I’d been told about a school № 7 in Berehovo, where all of the students are Roma, the majority from the nearby settlement I had just visited, and so stopped by to see for myself. On entering the foyer I was given a warm welcome by the enthusiastic headmistress, Agnesa Kudron, dressed in a stylish green tweed skirt suit and brown fur boots. She gave me a detailed tour of the school buildings, and proudly told me about the work they do educating and nurturing local Roma children at both primary and secondary level.
I was instantly taken back to my own primary school in a mining village in the north of 1970s England. No computers or whiteboards in sight, rows of individual wooden desks, dog-eared but colourful workbooks, children who stood up and cordially greeted the headmistress whenever she walked into the room. The place had a caring, calm and respectful atmosphere and, aside from educating the local kids, also played a pastoral role in the community, through for instance providing free school meals for all primary level pupils.
The school was impeccably clean and tidy, as were all the students I met. I mention this as after visiting their nearby homes, many of which housed three generations in earth-floored single rooms, with no running water and only rudimentary communal latrines, this was no mean feat.
At the entrance to the settlement, where the paved road symbolically runs out to give way to ankle-deep mud, we saw a young Roma woman diligently cleaning the dirt off her knee-high patent leather boots, ready to face the outside world, conscious, I imagine, of the stigma associated with being ‘dirty,’ an insult often thrown at Roma in this part of the world. As we squelched along the waterlogged streets, one of the residents even told me she looked forward to the temperatures dropping below zero in deep winter because, ‘The mud freezes, and the streets are easier to walk.’
The headmistress tells me that out of all of the staff only one of the teachers is Roma, although I also saw a few women from the settlement cleaning the school at the end of the day. One ex-pupil is now studying at university, and the headmistress hopes that she will come back and teach one day, and that eventually there will be more of a balance between Roma and non-Roma staff.
Zola Kondur, who heads up Chirikli, MRG’s partner organization in Ukraine, is adamant that the lack of education of Roma is one of the main factors that exacerbates their already tough situation. She says, ‘It’s obvious. Educated people have more opportunities and chances to have a better life. Unlike many Roma they have their ID documents, can open small businesses and know how to protect and claim their rights.’
Zola says she has visited the school many times when in Berehovo to support the Roma community, particularly when pressuring the local authorities to comply with their responsibility to provide basic amenities in the settlement. She notes the commitment of the headmistress and her staff.
‘For me it shows that the level of education of pupils in a 100 per cent Roma school can be very good. This school shows that the so-called “problem at Roma schools” is not because of the children, but more because of the teachers, and their attitude to their work.’