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Undoing Segregation In A Slovakian School

The school in Šarišské Michaľany.
Sáša Woodruff
The school in Šarišské Michaľany.
/ Mark Boardman
Mark Boardman

Two teams of teenage boys play soccer, while adults and younger children look on from wooden picnic benches on a grassy athletic field behind an elementary school. Later, there will be relay races, tug-of-war and dancing. The organizers are preparing a lunch of paprika-colored sauerkraut soup, bread and slices of watermelon. The motto of the day is "also sport can unite." Wobbly translation aside, the organizers are trying to make a point in this town in eastern Slovakia.

"We want to unite these children, whether they're Roma or non-Roma, because all children want to play together and they do understand each other," says Monika Duždová, a Slovak Roma who helped organize this sports day in this small town of Šarišské Michaľany that has a population of close to 3,000 residents. The gathering here has attracted both white Slovaks and Roma. And it was here at this school that human rights attorneys have focused a fight for racial equality.

This former communist country has a homogenous majority population of ethnic Slovaks. It's home to several different cultural minorities, including Hungarian, Czech, Ukrainian and even German residents. But here in the eastern part of the country, the Roma minority stands out more than the other subcultures. Because they often have darker skin, as well as a non-European language and culture, they have for centuries remained separate from the dominant population.

As Duždová passes out food and drinks to hungry kids, there's a palpable dedication and obvious enthusiasm to everything she does. With reddish-brown curls framing her olive-skinned face, she speaks with idealism and conviction about the importance of local children playing together today. She grew up here and raised her family here, where there is an assimilated Roma minority. She moves easily in both Slovak and Roma circles and says she's proud to be part of both cultures. Her understanding of both ways of life keeps her optimistic about fostering a respect between the two cultures.

"There was no problem with non-Roma and Roma children playing together," said Vlado Rafael, another event organizer and also a Roma. He said he observed a sense of color blindness throughout the day.

Culture Of Segregation

A few weeks later, that sense of color blindness has disappeared. Students gather in front of the elementary school that hosted the sports days. Clusters of young boys and girls laugh and chat together in anticipation of the first day of school. Some clutch their mothers' hands, others hold bouquets of flowers for their teachers. More than half of the students are Roma, their darker skin reinforcing their separation from the lighter-skinned Slovak population.

The sports day showed that integration is a possibility, but casual student banter reveals current schisms. When asked if they ever play with the Roma kids, a group of sandy-haired ethnic Slovaks doesn't hesitate to answer.

"No. We don't play with them," says one 10-year old. Another chimes in: "Because they are ugly."

An 11-year-old Roma student named Luca explained: "The white kids didn't want to play with us, so we just played together."

Human rights activists have made this bucolic town surrounded by grassy hills and sunflower fields the nucleus of the movement to integrate the Slovak and Roma cultures.

In 2008, the principal of this school, Mária Cvancigerová (who has since been fired and has sued the school for firing her), moved the Roma kids to separate classrooms on the second floor. The Roma kids would get cold lunches and the ethnic Slovak students would have warm lunches served in the cafeteria. When it was time for recess, the whites would go to the Biely Dvor ("white courtyard") and Roma to the Čierny Dvor ("black courtyard"). Though a few assimilated Roma children remained in the white classrooms, the practical result was racial segregation.

The tension between the Roma and non-Roma cultures started centuries ago. Though stories, myths and tales abound as to how and why the Roma arrived in Europe, the exact reasons are unclear. Most historians believe the Roma left the province of Rajasthan in India between the 6th and 11th centuries. European records first document their existence in the 14th century. The Romani language spoken throughout the many varying populations in Europe has traces of Persian and Hindi. Culturally peripatetic, they traveled in groups and became known for their metalworking, music and crafts.

They were also accused of being thieves and criminals. Europeans called them "gypsies," assuming their dark skin meant they came from Egypt. The English term "getting gypped" or ripped off refers to the Roma. "Gypsy" is a term that outsiders called them and is now considered pejorative. "Roma" is the preferred word.

Despite their centuries-long presence, the stereotypes persist today: Roma are lazy, they don't want to work, they just live off the government, they are dirty, they are criminals, they are thieves. Roma in Slovakia are often seen begging or playing street music. They are rarely seen working in shops or restaurants or any public place of employment. The Slovak Republic reported an unemployment rate of 13.5 percent in 2012, but surveys by the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme found that Roma, between 20 and 64 years of age, showed that only 30 percent of that population had paid employment. Aid groups report that unemployment in some areas in Eastern Slovakia is as high as 80 and 90 percent for the Roma.

Part of the reason the unemployment remains high is because Roma students lack higher education. Segregation of Roma students is the norm and is an accepted practice in many schools. The Roma students are also more likely to attend special education schools designed for children with mental disabilities. The European Roma Rights Centre reports that about 60 percent of the students in special education schools are of Roma descent:

"The situation in education of Romani children is alarming: about 60% of the total number of pupils enrolled in special education designed for mentally disabled pupils are of Romani origin. Roma account for 86% of pupils attending special classrooms within mainstream elementary schools. In 2010 more than 20% of all Romani children in Slovakia were enrolled in special education settings, whereas according to national averages 4.1% of pupils in the respective school age were enrolled in special schools and 2.2% in special classes."

It's a practice that is not isolated to Slovakia. Romania, the Czech Republic, Serbia and Hungary also have more a disproportionately high number of Roma students in schools meant for children with mental disabilities.

Focus On Education

The support for Roma human rights doesn't get much support from within Slovakia. Aid groups working on integration and equality rely on foreign groups for funding.

The Center for Civil Human Rights is a small organization based in the eastern Slovakian city of Kosice. Large black-and-white prints of Roma children hang on the wall of the modest offices where Stefan Ivanco works with attorney Vanda Durbáková on bringing discrimination cases into the Slovak court system to effect social change.

As a researcher and program coordinator for the group, Ivanco has observed many schools racially segregating Roma children into separate classrooms. It is a practice that is culturally accepted, though technically illegal according to a 2004 anti-discrimination law.

"Our intention was to pick up some case to start litigation in order to raise discussion about this issue in Slovakia, to draw attention of decision makers, politicians in Slovakia to deal with this issue," he explained.

A 2012 United Nations Development Programme survey showed that 43 percent of Roma students in mainstream schools were taught in ethnically segregated classrooms. The practice started to mushroom after the fall of communism in 1989. Discrimination still existed during the decades beforehand, but the strict authoritarian system promoted assimilation. School segregation became more pronounced under the free-market system.

"The segregation was not so serious like now," Ivanco said. "In the last two decades, we can actually see that maybe this issue got worse."

So as the legal team set out to choose a school to expose the practice, it had to choose carefully.

"It was really important to pick up the case which has the most possibility to win because we wanted a positive court decision," said Durbáková, a lawyer who works with civil rights cases in Slovakia.

Unlike the civil rights movement in the U.S., before Brown v. Board of Education, where the laws in the books allowed for "separate, but equal" classrooms, human rights advocates in Slovakia faced a very different situation. In Slovakia, separate but equal is illegal; those laws just aren't not universally followed.

From all the schools observed, they decided the particular dynamics of the elementary school in Šarišské Michaľany were most likely to prevail in court. "We had a list of kids, we have evidence that Roma-only classes exist," explained Durbáková.

The Roma settlement of Ostralovny is a short distance from the town of Šarišské Michaľany.
/ Sáša Woodruff
Sáša Woodruff
The Roma settlement of Ostralovny is a short distance from the town of Šarišské Michaľany.

Two Towns

Šarišské Michaľany is home to stuccoed homes and well-tended gardens lining the streets. But drive just two miles east and the road winds into the village of Ostrovany, which is home to an impoverished Roma shantytown. The makeshift collections of shelters and homes are typical of Roma settlements in Slovakia. The residents are under constant threat of eviction because they are often squatting on state or privately-owned land. Many don't have sewer systems or running water. Children face high rates of diarrhea, infections and respiratory diseases. Many of the villages have walls built around them to keep the residents separate from the rest of the population.

"Life is hard in Slovakia for everyone, but especially for the Roma. And it's especially hard for people without an education," said Peter Kaleja, a resident of the settlement and an assistant principal at the school in Šarišské Michaľany.

The residences lining the narrow streets range from simple cinderblock homes to shacks cobbled together from corrugated scrap metal and wood sealed with dirt and straw. Stray mutts wander the area, as men, women and children linger in the streets. Without running water, young girls come to pump water into plastic buckets from one of the public wells. Because there is no school here, the children have to walk or take the bus to the school a couple kilometers away to Šarišské Michaľany, where the town is mostly white with a very assimilated Roma population.

Monika Duždová, who helped organize the sports day, is part of that assimilated Roma community. She grew up here and raised her family here. Duždová says the cultures and the standards of living are very different in Ostrovany and Šarišské Michaľany.

"But in the schools, they are all our children and we want to integrate them too," Duždová said. And it was this type of community support that became a major reason that this school became the focus of desegregation.

"We found it really important that part of Roma parents living in Šarišské Michaľany disagreed with the situation. And also the evidence ... was really good in this case," said Durbankova.

A year ago, a regional court ruled that the school was indeed violating human rights and ruled that the school had to start making steps to bring the Roma children into mainstream classrooms.

"It's quite clear now, that this is really a huge problem here in Slovakia, but this case in Šarišské Michaľany wanted to give a strong signal that the separation of [Roma and Slovak by] itself undermines the human dignity regardless of the quality of education," said Ivanco.

Opposing Forces

But the court ruling and the sports day have not erased long-simmering tensions. Many ethnic Slovak children have transferred out of the school and gone to private or other area schools.

"We have [a] long way before us to reach [the level of the] civil rights movement in U.S. in the 50s."

The same weekend that brought the sports day also brought an extremist political rally to town.

Marian Kotleba is a right-wing, nationalist politician who came to promote his anti-Roma agenda. His Ľudovej strany Naše Slovensko ("People's party, Our Slovakia") campaigns against the Roma; its website regularly refers to them as "cigánskych parazitov" — "Gypsy parasites."

Wearing matching green golf shirts and holding matching flags, about a dozen followers publicly identified with the group. They sang the Slovak national anthem and clapped when Kotleba took to the microphone.

He spoke out about about the high unemployment and birth rate among Roma and expressed fears that ethnic Slovaks would soon become a minority.

"We want our children to grow up in a place that isn't pillaged and ruled by a Gypsy state." he said, "We still have hope to save Slovakia for the decent people. We don't want our children to come to us and ask, 'Father Mother, what were you doing, when you didn't save the country for us?'"

Slovakia's Roma population isn't the largest in Europe, but it has one of the largest per capita populations in Europe. The 2011 census reported that Roma made up about two percent of the total population, just over 105,000. But demographers and other surveys say those numbers are way too low and more realistic numbers are 320,000 and 480,000 Roma living in the country of 5.5 million. Even with the adjusted numbers, this impoverished population is far from tipping the scales into a majority.

Kotleba continued his inflammatory speech with criticism of the foreign groups working for racial equality in Slovakia. Though his views in the country are extremist, it's difficult to find people who understand the consequences of the racism and segregation that the Roma have endured. Igor André, who co-created a group EduRoma that is working to facilitate inclusive education in the Šarišské Michaľany school, says there are very small pockets of activists who support equal rights.

"These are only so-called islands of positive deviation. It's not something like in the U.S. that you would have a huge grassroots movement," said André. "In Slovakia, you don't have this phenomenon. So ... we have [a] long way before us to reach [the level of the] civil rights movement in U.S. in the 50s."

The pressure to address the many human rights violations isn't coming from internal groups, but from the United Nations, the European Union and non-profits like Open Society Foundation and Amnesty International. School segregation is just one of the issues. Forced sterilization of women, job discrimination and housing evictions are just a few of the others.

Path Forward

When the school doors opened to the 2013-2014 school year, children, teachers and parents were led into the central courtyard to a welcoming assembly. Duždová was there and led some students in a song. Kaleja from the settlement was there too, optimistic about the future. Both Duždová and Kaleja have been appointed assistant principals to help bridge the cultural gaps.

"I want the children to see my example that they can better their lives by working and getting an education," said Kaleja who believes there wouldn't be segregation if the Roma were educated and assimilated.

The new principal, Jaroslav Valaštiak, has vowed to start the integration process, but the steps will be gradual. Only the academically top academically performing Roma children will be allowed into the classrooms for now.

"I don't think there will be a lot of difficulties, but the Roma already feel inferior and feel pushed aside by society. It's hard for them to adjust to being around non-Roma children. And the non-Romas exclude them," said Valaštiak.

The court ruling says the school needed to desegregate, but didn't specify how or how quickly the school should do it. EduRoma, founded by André and Vlado Rafael, are working with the teachers, administrators, parents and students to move the integration process forward. They have arranged for university student volunteers to work with any child who is struggling to make sure they don't slip behind.

The group recently worked to get a school bus to run after school hours for kids living in the settlement in Ostrovany. EduRoma hopes this will help the kids participate in extra tutoring sessions and other extracurricular activities. The school has also formed an organization for parents that includes Roma parents to give them a say about the school's direction. André and Rafael hope these initiatives will build a model for inclusive education that other schools around the country will be able to use.

"I'm convinced that school in Šarišské Michaľany will move in a positive direction and towards inclusive education," André explained, "I think also other schools will realize that some that they have to stop complaining all the time and that they have to do something about their own resources."

And despite the many obstacles, the team believes this school could be the beginning of the road to racial equality.

"I am optimistic, but it will be a long way," Rafael said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sáša Woodruff
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