Real lives

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A young Roma woman in Serbia overcomes poverty and discrimination

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Poverty in the eyes of children

Toy libraries: Opening a door for children with disabilities

Mobile teams: Reaching out to child victims of violence and abuse


Looking for a Role Model? Try Bojnik’s Milic Rakic Mirko School

A nine-year old Roma girl with her grandmother
© UNICEF Serbia / Zoran Jovanovic Maccak
A nine-year old Roma girl with her grandmother

Dijana Kurtic has lived all of her nine years in either Bojnik or nearby Leskovac, two of Serbia’s most destitute towns in southern Serbia. One of four daughters at home, Dijana, credits her mother for the fact that she is still in school – unlike many Roma children of her age.

Neither of Dijana’s parents have jobs, but for now they are not pressuring her to leave school or to get low-wage jobs to help the family subsist. Rather, Dijana, a confident, says her mother pushes her to stick with academic studies and encourages her every day.

“Mother always says, ‘First, sit and learn the lessons you must. Only then, will you help me with the housework.’” Dijana said sometimes she even asks her grandparents to leave the room so she can concentrate on schoolwork. “I say: ‘Please go somewhere else so I can have peace and quiet to do my work.’”

Dijana hopes to be a teacher or a nurse when she grows up, but for now she is keeping her eyes on the prize – a high school diploma. “I just hope I will be strong enough to stay in school,” she says with a big smile.

Dijana’s case is promising and, indeed, an unusual one. Her third grade math teacher, Dragan Djoric, says the fact that Dijana’s mother is actively engaged in her daughter’s education may be the key to breaking the cycle of poverty and lack of educational opportunity that is endemic among young Roma girls.

“Everyday, we see the connection between poverty and lack of parents’ education, especially for young girls. Getting parents to value education is key to breaking this link between poverty and lack of opportunity”, said Djoric. The Bojnik school is only two years old, but “already we see children staying in school longer,” he said.

Why are children at the Development Education Center in Bojnik, southern Serbia, faring so much better than their young peers in other south Serbian towns such as Prokuplje, Surdulica, Vladicin Han, or Vranje? For starters, a benefactor gave the Bojnik school 18 old computers, an educational resource unheard of in many big city schools in Serbia, regardless of demographics. As a result, the Bojnik school can offer special computer and information technology classes for older students, also quite a rarity among facilities serving impoverished populations.

Luckily for Djoric and his students, the town of Bojnik also has a library, so children have more reading choices.

Yet even with this more prosperous profile, more than one-third of the families at the Development Education Center, assisted by UNICEF with financial help of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), get monthly financial help and survive on about $15 a month.

Djoric, himself a Roma, is the kind of committed and engaged parent every child deserves. The proud father of two daughters, Djoric has pushed both his girls to achieve. The eldest daughter studies biology at the University of Belgrade, while the youngest is a sports fanatic. “I take her to competitions three times a week to keep her focused”, he said.

Djoric’s sense of purpose is touching the lives and minds of the children he teaches.

Take, for example, Samantha Ferizovic, 9, for whom, says Mr. Djoric, her older brothers are her role models.

One brother finished secondary school and the other is in his second year of high school. At home, she reads for hours, devouring her brothers’ books, especially “the ones with BIG pictures.”

Samantha’s story is unusual among the poorest of poor children here in Bojnik. Unlike 80 percent of Roma women, her mother is not illiterate, and is a certified physical therapist. Her father is trained as a machinist. But Samantha’s mother stopped working outside the home once she had children. Her father now works as a drummer since he losing his factory job.

Samantha is candid about her home environment: “Sometimes my family talks too much and so I move to the corner of the room to be by myself.” But her mother always encourages her. “Every day she asks me, ‘how are you doing? What did you learn?’ She wants to know if I am getting top marks for my work.”

The fact that Samantha has her own small desk for studying and is allowed to read and work in peace is uncommon in Roma culture where education is not valued and where only 5 percent of Roma attend pre-school or kindergarten.

Samantha wants to be an archeologist when she grows up. She loves television history programs and books that show teams digging old ruins or treasures. “I dream and dream all the time about going to the Atlantic Ocean and finding the another Titanic.”

By Joan McQueeney Mitric

Roma children in the UNICEF-supported Development Education Center in Bojnik
© UNICEF Serbia / Joan McQueeney Mitric
Roma children, among the poorest of poor, in the UNICEF-supported Development Education Center in Bojnik, a southern Serbian town. This educational model helps to create a different social and economic future for Roma children.



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