Roma Inclusion

We are condemning a generation of Roma children to growing up in walled ghettos

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.

Carmen, 10, of Roma origin behind the wall being built around her home in Baia Mare.

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.