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Roma education: stop the vixious circle
Roma education: stop the vixious circle Photo by Artem Chapey

Education belongs to one of Roma legal problems. This topic is very sensitive, as the conclusions often come to opinion that “Roma are to be blamed – they do not want to study”. However, the situation is affected by society and by Roma. Meanwhile, several strategically important educational projects which solve many aspects of the problem effectively are implemented within “Roma programme initiative” of International “Renaissance” Foundation.

Support of providing legal aid, education and stipends of Roma education foundation to Roma is the component of “Renaissance” Foundation’s strategy. These initiatives cover work with parents, preparation of children for school, education. Community Law Centers, public organizations, and Centers for parents in Roma communities take part in the process.

Why are Roma left out of educational process

Education is key to civilized future for Roma as well as for other people. That is why it is not correct to compare Roma with any other ethnic groups. At the same time, these people have unique traits, which define their special status and bring special problems that result in low education level.

Human rights activists who work with Roma communities in Ukraine constantly study the reasons for such situations. For example, lawyers from Zakarpattya where most Roma in Ukraine live: around 14 000 via official data, more than 100 000 via unofficial data.

Natalya Kozyr, author of the research of charity foundation “Rozvytok”, thinks that Roma did not enter the system of education due to their nomadic way of life.

However, she explains that this fact does not mean that Roma did not get any education at all. Traditional Roma education in settlements was directed at traditional trades and Roma culture. When Roma settled down a little bit, they lost skills of traditional trades, that is why Roma education in its primal state does not work anymore. At the same time, the situation looks bad as Roma do not understand the necessity of compulsory education.

Data* of Institute of social research of Ukraine:

-    About 50% of Roma children do not go to school regularly
-    Only 20-30% of Roma children obtain primary education
-    Most Roma children do not graduate from school
-    Average age when Roma children leave school is 10-11 years old. They do not even know how to write and read by then
-    Higher education is obtained by just a few.

Based on data of Information resource center “Legal Space” which accumulates and systematizes information of Community law centers that work with the support of “Roma programme initiative” of International “Renaissance” Foundation, we can make conclusion that two types of factors influence low level of Roma education:

-    Total poverty (inability to pay for kindergarten, to buy even elementary school inventory, uniform etc.)
-    Nomad way of life
-    Territorial separatism (in case of living in Roma settlement)
-    Parents do not understand the importance of attending kindergartens and schools
-    Lack of motivation to get education

-    Stereotypes in society towards Roma
-    Indifference of the state to violation of rights for education.

People are biased towards Roma

Parents of most students do not want their children studying together with Roma, and school administrations comply. There are separate classes and even schools for Roma – this is social isolation. Such schools are called segregated.

Segregation is a type of discrimination, which is based on factual, or legal separation of different groups that differ in racial, gender, social, religious or other characteristics, within one community and on further legal limitation of their rights.

For example, there are about 20 segregated Roma schools just in Zakarpattya region. Most of them are situated in old buildings without any facilities, not mentioning gyms, playgrounds, canteens etc. There are examples of progressive Roma schools in Ukraine, too – namely, Roma school in Svalyava. Here the number of children who graduated the 9th grade is quite high – thus, they can get professional education.



To give education to Roma in Ukrainian schools means giving them stimulus and perspectives for getting higher education.

Parents are taught and prepared for school as well

Specialists who work in Roma settlements say: the real reason of unwillingness of Roma children to study is the fact that they are not prepared for school. They did not attend kindergarten, do not understand what other people want from them, and do not have elementary hygiene and discipline habits. They feel uncomfortable in classes and try to avoid studying.

There are a lot of reasons why Roma do not get education. But they cannot fight these reasons on their own. While the state cannot cope, public initiatives are very important, namely project of “Roma programme initiative” – “Distribution of Centers’ experience for parents in Roma communities”. Since December 2013 it is implemented by All-Ukrainian foundation “Step by step”.

Centers for parents based on Roma organizations are created in those regions of Ukraine where most Roma live – Odesa, Volyn, Cherkasy and Zakarpattya. Problem of education of Roma children can be solved starting with educational work with parents. This is the main idea of specialists of Centers for parents, and that is their strategic goal. Project’s goal is successful education of Roma children in schools.

What do Centers for parents in Roma communities do:
-    Train staff (instructors) of Centers for parents
-    Support staff
-    Publish manuals for instructors
-    Conduct trainings for Roma parents.

Representatives of local communities and public organizations who have work experience with children and parents or represent Roma communities, municipal education departments and educational facilities take part in Centers’ work.

There are two programmes for parents: “Responsible parenting” and “Getting ready for school”.

Programme “Responsible parenting” consists of two programmes: for parents of children aged 0-3, and of those aged 3-6. Both programmes are based on the principle that parents are the first teachers for their children. But they should be taught as well – how to be good teachers and communicate within the family.

Programme “Getting ready for school” helps parents of children aged 4-6 to understand the necessity of education. They are taught how to make education-friendly environment in family. It is especially important for families where children do not attend kindergarten. Programme is aimed at development of basic skills of literacy and arithmetic, motivation for studying.

Implementation of such programme is approximately 9 months, but it can be easily adapted to needs of every family.

Information on every event held by Centers is found on “Legal Space” portal in section “Empowerment of Roma communities”.

Valuable experience of Centers for parents

IRC “Legal Space” has researched the problem of Roma education based on experience of Centers for parents. Their specialists witness live examples and numerous stories daily, so they can understand all the details of situation, make conclusions and solve the problem.


On inherited ignorance

Roma life is vicious circle. That is what the coordinator of Uzhhorod Center for parents based on public organization “Helping hand” Roman Stoyka thinks. Most Roma do not understand why they need education. Many of them live one day at a time. Elder children often look for the younger ones in Roma families, and have no time to go to school. Irresponsibility of parents is another big problem. But there are positive changes with help of the Centers:
- There are uneducated parents in our Center – Vasyl Rats, Artur Ionash, Artur Adam, Vasyl Kondi – who send children to school and visit trainings in the Center regularly, - Mr. Stoyka comments. – “I am uneducated, but I want my children to get education”, - these are the words of Vasyl Rats.

Borys Buchko, the head of another Uzhhorod Center for parents based on Zakarpattya regional Roma community “Romani Chgib”, is sure that the problem of education of Roma youth starts from Soviet times. The state had no money and no willingness to solve this problem. Even now city education department does not pay enough attention to Roma children education, thus the level of criminal offenses is quite high among young Roma.

- There are two groups of Roma parents who have children of pre-school age in our Center. We have classes with them twice a week, - Borys Buchko tells. – In most cases parents come together with children. Teachers and volunteers work with children, instructors – with parents.

Volunteers consult Roma families of microregion Shakhta. Specialists (pediatrician, psychologists, speech therapist) consult children and parents.

Centers for parents partly solve the problem of preparation of Roma children for school and provide socio-psychological support of Roma families with small children. It helps further adaptation of Roma into modern Ukrainian society, and in perspective will prevent violations of law and create positive image of Roma community.

Svitlana Adam, the coordinator of Center in Uzhhorod based on public organization “Community of Roma of Zakarpatty “Roma”, thinks that inherited ignorance of Roma is the real problem. Besides, most Roma children do not attend kindergartens where they can be prepared for school. Poverty does not give such opportunity to many Roma. From the other side, when child goes to school, parents often do not want to help. They do not understand the necessity of education. Teachers need Center’s support as well – to learn how to work with Roma children. Thus, these educational projects are extremely important.

- Why are Roma illiterate? Are they unwilling to learn? I had such questions when I started working with them, - the head of the Center for parents in Volyn based on regional Roma organization “Terne Roma” Tetyan Lohvynyuk confesses. – Soon I changed my mind. To put it short: children go to school unprepared (parents are illiterate), and they meet “not very kind fairy” who does not want to see Roma child in her class. Yes, I agree: children misbehave; they are not ready for educational process. Students become hostages in conflicts between teachers and parents. In 5-6th grades children cannot neither read nor write. Only their community can understand and support them. That is why Roma are much closed for society, though our experience demonstrates that parents are interested in providing education for their children. Such projects are the only chance for Roma to be heard.

Maksym Dzhum, the coordinator of Odesa Center for parents based on Charity foundation “Planet of good people”, agrees that most Roma parents want their children to get education. That is why Center’s employee think it is important to help children prepare for school and to support them during first stages of school education.

It is necessary to increase educational work with Roma parents, bring more positive examples to them. Volodymyr Bambula, the head of the Center for parents in Zolotonosha based on Cherkasy regional public organization “Romani rota”, thinks that such methods bring good results. Parents should be more responsible and understand that education today means good job in the future.

Educational problems of Roma are quite similar, despite different geography of communities’ settlement.

The center’s workers recommend:

1.      Regular and in-depth work with parents.  

•        develop responsible attitude towards children’s future

•        conduct lectures and seminars for parents and children about pre-school and school curricula

•        support parents willing to provide schooling for their children

•        special attention to families where children didn’t attend kindergarten

2.       Give Roma children opportunity to enroll in kindergartens.

3.   Create special groups for preparing Roma children who didnt attend kindergarten to school.

4.    Monitor and control the quality of education for Roma children.

Specifics due to Centers' geography

It is difficult to work with Roma who live in camps. For example, in Odessa region, Center’s workers have difficulties to access Roma families. Camps are far away from the Center, Roma travel around a lot, families are poor and don’t have opportunities to visit Odessa Center. It is quite complicated to influence Roma who live in camps, their interaction with the outside world is very limited. Children communicate only inside the camp and don’t have access to other groups of people. In Bilyaev district a lot of children only start school when they are already 10-11 years old.  

Roma living outside settlements have more opportunities and access to education. Their children have a more developed vocabulary, more friends, they are in general more socialized and adapted to school environment.  

Shyryaev district is a transition point for migrants. It is very difficult to control school attendance and help parents.

Uzhgorod Center “Helping hand” is trying to resolve the issue of distance between Roma camp and school by providing bus rides for children.

Roman Stoyka, head of Center, explains that they are working in the premises of school #14. The Center is driving kids to the school together with their parents who attend the Center’s seminars. Families with small children (3-4 years old) stay at home and we visit them directly at their place of residence.

However, even Roma who live outside camps and have integrated urban life style still have issues with access to education. Zakarpattya Center “Romani Chgib” deals with Roma education in its region. Roma settlements exist even within cities and Roma want their children to attend the closest school. However, a lot of schools refuse to accept Roma children due to other parents’ pressure.

Progress in relationships: how to combat discrimination

There is an evident progress in relationships between Roma families and other parents. At first, parents didn’t want to understand the problems of Roma children. They negatively reacted to Center’s workers and refused to communicate with them. Roma families also had a negative approach at first. They were suspicious of the Center’s workers and wanted to isolate their children from the outside world. It was also important to teach parents about taking care of their children. Step by step, parents and children started to trust each other and the Center’s workers.

Roma families now have a positive attitude towards the Center. They know that the Center’s workers are serious about their support and can help them prepare kids for school.

Quite often Centers become real savers of Roma families. For example, Zakarpattya Center “Romani Chgib” is not only providing help with schooling and education. The Center is only collecting and distributing humanitarian aid: food, clothes, etc. In some cases, Roma children don’t go to school because their parents are ashamed they don’t have good clothes or pencils.

The number of parents participating in the Center’s activities is constantly growing. Uzhgorod Center “Helping hand” started working with 20 children and only 8 parents, but now more than 14-16 parents are regularly coming to the Center with their children. Parents are interested in proposed activities and are asking about upcoming sessions. In Volyn region the Center is an inspiration for other districts and other schools with Roma children. Teachers are asking for advice and want to create similar centers in their schools.

A great indicator of Centers’ successes is the number of children who attend school. Odessa Center is proud that the majority of children who went to the Center are now successful pupils. One Roma kid even became the best pupil of his class. Parents are coming to the Center, take books and informational materials, ask for help. Information about Odessa Center is circulating in the city. Success stories are a good motivation for other Roma families to join the Center’s activities.

Participation in Centers’ activities is an opportunity for instructors to monitor how children are progressing, do they attend school or kindergarten. Instructors try to explain to parents the necessity of education. For example, when the Center in Zolotonosha started working, none of the children attended kindergarten. In 2014 20 Roma kids go to kindergarten.

Education and Art

It is important to note successful Roma art projects supported by International Renaissance Foundation. For example, musical and choreographic group “Lautari” for Roma children. This group has been open for Uzhgorod children since November 2011. It helps raising talented Roma dancers and musicians.  International Renaissance Foundation provided financial resources to buy musical instruments and technical equipment. Several children from the group are now enrolled in prestigious Uzhgorod musical and art schools. The group is also giving a lot of concerts, notably in Roma settlements. In 2015 the group additionally accepted talented children aged 6-8 years from settlements.

Another successful initiative: an Art auction conducted by Zakarpattya Roma organization “Romani yag” in order to support Roma School #13. This school has been working for 100 years!  It is the oldest Roma School in Europe. The school’s premises are neglected and decrepit.  The school is in bad condition and it doesn’t help getting better education. In twenty years none of the school’s graduate accessed higher education institutions. 300 pupils are issued from the poorest Roma families. Thanks to the auction of children’s paintings and professional Art objects from local artists, the school has been renovated. Parents hope it will stimulate children studying harder.

Higher education and examples of successful careers

“Roma of Ukraine” programme initiative is supporting a very important project: scholarships to Roma students, participants of REFSP. This project has been ongoing for 10 years. This year we have 106 students with scholarships.

In 2014 Roma students who have finished their studies with REFSP started working in Roma Community Law Centers. Two centers in Roma communities are now providing free legal aid and consultations. Other graduates are also willing to join this initiative and create similar centers in their communities.

Moreover, International Renaissance Foundation is supporting 6-10 internships yearly for Roma students. They have the opportunity to work in Ukrainian think-tanks, analytical centers and human rights organizations. International Renaissance Foundation is also developing the capacity of Roma education fund’s network. We plan to enlarge this network up to 50 young Roma leaders and activists. They will help strengthen our national network and influence Roma-oriented politics and programmes.

Another great example for Roma students is the opportunity of internships in local self-governmental bodies.  Five young Roma worked in local councils in November 2014 in Lviv region and Dublyanski district. This pilot project was initiated by Roma public organization “Ternipe” with financial support from the Council of Europe. Roma students can feel their appurtenance to their community, they receive practical knowledge and tools and have an opportunity for future employment.

Impact of success stories

The most effective motivation tools for Roma are success stories. When Roma learn about successful experiences from neighbors or friends, they get interested and agree to give a try to education. The story of Renata Balog, a Roma lawyer, is a good illustration. She grew up in a Roma settlement but managed to get higher education and is now working in local Community Law Center. She is helping Roma from Mukacheve with their legal issues. She is an example for the whole community and living proof that education can help climbing the social ladder. Her story was shown in “Roma dream” documentary movie together with three other examples from Roma community: becoming a lawyer, a teacher, a dancer or a TV-presenter are good motivations for young Roma.


 Screen from “Roma dream” movie. Renata Balog is on the left.

Education and legal issues

Roma education problems are linked to legal issues. First of all, a majority of Roma don’t have passports or ID papers necessary to attend school, to enroll in a university, to get a job. And it’s a vicious circle.  

We need to continue multi-dimensional work in order to promote Roma education. Roma and Ukrainian society need to understand the positive effects of education for the whole community. It is a long and difficult process.  The Centers alone cannot do it, they need support from donors, non-governmental organizations and the State. European experience shows us it is relevant to fight poverty, provide education and help with employment in order to break Roma social isolation.

*Other data information is attached to this article.

Additional Information: Community Law Centers which provide free legal aid for Roma people are established with the support of the International Renaissance Foundation within the framework of “Roma of Ukraine” programme initiative. You can learn more on the Centers network activities, basics and principles of work here: www.legalspace.org

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