Saturday, May 03, 2014

Roma: Bosnian Roma Struggle With Education, Work

This article originally appeared in the Institute for War and Peace Reporting,
Bosnian Roma Struggle With Education, Work

Discrimination, poverty and community issues make it hard for young people from Roma community to get on. 

Haris Husic, now 23, clearly remembers how he failed his year-ten maths exam, even though he was absent on the day the paper was given.

When he asked his teacher when he could take the test, she informed him she had already given him an F.

“I asked her how that was possible when I was not at school that day at all, but all she said was, ‘It’s not that important. You’ll get a better grade next time,’” he recalled.

Husic later heard that when she noted him down as a “fail”, the teacher commented, “When do they ever finish school?”

“They” meant Roma, an impoverished minority in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) who find themselves on the margins of society and the target of extreme prejudice.

Husic, who lives in the small town of Visoko near the Bosnian capital, is now studying German language and literature at Sarajevo university.

He says he often runs into bigotry, sometimes based on the widespread notion that the Roma are all thieves.

“I’m not ashamed of my identity or my roots,” he said. “For me, all people are the same and I don’t differentiate between them on any grounds. I will always do my best to treat everybody well, which is an attitude that has helped me overcome problems I’ve had with discrimination.”

With no steady income from home, Husic has to use the 100 BAM (70 US dollar) monthly scholarship he receives from the Education Builds Bosnia-Herzegovina association to cover his daily expenses and food.

“It’s not simple, but I will never ever give up. I will do my best to finish my studies, even if I have to walk from Visoko to Sarajevo every day,” he said.

Despite ongoing government initiatives to support the Roma, widespread prejudice and the community’s own conservative traditions mean little progress has been made in improving their lot.


Education, in particular, is one area where the Roma still lose out.

According to data from the ministry for human rights and refugees, there are 17,000 Roma registered in BiH, although the real figure is believed to be around twice that, as many have no identification documents.

According to a report issued by the ministry, there were just over 3,000 Roma children attending elementary school in 2011/2012, but only just 243 attended high school in that academic year.

“One of the main problems with the education of Roma children, apart from poverty, is that education is not valued much in Roma society,” said Dalibor Tanic, a Roma journalist who works for the Start magazine. “The average Roma parent believes it's more important for his or her child to help the family earn some money than to waste their time at school.

“The other problem is that it’s very difficult for a Roma child whose own parents have had very little education to do well in school. They struggle just to keep up with the other kids, who attended pre-school education – that is very rare among Roma children – and whose parents can help them with homework and school assignments.”

Some young Roma are defying both their own community traditions and discrimination from wider society to participate more fully in Bosnian life.


Aldina Fafulovic, a 24-year-old activist, says that many of her fellow-Roma avoid admitting their ethnic origin for fear of encountering prejudice.

“We all know there are young people at universities who are ashamed to say they are Roma and decide to hide that in order to avoid being seen as different by their colleagues,” she said.

Fafulovic, however, is determined not to let such stigma take over her own life.

“I am Roma and proud of it. I’m not ashamed to say that anywhere,” she said.

Fafulovic has been active in the Roma community since she was 13, when her interest was triggered by attending a seminar on Roma issues in the Croatian town of Split with her father.

“When I was 20, I had an opportunity to attend a global conference on HIV/AIDS in Austria, where I met people from all parts of the world, from Africa, Asia, Europe, and the United States,” she said. “I had the honour of attending that conference and saying, ‘I am a Roma and an advocate for the rights of my people.’”

Fafulovic was the first Roma woman to enroll at the pre-school teacher training department at Sarajevo university, as well as the first Roma of either sex to live in the student dormitory.

She went on to intern as a Roma specialist with the OSCE mission to BiH, and is now chair and co-founder of the Mladi Romi (Young Roma) association.

The group is dedicated to preserving Roma culture as well as to educating young people from the Vitez municipality in central Bosnia, which is home to around 125 Roma families, numbering some 500 people in total.

Fafulovic is also one of three Roma assistants on the Vrtic za Sve (Kindergarten for All) project, which works to support vulnerable local children.

“Most people, when they see a Roma begging for money, assume that all Roma people are the same,” said Fafulovic. “Fortunately, that’s not the case, because in our settlement [Sofa] alone, 85 children go to primary school, 12 to secondary and two of us are studying [at university].”

But Fafulovic says that she has had to battle opposition from within her own community, with many Roma leaders viewing young activists as a threat to their own positions.

“Nevertheless, I have managed to achieve something through my work,” she continued. “Last year, I arranged a donation of 250 schoolbags containing many essential items for all the children at risk in the Vitez area.”

Aldijana Dedic, 26, says discrimination has always been part of her life. Her father is Roma and her mother is a Bosnian Muslim.

“People sometimes start treating me differently as soon as they find out my father is Roma,” she said. “Wherever I have worked, and however successfully, I have often heard people say behind my back, ‘We know whose daughter she is – she’s that gipsy’s child.’”

Dedic, who interned as a Roma expert with the OSCE and the European Commission missions in BiH, believes that prejudice will always exist against the Roma, no matter what their level of education or professional achievement is.

“We live in an environment in which the international community still has to point out that Roma need to be included in society,” she said.


IN 2008, BiH signed up to an international initiative aimed at improving conditions for Roma.

The Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015 brings together governments, NGOs and Roma civil society in an effort to close the gaps between the community and the rest of society.

Twelve countries are taking part in the initiative, which focuses on education, employment, health, and housing, and commits governments to act on poverty, discrimination, and gender issues.

Sanela Besic, coordinator of the Kali Sara – Roma Information Centre in Sarajevo, said the Decade of Roma Inclusion had led to clearly-defined policy documents being drawn up for first time, with the Council of Ministers allocating three million BAM (2.1 million dollars), towards its implementation this year alone.

The most notable success has been in the area of housing, with 400 houses and flats built for Roma at a cost of around 12 million BAM.

However, only some 250 Roma people have found work through the Decade initiative since funding began for it in BiH in 2009.

And many Roma families still lack housing, access to healthcare, even adequate nutrition, Besic said, adding, “That’s what the Decade should change. Families living in extreme poverty should be provided with basic living conditions.”

Lack of financial support limits the future prospects of many Roma.

Armina Ahmetovic, 20, was the first Roma girl to finish the three-year vocational high school in Jablanica in southern BiH. After that, she wanted to study to become a nurse. Lack of funds, however, meant she was unable to travel to Mostar, about 50 kilometres away, to continue her education, and in the end she gave up.

Ahmetovic now has a driving license and is hoping to find work. She continues to believe that “education is very important and all those who are financially able to should continue going to school”.

Roma journalist Tanic, who is actively monitoring the progress of the Decade of Roma Inclusion, believes that it will take much more time for the results to be visible.

“The problems of the Roma people have been accumulating for decades, and in the case of discrimination, for centuries,” he said. “I don’t believe anybody who says that big steps forward have been made within the Decade over the last several years, particularly in BiH.”

He accuses Roma leaders and NGOs of engaging in internecine squabbling that has hampered progress.

“Of course there have been some positive attempts; there have been some projects within the Decade, but they haven’t had much to do with improving living standards for Roma,” he said. “There are some NGOs which have done a lot in Roma settlements, but in a way, that isn’t very good, either. There are five or six organisations which are very dominant and prevent other organisations from contributing.”


Tanic went on to explain that even with the extra support provided by the Decade of Roma Inclusion, children from the community were not graduating from school in greater numbers.

“Under the project, Roma children received free schoolbooks, free lunches and free rides to school, but these benefits were not enough to keep them in school,” he said. “Although the Decade did result in a higher number of Roma children being enrolled in school, it did not succeed in producing a significantly greater number of graduations.”

Tanic believes that “beyond 2015, the main effort should be directed towards providing employment for Roma people, because if at least one parent in a Roma family works, it will become easier for his or her children to stay in school and graduate”.

Dalila Ahmetovic from Kakanj is one of the Roma community’s success stories, having graduated from the faculty for traffic and communication in Sarajevo university where she is now studying for her master’s.

Like Husic, she is a beneficiary of a grant from the Education Builds Bosnia-Herzegovina association, which has been distributing scholarships in BiH for the last 15 years, including 8,360 bursaries for Roma children and young people.

“I live in an environment in which Roma people who finish high school are rare, and in which university education is considered a phenomenon,” said Dalila, who benefited from financial and emotional support from her parents throughout her education.

Activists take some comfort from the fact that interest is rising in scholarships for young Roma, with the Association reporting that in 2005-06, 69 young people applied whereas by 2012-13, the number had risen to 187.

Dalila underlines the importance of education.

“A huge majority of Roma children cannot go to school because of extremely poor living conditions which prevent them from buying books and other things they need for school,” she said. “In spite of all the difficulties, all Roma children should be given an opportunity to go to school and improve themselves, because as I’ve already said, that’s the key factor in development of this society.

“Only educated young people can do things for themselves and the whole of society, for a better tomorrow.”

The film accompanying this story focuses on Nehrudin Cikaric, a young Roma who has gone from begging as a child to attending school regularly and playing football and boxing to a high standard. He also volunteers at the centre for vulnerable children which helped him sort his life out, teaching maths to the younger kids there. Nehrudin hopes to join the Bosnian police or military when he leaves school.

Una Čilić, Aida Halvadžija and Erna Dželilović are IWPR-trained reporters in Sarajevo.

This article was produced as part of IWPR’s Tales of Transition project funded by the Norwegian embassy in Sarajevo. IWPR is carrying out this project in cooperation with the Sarajevo Centre for Contemporary Arts and EFM Student Radio.