Small Schoolhouse Fosters Big Dreams for Roma Youngsters in Macedonia

SKOPJE, Macedonia (CNS) — In a small schoolhouse in Macedonia’s capital, Roma children share big aspirations.

Semina Hasan, 11, wants to be a physician. Leon Ali, 14, eyes becoming an architect and Sali Kurta, also 14, hopes to become a lawyer.

Such dreams would be major accomplishments for any child anywhere, let alone for youngsters from the Roma communities in Eastern Europe that have long suffered marginalization and discrimination. The World Bank estimates that 29 percent of Roma children at best graduate from high school.

“People look at them as ‘others,’ ” explained Aneta Kostadinovska, one of the three teachers and two assistants who manage a supplementary education program for about 100 Roma children between the ages of 4 and 15 at a schoolhouse located in Shuto Orizari, one of 10 municipalities in Skopje.

In addition to facing discrimination from Macedonia’s much larger non-Roma population, Roma children usually live in poor families in which parents lack formal education and the Macedonian language is not spoke, said Kostadinovska and another teacher, Emilija Tocinovska, who work in the School Support Program.

The program is designed to encourage Roma children to graduate from high school by reinforcing their Macedonian language skills so they can perform better in the public school system, the teachers told the Catholic News Service.

“Most Roma [parents] are illiterate, they can’t read,” said Tocinovska, 42, who studied art in college and has taught in the program since the Catholic humanitarian organization, Caritas Macedonia started it in a defunct medical clinic a decade ago.

Roma “parents bring their kids here, [and] they say ‘I can’t help my kids. Can you help them?’ ” she said.

“They don’t know Macedonian, so we are reading and writing” with the children, added Kostadinovska, 30, who trained as a lawyer and worked in a law firm before joining the program’s teaching staff two years ago.

She said children in the program have seen their grades improve “because we help them to know more, to be better students, to have knowledge.”

The two teachers noted that in addition to Macedonian, the free program provided tutoring in math, science, geography and other school subjects, depending on the individual needs of each child.

Children in the program also received free school supplies such as paper, pencils and pens.

They also can approach the teachers to discuss personal matters, they said.

“Sometimes they have questions about life, when someone has problems, we teach them,” how to deal with them, said Tocinovska.

“It is very important to help them to find themselves. Most of the kids ask where to go after primary school. Sometimes I help them find vocations for their talents,” she said.

“Some of them ask us advice to solve their problems at school, at home in their families. We are talking to help them,” Kostadinovska added.

Or, “sometimes they are asking about Christian holidays and we are talking about the traditions,” she said, explaining that most of the Roma children are Muslims and not necessarily familiar with the religious customs of Eastern Orthodox Christians who constitute the majority of Macedonia’s 2 million people.

At the school, a dozen Roma children were simultaneously studying, drawing, laughing, and joking with each other.

Ali, was singing a traditional Roma melody in his native Romani, an Indo-European language related to others spoken in present-day India where world’s Roma originate. The song described summer time and romantic love.

Jasha Hasan, 7, used a wet rag to erase the day’s lesson from the bottom part of the classroom’s green chalkboard as her sister, Semina, observed from a chipped wooden chair.

“I want to be a doctor,” Semina, told a visitor.

“I want to be an architect,” said Ali, who had finished singing.

Sali said he wanted to become a lawyer, and had chosen to study in the Caritas program to further improve the reading and writing skills he was learning at a local secondary school.

He added that he also attended the program to be with people like himself.

“I learn here, and here are my friends,” he said.

Sudahan Jashar, 14, said the Caritas program had helped him during the last four years to strengthen his grades at public school, but that he still struggled with math because “it is very difficult.”

He said he hoped to graduate and become an auto mechanic, and eventually to travel beyond Macedonia, something he had never done.

“After high school, I want to find a job, and go to Germany because Germany is very beautiful,” he said.

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