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Signs of hope in Prokuplje

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Signs of hope in Prokuplje

Roma children playing after finishing their homework
© UNICEF Serbia / Zoran Jovanovic Maccak
A brother and a sister, pupils at the UNICEF-supported Development Education Center in Prokuplje, are taking a break in doing their homework. Studies show the earlier children gain access to a classroom, the better they do.

At least 34.8 percent of all Roma are illiterate and 78.7 percent did not finish elementary school, according to the latest census data in Serbia. More alarming, anecdotal studies show that Roma girls often follow in the shadow of their mothers, who have illiteracy rates of 80 percent.

These illiterate women have little or no voice in crucial household decisions that affect their children. In many cases, they put the same heavy pressure on their daughters they themselves felt as teenagers: either to marry by 12 or 14, or to quit school for marginal jobs scavenging garbage, cleaning windows, or selling plastic trinkets at the flea market.

Stark statistics like these – and others documenting high school dropout rates and discrimination against Roma as well as racially-motivated hate crimes – are among reasons the Prokuplje Development Education Center (DEC) was started along with 10 others across southern Serbia. These educational models, assisted by UNICEF with financial help of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), “are crucial” to creating a different social and economic future for Roma women in the Balkans, and indeed, across Europe said Aleksandra Mitrovic, DEC coordinator.

Mitrovic said the goal of the Prokuplje primary school is to give the most vulnerable children a jumpstart on basic language and writing skills so they will have a fighting chance at success when they start primary school at age seven. And the centers seem to be gaining traction in the local communities, making progress in female education and raising awareness about gender inequality.

Darinka Gasevic, a mother herself, takes care of the infant son and four-year-old daughter her daughter-in-law, 21, left behind when she died of kidney disease. She helps out at the school in small ways, and tries to learn by watching her grandchildren so she can help them with homework.

“I believe this school is their future,” Gasevic said.

Many of these children are bright, but turbulent events disrupted their learning and made it hard for them to get ahead, according to educational specialists and experts in Roma culture.

Take Venetta, 11, who arrived at the Prokuplje school from Bologna, Italy, where she lived with 12 cousins, in a single room. Most were refugees from the 1999 war in Kosovo (currently under UN administration), but two years ago the Italian authorities sent them back to Serbia. Although Venetta finished fifth grade in Bologna and is fluent in Italian, she arrived in Prokuplje with no Serbian language skills, no papers and had to start over in first grade.

“She was the subject of ridicule and bullying,” said Aleksandra Mitrovic because she didn’t have skills appropriate for her age group.” Intolerance, and even social shunning, is an everyday fact for Roma in Europe, Mitrovic said, “even for the youngest children.” That is why it was encouraging to see children here from all backgrounds sitting together, doing schoolwork and playing without prejudice.

But, sadly, Mitrovic said there are many cases “where neither parent, male or female, can take care of their children.” Some adults must move about during the agricultural season as migratory farm workers. “Others simply abandoned their children because they have no means to support them”, she said.

Ljiljana Zekic, 10, and her two brothers, are luckier. They live with their great grandfather who is sole guardian. Ljiljana, a lively, sports-minded girl, loves Serbian language class best, but is years behind other children with a more settled home life or with parents who attended school themselves.

Her brother, Dejan, 9, a pensive boy with sad eyes, “loves to paint and draw” and wants to be a teacher when he grows up. But these days, Dejan, whose own parents abandoned him, has but one wish: “I wish for my Grandpa to live long enough to take care of us.”

For children like these, and hundreds of others, places like the Development Education Center in Prokuplje offer the chance for a better future.

Tanja Dalipovic, 21, understands this. Her story is a common one in Roma communities. She was coerced by her father to leave school after only four years. “I married early and had children young,” she said, adding that while her husband finished technical school he has no paying job. Nevertheless, Tanja says she brings her daughter, 2, with her when she comes to help out at the Prokuplje school in the hope that she will absorb something from the older children.

“I have a lot of obligations at home, but I believe education is the most important thing my children can do to make a life that is better than my own.”

Studies show the earlier children gain access to a classroom, the better they do. Since 2002 UNICEF has been supporting education of Roma children in 11 poorest municipalities in Serbia. The programme includes preparatory and compensatory education work with mothers and training of teachers to support Roma integration. External evaluation of the 11 developmental and educational centers found that school drop-out rates - traditionally high among young Roma - went down dramatically while performance on standard math, language and reading tests improved for those attending one of the Centers. The results and positive practices have been integrated into the government’s Action Plan for Roma Education Inclusion.

Prokuplje Development Education Center: Symbol of Light and Hope Beside an “Ecological Time Bomb”

The link between poor nutrition, poverty and lack of educational achievement is a stark one and glaringly obvious to anyone who visits one of the 11 education centers UNICEF assists in southern Serbia.

Once, a thriving industrial center, Prokuplje, (population 60,000) today is most famous for the “catastrophic city dump” at its center says, Radoslav Jovanovic, head of the regional Roma Council.

Jovanovic, who has spent 30 years here trying to improve the educational and economic profile of his people, says over 80 percent of Roma residents here - or about 6,000 people - survive largely on monthly stipends and social help.

But for Jovanovic it is the smelly cesspool of waste, plastic, mounds of garbage, and unhealthy fetid water just a stone’s throw from the playground of the local primary school that most disturbs his dreams for a better future for children here. “What good does it do to try and educate kids, if they just get sick from this toxic dump,” he said, adding that his Roma Council petitioned Belgrade “years ago to help us drain and clean up this swamp.”

Ironically, the Prokuplje development education center at the edge of this “ecological time bomb” shines as a symbol of light and hope. Here, with UNICEF assistance, the elementary school serves 103 children from the surrounding impoverished neighborhoods. A paved road and modest new homes now ring the school, making it a central collection point for the city’s least affluent children.

Valentina Mitrovic, 28, and Goran Jasanovic, 27, both teach at the Prokuplje school and have a long wish list for improving the educational environment of their young charges.

For starters, the center has neither a globe of the world nor a simple encyclopedia with pictures, said Jasanovic. “Without these simple educational tools, it’s hard to show children where Serbia is much less Europe, Asia or the US.” Jasanovic says he chose to work in Prokuplje after two years teaching experience because “I wanted to help my own people.”

Both teachers organize monthly meetings for parents at the school and do home visits to try and get mothers engaged. “We know when mothers are involved their children, especially their daughters, do better in school.” Jasanovic also favors school uniforms because children get poor beaten up if they can’t afford to buy nice clothes.

He also said that to truly prepare Roma children for the 21st century workplace, “we need a real technology center. Right now, we don’t have a single computer.”

His colleague, Valentina Mitrovic agrees, and says she worries about her pupils’ outdated textbooks and their hygiene at home. “Most have running water at home, but are not connected to the city’s sewer system,” she said.

She and Jasanovic would like to let the children bath at school, but the town officials say there is no money to hook up the four portable bathrooms the school received as gifts from Switzerland. “They say it costs too much,” said Mitrovic. “But what is the cost of an epidemic?”

If they get the money and approval, both teachers want to take the children to a summer camp on the seacoast for therapy and for additional intensive remedial education.

“We know that unless they can perform like other children when they enter regular school, they will face ridicule and discrimination,” said Jasanovic.

By Joan McQueeney Mitric

Three Roma girls doin homework
© UNICEF Serbia / Zoran Jovanovic Maccak
Three Roma girls, pupils at the UNICEF-supported Development Education Center, doing their homework outside the school. The center in Prokuplje, a south Serbian town gives the most vulnerable children a chance to obtain basic language and writing skills.



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