to school, but because there are problems they cannot solve on their own. And we are here for them to help. That is why I’ve also had close contacts with Zeljana’s parents,” she says.

Homeroom teacher Natasa Sekulic and student Zeljana Ambrus
UNICEF Serbia/2018/Shubuckl
Homeroom teacher Natasa Sekulic and student Zeljana Ambrus.

Zeljana will be the first one in her family to complete secondary education.

She says that this would have not been possible without the support from her teacher Natasa, the school psychologist and the school principal. She is hoping that her younger brother will follow her example.

While wiping tears and explaining the plans to prioritize earning the money to go to University, psychologist Zorica Prpa, who has only now heard about this plan, interrupts her.

She tells Zeljana that there are a number of incentives for the members of minority populations, such as free university education, secured place in the dormitory and even student loans.

Zeljana Ambrus with her classmates
UNICEF Serbia/2018/Shubuckl
Zeljana Ambrus with her classmates.

Zeljana is listening in disbelief.

The glow she had in her eyes when she was talking about her wish to be a role model to her younger brother is now back in her eyes.

Suddenly, the day turns into a completely different direction. The future she thought would be extremely hard but worth fighting for now looks much brighter and at her fingertips.