“Roma and Education” – Ronald Lee

© Ronald Lee, June 2009 all rights reserved

Historical Background

Until this century, Roma were basically an illiterate people. Except for a small number of individuals, most Roma and Sinti in the many countries where they lived were unable to read and write. Some did learn basic reading and writing skills but contributed next to nothing in the way of literature about Roma by Roma except for a mere handful of individuals,. In the latter 19th century and especially after The First World War, a small Romani intelligentsia appeared in some of the countries of Eastern Europe and newspapers were published in Romani. In the former Soviet Union, under Communism, there was an attempt to integrate Roma into the educational system and a considerable but unknown number of Roma were educated. Others, living in the villages and the hinterlands remained illiterate. Mass education among Roma really dates from the end of the Second World War with the Communist governments in the former Soviet Bloc Countries.

Education of Roma Under Communism

By the late 1940s, the former Communist governments of Eastern Europe began to take an interest in Roma and Romani illiteracy. This stemmed from the assimilation plans inaugurated by the Communists to break up Romani settlements in the rural areas where the Roma lived and to resettle the smaller number of Roma who were still nomadic or semi-nomadic following a traditional lifestyle of commercial nomadism. Unlike Western European countries who brought in guest workers from less-developed countries to perform the numerous menial tasks required in the workplace, the Communists used their Romani citizens. Roma are far more numerous in the former Communist countries than they are in Western Europe. There are an estimated three hundred thousand Roma in the Slovakian region of the former Czechoslovakia and around 250,ooo in the Czech Republic another two million or more, in Rumania, at least two million in the former Yugoslavia and up to ten percent or more of the populations in other former Soviet Bloc countries.

The Communist Assimilation Plans resulted in large numbers of Roma being brought into the urbanized areas where the children were sent to the state schools. The aims of these policies were to break up the large Romani communities, resettle the Roma among the general population as members of a new urban-sub-proletariat, educate the children and hopefully assimilate the Roma into the general population. The former economic base of the Roma was thus destroyed, old trades forbidden and forgotten by the children. Roma now became dependant upon the communist system for their basic needs much like Native Peoples in Canada. In most Communist countries, a new generation of Romani children appeared who were literate and while most followed their parents into the urbanized sub-proletariat, a fair number went on to higher education depending on the country. In the Soviet Union, the Czech Republic, Hungary and the former Yugoslavia, many Roma became doctors, engineers, teachers, nurses, members of the Communist Party and civic officials. Romani spokespeople and Romani leaders appeared, especially in the area of culture. The Communists, however, were opposed to Romani activism and self-determination at the political or ethnic level. Attempts to establish national Romani organizations and attempts to have the Romani language and culture taught in the school systems where there were large numbers of Romani children were in general, frustrated by the Communist governments. In some countries such as Hungary and the former Yugoslavia under Communism, the Romani language was taught in a few schools, especially in Macedonia and Bosnia. However, despite the attempts of the former Communist governments to introduce mass education among Roma, a considerable number of Roma now arriving in Canada as Convention-refugee claimants from Hungary, Rumania and elsewhere have been found to be totally or functionally illiterate while most are at least able to read a newspaper in whatever language they speak other than Romani.

Post-Communist Education

After the end of Communism, the education of Roma deteriorated in most former Communist countries. In the former Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic, and in Hungary a new policy of sending large numbers of Roma children to special schools for the mentally-challenged was gradually introduced. Since many Romani children spoke the Romani language as their first language and others spoke a substandard form of the national language, teachers found that their lack of fluency in the national language was a handicap to their education and a negative factor on the education of the class in general which was composed of a majority of non-Roma children and a minority of Roma children. Rather than devote extra time to the Roma children in these schools, and to take steps to combat the bullying of Romani children by non-Romani children, too many teachers simply shunted the Roma off to the special schools for the mentally-challenged. It is difficult for people in North America to contemplate that too many teachers even up to University level believe that Roma are too stupid by heredity to be educated beyond basic work skills. With only one exception, children of Czech-Romani refugees now in Canada who were tested by competent authorities in the Greater Toronto School Board were found to be of normal intelligence and well able to be included in the general school system in Canada despite having been consigned to special schools in the Czech Republic.

It is also suspected that this policy in the Czech Republic and in Hungary is an assimilationist ploy to induce the parents not to teach their children Romani so they will be fluent in Czech or Hungarian. Refugees in Canada from the Czech Republic and Hungary have admitted this is the reason why many of their children do not speak Romani. Furthermore, some schools in Hungary that were teaching the Romani language at the basic level have now had these courses discontinued by the post-Communist governments.

Testimony from Romani students, now refugees in Canada, has indicated that it is very difficult for Romani students to gain access to higher education in the former Communist countries, even if they manage to complete the equivalent of Canadian High school to reach university- entrance level. In many cases, their applications were simply not accepted. Some have stated that the local school authorities do not want Roma to excel in higher education and prefer that they remain as an urbanized sub-proletariat condemned to menial blue-collar work. Too many non-Roma fear that the falling birth rate among non-Roma and the continuing high birth rate among Roma will result in educated Roma entering politics and possibly becoming a threat to the status quo.

The post-communism phenomenon of Romaphobia or rampant prejudice and overt persecution of Roma in these former Communist countries by skinheads, neo-Fascists and ultra-nationalist is also hampering Romani education. Those in elementary and high schools are afraid to go to school and actually prefer to be in the special schools for the mentally-challenged because there they are not beaten by teachers and fellow students and are not made to feel unwelcome because of discrimination by their peers. All former Romani students now in Canada describe rampant prejudice, discrimination and overt persecution in the school systems at all levels. Special scholarship programs run by Soros Foundation grants have enabled some Romani students to go on to higher education in the Czech Republic, Hungary and elsewhere but for Romani students in general, the prospects for higher education are becoming more and more limited.

Roma in Western Europe

The education of Roma in Western Europe has followed no general pattern like that in Eastern Europe. Most Western-European countries have laws which make it mandatory for all children to attend school. Since native-born Roma are citizens of these countries, they are entitled to the same general education as any other citizen. However, because a large number of Roma are nomadic in Western Europe, this has created a special problem in education. With families constantly travelling around as they follow their traditional lifestyle of commercial nomadism, children are always attending different schools. It is almost impossible for the authorities to keep track of them to prove school attendance, and not always convenient for the children to get from the official campsite (often near a municipal garbage dump) to the nearest school. Discrimination also hampers the education of those who manage to get to school. “ In Britain, in 2009, recent polls have shown that “Gypsies” are at the bottom of the non-Anglo-Saxon totem poll of who the average white citizen would want as a neighbour, way below Africans, Muslims and Jews.

In Spain, where the long-established Calés or Spanish-Romani population is sedentary, large numbers have received at least a basic education. Some have gone on to higher education. Where Roma are sedentary in other countries of Western Europe, Romani children also receive a basic education. In Britain, privately-sponsored caravan schools have been established which traveled around to Romani campsites to teach basic literary skills at the elementary level. They are not numerous, however.

The Western-European situation has now been complicated by the arrival of large numbers of Romani refugees fleeing persecution in the former Communist countries. They constitute a serious issue for the authorities in Italy, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium, the U.K., the Republic of Ireland and elsewhere. These children of Romani refugees are not fluent in the local languages, the parents are awaiting deportation or going through some process in which they hope to gain residency, citizenship or work permits, and their status in the country is in limbo. In effect, most of these children are not receiving education within the national school systems but some are attending special schools run by various organizations dedicated to helping Romani refugees and asylum seekers in these countries. Since these refugees are sedentary Roma, those who have been accepted as citizens ir on work permits are able to send place their children in the national school systems.

Even among Roma who were born in Western-European countries, the rate of literacy is not high compared to Romani literacy in the former Communist countries. Large numbers of adults are still illiterate and others barely able to sign their names, read the newspapers, fill out forms or able to pass a driving test .The situation is improving among the younger generation, but mass literacy among Roma in Western Europe is still far from becoming a reality.

Other Countries

Education of Roma in less-economically developed countries where large numbers of non-Roma are totally illiterate can only be imagined. The majority of Roma are nomadic or live in rural settlements where they receive next to no education. In Northern Portugal, Roma still travel with carts drawn by donkeys and horses and camp outdoors. In Greece, large numbers of Roma are nomadic or live in rural settlements and villages and earn a living by agricultural labour, middlemen occupations and artisan skills. In Turkey, Roma are travelling entertainers and seasonal labourers. In many ways, these Roma are still following the Romani lifestyle like it was before the Second World War and the later Communist governments of Eastern Europe. Education is sporadic at best.

Canada and the U.S.

The Romani populations of Canada and the US are composed of 5th and 6th generation descendants of Vlach-Roma who migrated to North America between the 1880s and the early 20th century. Canadian and American Vlach-Roma form one community in language, culture and clan identities. In the US there are an estimated one million Vlach-Roma, and in Canada, about 50 thousand. Vlach-Roma are Romani clans who lived for centuries in Wallachia, Moldavia and Transylvania and whose Romani dialects have been heavily influenced by loan words from Rumanian. In Canada and the US, education of Roma is a fairly recent phenomenon. In the 1960s, illiteracy was high among the adult generation. It has now somewhat improved and older adults especially men, have basic reading and writing skills. Education is improving among the younger generation and teenagers and young adults are rapidly becoming computer literate, creating their own chat lines, list servers, web sites and blogs. The Vlach-Roma are the most traditional of all Romani groups in the Americas and follow the older Romani beliefs of purity and pollution. They also have the tradition of self-employment and in general, parents see little need for education beyond the acquisition of basic literary skills. Since the parents are successful in traditional middleman occupations and self-employment, they see little need for their children to go on to higher education. Individuals, however, have gone on to University and some have entered the arts such as film making. But for the most part, once boys reach 15 or so, they start to work with their fathers, and girls of this age are kept home because of the strict rules of morality, fear of pollution, potential drug abuse and promiscuity among non-Roma classmates and other factors.

There are also an estimated 20 thousand or more Romanichels, or Roma whose ancestors came to Canada from the U.K and more in the US. They have a higher degree of literacy than the Vlach-Roma, but also follow a traditional Romani lifestyle and are mostly self-employed in many conventional occupations such as small businessmen, middle men and as sedentary or itinerant tradesmen. Many individuals have advanced to higher education and work as professionals. Other groups such as Ludari, Sinti and Karpati Roma also exist on the US and again, their general level of education is quite high.

A large number of Romani immigrants have also come to Canada and the US since the end of the Second World War. Many of them had been educated by the Communists and have entered mainstream professions and become businessmen in Canada. Their children are attending elementary, high school and university. Many have graduated in the professions. Others have become skilled trades people and business people. During the Communist regimes, Roma simply entered Canada along with non-Roma nationals of their former countries as refugees from Communism. Since their Romani ethnicity was not the basis of their refugee claims, their arrival went unnoticed by Immigration Canada , the media and the public. For this and other reasons, the immigrant Romani population of Canada cannot be estimated. It is, however, considerable.
A growing number of Roma are now entering Canada seeking Convention refugee status as they flee persecution in the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe where they have been scapegoated and targeted by skinheads, neo-Fascists and other racist bottom-feeders. The largest group to arrive was the Czech-Roma influx beginning in August, 1997. These Czech Roma had been educated under the Communist system and want their children to be educated in Canada. Despite the fact that many of the children had been placed in schools for the mentally-challenged in the Czech Republic, most of them have fitted into the Canadian school system without any problems other than lack of interpreters in the school, system for those recently arrived. There are also many older Czech-Romani students who wish to go attend University in Canada.

As of October, 2008, when Canada removed its visa requirement for Czech nationals, which had been hastily re-imposed in October 1997 after the “First Gypsy Invasion” of August and September 1997, a new wave of Czech Roma and Hungarian Roma began arriving from this new EU member countries, new refugees from democracy fleeing the rise of neo-fascisms in the EU-member countries of Europe. This is resulting in large numbers of new Romani children entering the school systems in Canada and has created the need for interpreters and other services. Whether the current Conservative Harper government will once again apply Canada’s Doomsday Weapon and re-instate the visa requirement thus ending the flow like it did in 2007 when Canada’s immigration policy towards Roma appeared to any thinking person to be “None Is Too Many:” is a moot question.

Roma in Latin America

The Roma of Latin America, like those of English-speaking America, are usually left out of any discussion of the “world’s Roma” despite the fact that collectively, they number at least three to four million exclusive of the 8 million or so claimed for Europe. Since little has been written in English about Roma in Latin America other than a few now outdated articles in the old Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, for modern sources, such as they are, one must resort to material in Spanish and Portuguese. Educated Roma have emerged on chat lines who are educated and living in Brazil, Argentina and other countries and many Romani children are attending school. On the other hand, Romani visitors to Latin America have encountered nomadic Roma still traveling with horses and living in tents in Colombia as well as sedentary Roma in the cities driving the latest automobiles with cell phones and computers and educated Roma working in academia. In Argentina, Romani is recognized as an official minority language. There is no an association called SKOKRA, the Union of Romani Organizations in the Americas working towards the integration of and acceptance of Roma as an official minority group in the Latin-American countries.

Education in Romani for Roma

Today, Romani linguists in many countries are working towards the creation of a Romani literary language so that Romani children can be educated in Romani and taught their own history and culture. A growing body of literature in Romani is emerging in many countries and there are now Romani authors, poets and journalists among the growing Romani intelligentsia. It is important for young Romani students to be able to learn about their own history and culture. The learning tools they need can only be created by fellow Roma and preferably in the Romani language. This is being accomplished by the growing number of educated Roma. There are also Romani web sites, chat lines, list servers and news servers where Romani is used in bulletins and in personal messages while Roma are writing to one another in Romani. What is urgently needed is a standard alphabet and phonetic system that is computer friendly. Any system that relies on a phonetic system requiring diacritical marks above or below individual letters or symbols not on a standard computer keyboard such as Greek theta or epsilon will simply be self-defeating and unusable by the average Romani teenager in high school. What is needed is not a phonetic system designed by one academic linguist for other academic linguists but a workable, computer friendly, system that will facilitate its mass usage by non-academic Roma.