In Roma villages, between poverty and hope of integration

A class of school children in the village of Gradinari. Keystone

Children who don’t go to school, families living on €3 (CHF3) a day in dilapidated houses without running water or electricity – this is daily life for thousands of Roma in Romania. Switzerland is making them a priority in its foreign aid for Eastern Europe.

This content was published on April 27, 2015 - 11:00
Stefania Summermatter, in Romania,

In a little schoolhouse at Gradinari, 200 km west of Bucharest, some of these least privileged children can go to school for the afternoon, too, an unusual occurrence in Romania’s rural villages. They spend several hours within school walls that were once brightly painted but now show their age. The children play, receive extra tutoring and are given advice meant to instill more self-confidence. They also get a hot meal, sometimes their only one of the day.

But amid the poverty that is relatively dire for an European Union member-country, the children often must look after younger siblings or work in the fields. So the time spent in school is discouraged, the lessons devalued. In 2013, for example, 12.2% of the nation’s children were unregistered for or had already quit primary school, double the figure for 2008, according to UNICEF dataExternal link. The ones paying the steepest price are the youngest Roma, particularly the girls.

In the classrooms of Gradinari, however, there has been no absenteeism for months. The teachers say they have reduced truancy through after-school care and other educational activities promoted by an initiative named “Together for empowerment”, or zefiRExternal link. Backed by several groups coordinated by the Lausanne-based foundation Terre des hommes, zefiR is largely a Swiss-funded initiative that aims to improve access to education and health for about 25,000 people, mainly Roma, in a dozen rural communities in southwest Romania. 

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The Swiss government contributes CHF3 million ($3.2 million) to the initiative’s CHF3.4 million budget. The money was given as part of Switzerland’s CHF181 million contribution to RomaniaExternal link between 2009 and 2014. Journalists saw on a trip in March, organised by the Swiss foreign ministry, that in Gradinari the needs are great.

“One time we made bricks and tiles, now we live from farming. There is no work. People are poor and just manage to get by. Up to 15 people sleep under one roof”, the mayor, Mihai Iona, said. Some elderly inhabitants had never had basic health tests done such as blood work, while some of the children’s births were never registered because they occurred on the road or outside the country. Roma, who account for about half of Gradinari’s 2,300 inhabitants, are hardest hit by the poverty.

“At the start it was difficult to get Roma families to understand the importance of education”, explains a teacher. “Most parents did not finish school and only 10% are able to help their children do their homework.” The mayor, one of the few people of Roma origin to head a municipality in the country, has helped make a difference. But complete integration isn't coming any time soon. Some 90% of the 211 children in school are Roma. Families with more means send their children to school in the nearest town, Dragasani, where there are computers for them to learn on – and fewer Roma.

Inclusive approach

Although it is officially forbidden, segregation of Roma children at school persists in Romania. The young, but not only the young, suffer from discrimination and a lack of positive role models. Roma who have gained education and professional status, such as doctors and lawyers, rarely want to draw attention to their origins.

This is not the case with Delia Grigore, a 43-year-old anthropologist, linguist and human rights activist with dark eyes and an earnest look. The only way to integrate Roma children in schools, she says, is by acknowledging their culture and history. “This material should be put in the schoolbooks, and more effort put into the teaching of Romany”, Grigore said. “Only that way will Roma be able to feel part of society and respect its value system, which is not necessarily the same as theirs.”

Living on €3.3 a day

Romania is the EU member with the largest concentration of Roma people on its territory. The Roma population in the country is estimated to be between 1.5 and 2 million. Half live on less than €3.3 a day, according to a study by the World BankExternal link.

Das Haus von Jonela wird dank einem Schweizer Beitrag renoviert werden. Keystone

At Vizuresti, a Roma village 40 km north of Bucharest, Jonela lives in a run-down cottage without drinking water or heating. On the roof there are plastic sheets; on the ground mattresses. She is 38, has 11 children, and is missing several teeth. While neighbours watch this unusual visit with some curiosity, Jonela tells that her house may get a new paint job. The community has in fact made it one of its priorities to upgrade housing as part of a 27-month project “At home in your communityExternal link”, run by various NGOs in 10 poor communities in southern Romania. More than 90% of its budget is paid by Switzerland.

Future at stake

The integration of Roma is not just a major problem for Romania, but also a social and economic opportunity. With 37% of Roma under 15 years of age, this population represents the future of a country grappling with an aging population. The WorldExternal link Bank has estimated that leveling the playing field for Roma in Romania’s workplace would boost the economy by €887 million to €2.9 billion a year.

The Romanian government seems to want to commit itself to this. At the beginning of this year, it adopted a €100 million strategy to better integrate Roma by 2020. But it remains to be seen how these funds will be used in a country that a 2014 European Commission reportExternal link found is seen by the vast majority of its own inhabitants as mired in widespread corruption.

The EU also has budgeted several billion euros to better integrate Roma within member countries, including Romania. Only a very small portion has been paid out so far, mainly due to bureaucratic factors. There has been little apparent progress, says Angela Matti of the Society for Threatened Peoples in Bern, who notes that the Roma generally do not figure prominently when others, including the Swiss, organise development projects.

Divisions within the Roma community also are to blame, making it difficult for them to be heard with one voice. And not all of them favour development programmes tailored to helping them. “The Roma are a heterogeneous community and focusing on their problems only encourages stigmatisation”, said Marian Ursan, who leads a Swiss-backed project to assist drug addicts living amid poverty in Bucharest. “Besides, they are not the only ones with problems: there are also Romanians who are in dire straits, and helping the Roma more only creates resentment.”

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A contribution to Eastern Europe

Following a request from Brussels, the Swiss government in 2004 pledged CHF1 billion to the first eastward expansion of the EU. The aim was to reduce social disparities and promote the economic development of Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Slovenia, Malta and Cyprus.

Challenged to a referendum, the so-called cohesion funds were approved by Swiss voters in December 2006. Three years later, parliament agreed a new credit of CHF257 million for Romania and Bulgaria, to which were added CHF45 million for Croatia in December 2014.

In total, Switzerland has financed more than 250 projects, 19 of which are in Romania.

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