Phasing out School Segregation One Child at a Time at Konik Camp

For several years REF has committed financial support and technical expertise to interventions aimed at improving the educational outcomes of Roma and Egyptian (RE) families living in Europe’s longest continuously running refugee camp in Podgorica, Montenegro. In the summer of 2016 REF managed to close the primary school within the camp, ending an era of school segregation.

Shqipe Kabashi arrived at Konik Camp with her husband and children in the summer of 1999 as violence in Kosovo spiked. Konik Camp is a place that few would voluntarily call home. Public services are sporadic and housing is wholly inadequate. Opportunities for residents outside the camp are few and far between. No one dreamed that Konik would be their home for so long.

Even with a vocational diploma in mechanical engineering, it was not until 2003 that Shqipe found work as a teaching assistant interpreting between Albanian and Montenegrin at the rudimentary branch school serving grades one to four at the camp. “I was marginalized by the teachers and had no other role in the classroom,” she said. “No RE girl could or did want to complete the fifth grade, let alone complete primary education.”

Neither prioritized by the government of Montenegro nor by donor agencies, the camp sank into administrative and political limbo for many years. People like Shqipe, with a husband and five children, were left to stagnate in the camp where over 90 percent of the Konik camp inhabitants could not access the social system or obtain work permits. By the time yet another fire swept through the camp in the summer of 2012, everyone agreed that a new impetus was required to find a solution.

The promise of EU candidate status to Montenegro served as the opening. Suddenly, the government was motivated to enshrine quality, inclusive education for Roma children – one measure among many at the core of its National Roma Integration Strategy and an important benchmark in the application for membership – in its education system. The Ministry of Education and the city of Podgorica agreed that the branch school in the camp should cease operation gradually. Grade by grade, year by year, the primary school would be emptied until all of Konik children were enrolled in Podgorica’s mainstream schools.

REF met Shqipe and her family when it began to recruit a community outreach team of Roma and Egyptian mediators to this substantial desegregation project. The team was to conduct an awareness-raising campaign with parents and children on the importance of education as well as facilitate interactions with education authorities in Podgorica, no easy task considering the anxiety of parents regarding how their children would be treated in mainstream schools and how the majority might react.

Quickly recognized as an opinion leader on matters of education who had sent all five of her children to school, Shqipe was hired by REF. No longer a bystander, she was asked to mitigate resistance to change in the camp.

With REF’s financial support, yellow minibuses began to arrive at the camp every morning to pick up first-graders and transport them to schools scattered throughout the city. Such a policy deliberately seeks to avoid a predominance of Roma in any class as well as subsequent white flight by majority parents alarmed by the presence of too many Roma children in an educational setting.

She said, “At first the idea of sending the children outside the camp was very difficult to accept. But I kept visiting their homes trying to bring parents to their senses – to explain why it is important for children to be in school. In most cases I managed to persuade them. Suddenly the same parents who had objected so strongly were bringing their children to the buses and advising them to be attentive during class.”

Term by term, Konik’s school was home to fewer and fewer Roma and Egyptian students and Shqipe’s message never faltered. She emphasized, “Young people! Regularly attend classes and educate yourselves. Learn – so that you know your rights, or the rights of other members of your group, so that you could help them to exercise those rights. You have to know that education is life, and that a dignified life can only be achieved if we are educated. I am telling everyone what my parents told me, and what I tend to tell my own children, and I hope that many people from Camp I and II have the same message for their children.”

Konik’s primary school closed for good in the summer of 2016 – a great victory for REF and the community. After four years of intervention, 316 pupils successfully integrated into seven mainstream primary schools and 71 percent successfully completed the 2015-2016 academic year. Contrast this with data from an evaluation by UNICEF from 2012, where half of RE pupils dropped out by fourth grade and 90 percent after fifth grade.

To this day Shqipe supervises the daily transport of children to and from schools around Podgorica. Shqipe explained, “I communicate with the teaching staff, take care of regular school attendance and make sure that parents send their children to school. I care about them and think I influenced the parents, taking time to explain the importance of education through workshops and addressing with the ever-present fear that school is unknown and bad.”

One child at a time, Shqipe has made a real difference. Among them is Abibe Krasniqi, who according to Shqipe, is “a fourth grader with straight As. I took photos of her report card and now I show it to all the other parents. For the last four years I have been seeing her off to school. Her parents thanked me, but this is their own success, and I am happy that I can be at least part of it, that I can rejoice with them.”

REF’s work in Konik Camp is made possible in part by funding from the European Union and through a coalition of partners led by Help e.V.

Written by REF Country Manager for Serbia and Montenegro Natasa Kocic-Rakocevic for the REF 2016 Annual Report.