Roma Health Scholarship Program Advances the Health and Human Rights of Roma

Designed to address a chronic shortage of qualified Roma medical practitioners/health professionals in Bulgaria, Macedonia, Romania and Serbia, the RHSP has supported over 527 Roma students (through 1.295 scholarships) pursuing vocational and/or tertiary medical studies through a scholarship package comprising financial, academic and professional support, since its launching in 2008.

From 136 students who enrolled in medical studies in the academic year 2015–2016, 30 students from Bulgaria (8), Macedonia (10), Romania (7) and    Serbia (5) – on the basis of their academic performance and active participation in Roma community life – were invited to attend the second RHSP Regional student conference, in Budapest. 

Over two days, students had the opportunity to listen to and interact with guest speakers, getting acquainted with the research on Roma and health policies at EU level, reviewing the positive outcomes of the community work and the challenges encountered by the Roma Health Mediators in the region, and engage in cross-country information sharing and learning from the RHSP advocacy and mentorship components’ experiences.

The conference also served as a chance to learn new things, as well as be inspired to continue to follow on the path on which they have embarked, to become medical professionals, by hearing stories of success of RHSP Alumni, and participate in a training tailored on developing students’ employability skills.

In the words of Ms. Alina Covaci, Program Officer of the Roma Health Project of the Open Society Foundations’ Public Health Program, RHSP aims to “[t]ransform the medical system from within, making it more inclusive and preventing discrimination and human rights violations against Roma; but also to reform current practices, challenge negative stereotypes and attitudes, and increase the accessibility of health services to Roma and their comfort in interacting with health care systems.”

Ms. Covaci later emphasized how RHSP is different from other scholarship programs: “We want you to be very good medical and health professionals, and break up the prejudices about Roma.” She stressed that it is important, on one hand for the RHSP students to understand the issues and challenges faced by Roma, and on the other hand to contribute to raising awareness of these within the medical and health systems, and into the wider society.

During his opening remarks REF Higher Education Program Manager, Mr. Dan Pavel Doghi encouraged students to engage more with the local communities and to introduce themselves to the Roma through a variety of activities. He said, “Many of the issues faced by Roma, which are invisible to the medical system, should become visible with your contribution. You are the ones and the foremost who will raise awareness about these challenges, and should advocate for the necessary reforms in the healthcare systems, to ensure that Roma can benefit equally of this public service.”

Contributing to RHSP’s emphasis on presenting up-to-date research on Roma and health policies at the EU level, Dr. Gaby Ortiz Barreda, from the University of Bergen’s Department of Health Promotion and Development, presented the World Health Organization’s Regional Office in Europe Toolkit on Social Participation. Dr. Barreda presented the purpose, the research process and outcomes of the Toolkit to RHSP attendees who learned about the methods and techniques for ensuring the social participation of the Roma population and other social groups in the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies to improve their health.

Following a screening of short documentary movies featuring the experiences and challenges of Roma Health Mediators who have been instrumental to driving change in healthcare for Roma communities in Bulgaria, Macedonia and Serbia, as well as  reinforcing the program’s emphasis on awareness-raising among the Roma community, Ms. Marianna Sandu from Sastipen, Romania, presented the Romanian experience of the beginnings and developments of the Roma Health Mediators initiative in Romania.. Ms. Sandu emphasized the many different approaches mediators can take to resolving conflicts with local health institutions and administrative bottlenecks blocking healthcare for the disadvantaged, like lack of proper personal identification, birth certificates or formal registration in a country’s health system.  

REF Scholarship Program Officer, Ms. Merziha Idrizi facilitated the session for RHSP students to share their experiences and involvement on research projects, academic conferences and RHSP small-scale projects over the previous academic year, as part of the RHSP additional components. The effectiveness of the program’s mentoring and advocacy component was the last topic of the day. Students were encouraged to explore the impact of the media, advocacy and mentorship components, envisaged to contribute to dismantling negative stereotypes about Roma, and empower the Roma through examples of success within the medical profession. Ms. Mariana Sandu from Romania passed on a strong encouraging message to the students: “We want you to be the front line in order to change the image of the Roma people.”

On the second day, RHSP beneficiaries reconvened to hear how alumni navigated the labor market after graduation and achieving their qualifications in the health sector. Dr. Arif Pini, RHSP alumni and an internist working in a local hospital in Macedonia talked about the great effort that was required to qualify as a doctor. He was joined by Ms. Diana Pirjol from the World Bank Consultant Group Brussels on Public Health Related Policies. They both shared their struggles and successes, gave valuable advice and motivated the participants to continue the path they have embarked on when they started medical studies.

Dr. Pini said, “Now is the time when we need to make changes. A few years ago a Roma doctor was just a fiction. The key is inside us and cannot be found in another place. Dr. Pini emphasized his motivation to students, saying that “Enjoyment at the end of the journey is a great feeling but before that, we have to study. Such power can only be attained through knowledge. We have the opportunity and obligation to improve the Roma health in our countries. Success is not achieved without persistence.”

Ms. Diana Pirjol spoke of her appreciation for RHSP’s support that provided her with time and resources to study. She shared with the participants her job search experiences and the importance of networking, team work, and public speaking.

A follow-up session on the value of networking was led by Ms. Merziha Idrizi who introduced the aspect of networking and its importance. Mr. Kalin Tanov, a RHSP student in General Medicine from Bulgaria, presented his idea to create a European Network of Roma Medics, with activities on both national and international level. In addition, emphasizing RHSP’s priority to assist its alumni to join the labor market as qualified health and medical professionals, a full afternoon was devoted to acquiring and enhancing practical skills for job-seeking, introduced by Ms. Magdolna Laczko, a recruitment consultant at HAYS Hungary.

This scholarship scheme advancing the health and human rights of Roma is a joint initiative of the Roma Health Project of the Open Society Foundation’s Public Health Program, and the Roma Education Fund. 

Photographs of the event can be found by clicking here.

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