A Historic Day for Roma Scholars

Together in partnership with co-founders the Central European University (CEU), the Velux Foundations, and the Open Society Roma Initiatives Office, the Roma Education Fund (REF) is pleased to officially launch the Roma in European Societies Initiative.

Preliminarily funded to span the next six years, with a target enrollment of over 80 MA and PhD Roma students, and designed to provide a platform of academic excellence including outstanding opportunities for professional and leadership development and community outreach, the Roma in European Societies Initiative (RES) is a groundbreaking step to establish a multifaceted, interdisciplinary home for Romani studies in the region.  

CEU’s Provost Liviu Matei remarked on the years of work that went into establishing the initiative, “RES continues and expands what we started earlier with the Roma Access Program (RAP) more than ten years ago. This is a very important initiative for us in our institutional order. We hope it will have an impact on the lives of many Roma individuals. It helps us to pursue our own mission, to assert publicly what we want.”

RAP alumna Jelana Jovanovic explained that the skills she absorbed during her time in RAP, the predecessor to today’s RES, enabled her to deflate unexpected racist remarks, turning vulnerability into strength. RES intends to capitalize on the legacy of students like her who have gone on to academic success while also reaffirming their collective Roma identity.

Velux Foundations Head of Programme, Jens-Jorgen Pedersen, emphaized the foundation’s role in seeking to balance rights and duties. He said, “The integration part is what we are interested in, especially people from disadvantage environments. That is the European spirit.” 

Andrzej Mirga, Chair of the Roma Education Fund, also spoke at today’s RES launch, “Today is a monumental occasion for Roma. […] We are privileged to be here as witnesses to a historical development for the Roma community. It is especially powerful to me, for I dreamed of such a development since my student days in Krakow.”

Following a trajectory of increasing Roma access to higher education, this new initiative at CEU is a culmination of REF’s decade-long commitment to create a cohort of highly educated Roma who can shatter stereotypes, break down barriers to education, employment, health and housing, and fully represent their communities at all levels of society, whether in the private or public sectors, academia or government. For example, since its creation, the REF Scholarship Program has helped over 7000 Roma students to attend university, and its contribution to RES signals the opening of a new horizon for Roma academic achievement at one of the world’s top universities.

With a Roma academic soon to be announced as Chair of this initiative, RES’s role is an important contribution to the struggle for Roma self-determination, as echoed by Zeljko Jovanovic, Director of the Open Society Roma Initiatives Office. He underlined that, “It is essential to have Roma scholars appointed in key positions in academia: they have first-hand experience of life of Roma communities and exclusion. Roma academics are among the most qualified to lead change in policies affecting Roma.”

Mirga also later emphasized the significance of today’s launch: “By now we can openly acknowledge the need, as well as demand, for Roma elites to shape policies, debates, research and decision-making as obvious. Now our time has come to advance another step in the journey of Roma empowerment and emancipation, of which the RES initiative plays an important part.”

Similar to the upcoming establishment of a European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture, this initiative marks a groundbreaking development and signals a change in Roma empowerment. Mirga explained that, “In the past, others supported our costs in order to help us to develop. Now we are supporting this development as individuals and as a community. That we shoulder some of the costs is something new. For this idea to spread, we need more Roma intellectuals and academics to join this process. This is a natural course of development similar to other minorities who have sought to challenge mainstream society for the full recognition of the social, economic and human rights.”

To conclude on the significance of these twin initiatives launched in 2016, co-founder Jovanovic emphasized, “Academic and cultural production have played an important role in shaping European values. The Central European University and the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture will have a similar role for the Roma movement.”

John Shattuck, President and Rector of CEU, emphasized that the vision remains to “move the initiative out of its narrow confines and into the broad aspects of the university and beyond […] beyond Budapest, beyond CEU, to engage with other European universities.”