Biljana Has Never Met a Romani Person Who Has Finished College, and She Would Really Like to Go to College

The following feature article by Barbara Matejčić appeared in the weekend edition of the Croatian national daily Vecernji list on August 9, 2014. 

* * * 

“When did the Croatian Spring occur?” the history teacher asks the eight-graders at the end of the 2013/2014 school year. The Croatian Spring was a political movement from the early 1970s that called for democratic and economic reforms in ex-Yugoslavia.

“March 21st!” someone retorts.

“Who was the leader of the Independent State of Croatia, a World War II puppet state of Nazi Germany?”

“Tito!” they yell out loud. Tito was an anti-fascist Yugoslav leader.

No one is laughing. These are not jokes. The students simply do not know. The teacher is browsing through the student book and reading the final grades: D, D, D, a few Cs… When they hear they’re getting a D, they clench their fists, raise their arm: Yes! D means they pass. A passing grade is a success, especially if it is the final grade. A passing grade means they will have completed their elementary school education. This is probably more education than their parents managed to acquire. This is true of more than half of the 1,134 inhabitants in Kuršanec, a small community in the Croatian northern Međimurje County. The teachers say that the class of 8b in the Kuršanec Elementary School is a good one – the so-called “pure Romani” class.

Biljana Muršić does not rejoice out loud, although she has a reason to. True, she cannot avoid the unfortunate statistics on children in her ethnic group. Her parents are unemployed, just like 86 percent of Romani children in Croatia whose parents do not work and live on welfare. She was held back and had to repeat the second grade, just like six other students of the 8b class. Compared to other children, Romani children are three times as likely to be held back a grade, according to data gathered by the Public Open UniversityKorak po korak.” But that aside, Biljana has done all she can to beat the odds. She finished elementary school even though her Romani peers have only a 28 percent chance of doing the same. The average grade of a Romani child is 2.49; other students have a 4.0 average. Biljana has finished her elementary school education with an excellent grade, a 4.5. She is the only A student in her class. Among 22 students in her 8b, there were mostly D’s, with a few C’s and one B sprinkled in.

I met Biljana while visiting the Kuršanec Elementary School in order to get acquainted with the way Romani children are educated in Croatia. I had chosen this school because it was predominantly Romani and because it was one of four schools in Međimurje that were prosecuted by the European Court of  Human Rights on charges of segregating Romani children in schools. The Court in Strasbourg came to its verdict in 2010, where it confirmed that Romani children were indeed victims of racial discrimination. Romani children were placed in segregated classes with reduced lesson plans, leading to inadequate levels of education. Despite this verdict, Romani children in these schools are still segregated into Romani-only classes: Biljana was a part of such a class throughout her entire education. The Croatian Ministry of Education did not respond to our inquiry on what is being done to prevent this. The Ministry of Education also failed to provide an exact percentage of Romani children who finish school. Teachers say that, ideally, classes would be 20 percent Romani. Without proper statistics it is difficult to identify trends in Romani education. Nonetheless, we managed to discern that Romani children are 50 percent less likely to enrol in high school than their non-Roma peers.

Biljana has been accepted into five high schools and has decided to enrol into the Economy high school in the city of Varaždin. She does not know anyone who attends that school and has no one to turn to for advice. If she graduates, she will be the first in her family with a high school degree. Unlike a large number of Romani children, Biljana knew Croatian prior to going to school because it was spoken in her household along with the native dialect (bajaški) spoken by the Romani people in Međimurje. Despite receiving an excellent grade in her Croatian class, her speech is not as fluid as her Croat peers who speak Croatian at home. She is the best reader in her class, but when she reads aloud she still sounds like an outsider speaking Croatian as a foreign language. Her classmates read slowly, spelling out longer words and pausing before unknown ones. They do not know the meaning of words such as “arrogantly” or “tentacle.” Still, they are eager to read aloud in class. Teachers say they are not really aware of how limited their language abilities are. Croatian is a foreign language to them and education in a foreign language is as difficult to them as it would be to any child trying to learn something unfamiliar in a language they do not understand.

Biljana has never met a Romani person who has finished college-- and she would really like to go to college. But she faces yet another important battle with statistics: Romani who enrol in high school are 18 percent less likely to finish it.

“I like school and I feel good when I get a good grade, and I’m ashamed of myself when I get a bad one. I will get an education because I don’t want to live like the others. Romani life is very hard,” says Biljana, and by this she means life in segregated settlements, usually without toilets or bathrooms, without infrastructure or proper facilities, with a high unemployment rate and endemic poverty. She means a life that will leave daughters no better off than their mothers. Two girls from Biljana’s class have already married. As most Romani do not get formally married, they are married simply according to custom. This usually means an end to their education. According to the paper “The life of Romani women in Croatia with an emphasis on education availability” conducted in 2008 by the Romani women’s organization “Bolja budućnost,” more than half of Romani women marry between the ages of 15 and 18, while as many as 7 percent marry by the time they are 14. Research has clearly shown – as it is with women in the rest of the population – that the longer Romani women are educated, the later they marry, the fewer children they have and the greater their chance of being employed. The report also showed that women in Romani settlements have it tougher than those living in cities or non-Romani communities: they marry and have children earlier. Biljana would like to leave her settlement, and continuing her education would be a huge step toward achieving that goal. She has applied to live in the student dormitory in Varaždin and if all goes as planned, in the fall she will be living in a city seven kilometres away from her village. She has been to the main square in Varaždin only once in her entire life.

The village of Kuršanec in Međimurje County has the largest Romani population in Croatia. According to the last census in 2011, 5,107 out of Međimurje’s 16,975 Romani live in Kuršanec, which is 4.5 percent of the population of the county. There are an estimated thirty- to forty-thousand Romani living in Croatia, but many do not identify themselves as such. Kuršanec is divided into a Croatian side and a Romani side by a narrow unpaved path about a kilometre long. Only the Romani can be seen wandering this path. None of their neighbouring villagers dare use it and mingle with the Romani. This is quite normal for Romani settlements in Croatia: relegated to the outskirts of villages and towns, isolated and without urban infrastructure. These are real ghettos with no way out. If someone saves up some money and wants to move into the Croatian part of the village, it is usually impossible for them to buy a house: Croats don’t want to sell to the Roma. Research on social isolation in Kuršanec conducted by Hrvoje Šlezak and Laura Šakaja in 2012 confirmed the poor neighbourly relations. Although they practically live next to each other, 63 percent of adults and 74 percent of children do not want Romani neighbours. Furthermore, 42 percent of adults and 50 percent of children in Kuršanec would rather just banish the Romani from Croatia. Only 50 percent of children are comfortable with Romani students in their classes and schools.

Only a fifth of all households have inside toilets in the Romani part of Kuršinec, according to the “Atlas of Roman Villages in the Međimurje County” developed within the framework of the United Nations Development Programme. Almost 50 percent of families live within one room. 94 percent of adults are jobless. Half of the population is under the age of 14 while very few live above the age of 70. As many as 21 percent never attended school. Most schoolchildren from Kušanec do not do their homework. Teachers who have been to Romani settlements and have seen how their students live understand why this is so: some children even live without electricity. If they have no older siblings, they haven’t held a pencil in their hand or browsed through a children’s book before starting school. For some, going up the stairs or using the toilet is a skill that must be learned. Schools assess that Romani children, when taking the test for elementary school enrolment, perform at the level of a five-year old. With such developmental obstacles to overcome, a D can easily seem like a desirable grade.

“They don’t understand a single thing! They don’t understand, don’t understand,” the lower school teacher in the Kuršanec Elementary School keeps repeating while adamantly shaking her head. More precisely, she says, Romani children understand around 20 percent of what is being studied when they start attending the first grade. The language is their biggest issue. Croatian is a foreign language to them and it should be taught as such, but in order to do so, the teachers need training on how to work with children to whom Croatian is a foreign language. Romani children have difficulty reading even in their own language (bajaški), a form of an old Romanian dialect. Some experts think that Romani children should first learn how to read and write in their own language and then study Croatian in order to develop the skills necessary to study a language. According to the Croatian Law on Education in Languages and Scripts of National Minorities (Zakonu o odgoju i obrazovanju na jeziku i pismu nacionalnih manjina), Romani children should be educated according to a model for minorities in schools where they are the majority, but no such model has been created in Croatia. Even if such a model were to be designed, there are no teachers who know to teach in the Romani language. Among teachers who work with Romani children, the most they know is enough to get by—certainly not enough to teach a full course.

In a sad twist, teachers from the Kuršanec school say that the learning environment for Romani children was actually better in the past when fewer enrolled: because there weren’t enough children to form a full segregated class, they were placed in normal classes and advanced more quickly. 15 years ago, the Kuršanec Elementary School was 40 percent Romani; today, that number is 72 percent. The headmistress, Marija Tepalović, says that the school could be 100 percent Romani in a few years if things do not change. In addition to a higher Romani birth rate – ascribed to 90s policies that paired increased childbearing with higher welfare payments– the percentage has increased because non-Romani families are simply refusing to send their children to the school, choosing instead to drive them to Roma-free schools further away. The headmistress says that there would be an equal number of Romani and Croatian children if all the children that live in this area were to actually be enrolled here. Four years ago at the Kuršanec Elementary School, the parents of Croatian children boycotted the school for three days at the beginning of the school year upon realizing how many Romani children were in their children’s classes. They insisted that Croatian children all be in the same classes. And this, for the most part, is the way it is. Unlike 8b, which is a Romani class, 8a is a mostly non-Romani class. And this class has much better results. The headmistress says they do not segregate but that there are simply not enough Croatian children for all the classes to be mixed. 

“The biggest obstacle to the education of the Romani people is their different value system in that they don’t recognize the importance of education,” says Hrvoje Šlezak, a geography teacher at the Kuršinec Elementary School who has been writing academic papers on the Romani in Međimurje. If the criteria from the school he previously worked at were implemented, 20 of the Romani children would get a passing grade. The criteria and the content of the lesson plans are usually reduced in Romani classes.

“How will they value education if they do not know what it is and don’t believe that it will help them? Ask the Romani who have a high school education if they will educate their own children. They all will educate them,” says responds Siniša Senad Musić, the president of the Association of Young Romani “Rom” and a consultant for Croatia for the Roma Education Fund. Musić noticed a pattern: most Romani with a high school education who have continued their higher education had Croatian as their mother tongue and did not grow up in Romani settlements. He is convinced of the influence environment has on Romani children even in the Croatian capital, city of Zagreb. Musić grew up among the Romani. He and his cousin are the same age and were equally good students in the lower grades of elementary school. Then his parents divorced and Musić moved with his mother to the centre of Zagreb. He finished elementary school, high school, enrolled into college while his cousin dropped out in the sixth grade to get a job. Back then, the Romani made a living with selling merchandise and life was good. Now, sales are down and they have no alternate skill set.

“If the Romani get educated, this will solve 80 percent of the problems,” he is says. “Investing into education costs much less than decades of paying welfare money.”

“They are intellectually underdeveloped. Can’t you see it? This cannot be said, but it’s true. They are neglected,” the words of the elementary school teacher in Kuršanec reverberate in my mind while I’m watching children playing at the Kuršanec Family Centre.  Next fall they will go to school. They come here for a pre-school program for Romani children that takes place for 10 months prior to the beginning of their first year of school. Pre-school classes are one of the crucial measures the Ministry of Education started implementing after the European Court of Human Rights verdict. Pre-schools existed before, but they lasted for three months. Such programs are non-obligatory but are still attended by many Romani children. Kuršanec is the only Romani settlement that has such a centre since pre-school is usually held in the schools themselves. The Family Centre holds help sessions for two hours three times a week during the school year for first and second grade students who need help doing their homework. This is done in collaboration with the Teaching academy in Čakovec and with the help of the Roma Education Fund. The headmistress Marija Tepalović says she sees improvements because fewer children repeat the first grade now. But for real results, she says, this pre-school program should last for three years because 10 months is not enough for children to catch up with their peers. But this requires money. Experience from the field show positive results since the extended stay was implemented in schools. But not all schools have this opportunity and neither does the school in Kuršanec.

At the end of the school year the homeroom teacher of the 8b class told me it was likely that only one in twenty-two children in the class would finish high school. And this will happen only if the school overlooks and forgives their reduced knowledge.

Biljana does not have many things most children in Croatia have. She has no one to help her with her math homework. She has no library in her vicinity where she can borrow books over the summer and practice reading. She cannot use the internet and find out what she needs to do to get free student accommodation: her parents have no money to pay for a computer. But she is neither intellectually underdeveloped nor neglected. She found out that she will be studying German in her new school and that troubles her. She already has difficulties with English and German will actually be a third foreign language for her. She would like to start studying it over the summer-- but she has no textbooks to do so.