Text and photography by Mugur Vărzariu
Following up on his 2011 election promises to segregate the Roma, Catalin Chereches, the mayor of Baia Mare in northern Romania, decided to build a wall around a social-housing complex mostly inhabited by Romanian citizens of Roma origin.
The plan to wall in the complex was justified by the mayor by the "bad behaviour" of Roma children who allegedly threw rocks at passing cars and by the occasional traffic accidents reported in the area. The original plan also included adding video cameras and a police station to monitor the situation in the complex. The hard truth is that this wall is there to segregate the community, and if we continue building walls around every community with uneducated children, regardless of their ethnicity, we will bankrupt Romania. In Baia Mare, the mayor altered his original plan due to media pressure, and began building the wall on the last remaining open side of the complex.
The authorities pretend to ask of the Roma that they send their children to school, but do not try to ensure that those children have the facilities where they can wash or are able to have a decent breakfast before attending classes. The reality is that given the extremely poor conditions in which they often live, “facilities where they can wash” are completely out of the question. Without direct access to running water, women and children have to make five or six trips to collect water from a nearby pump every day.
The apparent cynicism shown by Romanian authorities concerning the issue is appalling. On one hand they claim that they are concerned about the Roma childrens’ wellbeing, which is why they build this “protective” wall, and on the other hand they allow hundreds of children to live in a social housing complex without any access to electricity. The lucky ones are able to pilfer electricity from their neighbours using makeshift cables. When you find out that they pay €20 per month for this bootlegged electricity, which is insufficient to power anything more than one light bulb, you realise that being poor does not come cheap. On many floors there are broken banisters so using the stairs is dangerous, not only for toddlers, but for all of the building’s residents. The living conditions in this social complex are in fact so bad that Roma people living in makeshift settlements, who have waited for proper housing for ten years refuse to move there.
In total, around six hundred children live in the complex and without heating and electricity, their living conditions are similar to those of the rest of Europe in the Middle Ages.
Segregation Beyond the Home
It is only education that can break the vicious circle of social exclusion that the Roma people face. Nobody and nothing can help the Roma more than education. Unfortunately segregation policies are sometimes extended to this area too. The Waldorf School in Roșia, near Sibiu in Romania is one such example. It was built to help Roma children integrate, but is in effect a symbol of segregation used by racists as a model example of Roma education. It is part of the public school system and is located next to the regular village school in Roșia on top of a beautiful hill. Yet the Waldorf School is “for Roma children only.” Most of the Roma community live in the valley, and seeing the Roma children climbing the hill, while carrying their worn and faded rucksacks, is reminiscent of the myth of Sisyphus, the greek mythology figure doomed to forever roll a boulder up a hill.
From the first day that the plans for the school were presented to the community, it was clear to everyone in Roșia that the Waldorf School was going to be a school for the poor and uneducated Roma children. The idea of having such a place solely for Roma children is bad enough, but building the school next to the regular village school makes the segregation policy all the more explicit.
Mixed educational institutions are generally regarded as the best solution for integration, but admittedly it is not always that the real result ends up as intended. The cases of the two schools in Roșia however sends a clear message to segregate Roma children. For generations, non-Roma children have grown up with the knowledge that Roma children attend the worst schools. Schools that are perceived as being for “stupid people” and paupers. Changing the mentality that Roma people are anything but stupid paupers is thus a continuing challenge.
The Waldorf school's founders and many in the neighbourhood generally accept that it offers but two things: food and hugs, and that Roma children lack both at home. But what the children lack even more is an answer to the question what they will do when they leave school. Unfortunately, the Waldorf School and other similar projects lack such answers.
We need to create the groundwork for real access to education, and along with that a genuine support system so that the Roma youths can move on to create a future for themselves after school. Letting all children, Roma and non-Roma, live and learn together so that they have the opportunity to discover and learn to respect each other is a first step that needs to be complemented with viable after-school programs for all children where they get the opportunity to prove to themselves and to society that they are hardworking, determined, and in control of their own future.
Schools like the Waldorf School in Roșia and the wall around the housing project in Baia Mare are unfortunately not isolated cases in Romania. Forced evictions, discrimination, and marginalisation of the Roma are phenomena encountered all over the country. Projects like these two, both with the alleged mission to help Roma children, only perpetuate existing discrimination and abuse of Roma people.