Roma Children and Mothers Go to School

Used with permission of Church World Service. Photo credit: Frederic Vigne

It’s called Makiš, and it’s found on the edges of the Serbian capital city of Belgrade.  More than a decade after the most violent conflict in Kosovo forced many inhabitants out, including members of the Roma community, many of them are still considered Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Belgrade, the largest city in the former Yugoslavia.  Makiš is nothing more than row after row of containers.  But it is “home” to hundreds of Roma families.  The city of Belgrade attempted many times to force these Roma families elsewhere, pushing them to move out from underneath the largest bridge in New Belgrade and then to other settlements, and the contrived container community of Makiš is their latest effort.   

For eight years Week of Compassion has supported the work of the Branko Pesić Primary School in Belgrade through our partnership with Church World Service.  But Branko Pesić is not an ordinary school.  And it is not confined to a building.  It is one of the most innovative, counter-cultural and effective educational and social institutions in Belgrade as it endeavors to educate the Roma community.  This is not an easy task, as the Roma do not traditionally seek formal education or training.  Many live in the streets and beg for a living.  This has been their way of life for generations. Used with permission of Church World Service. Photo credit: Frederic Vigne  

 Poverty-stricken and almost always without legal documents or residence and thus without access to health care and housing, the Roma are one of the most marginalized groups in the societies in which they live.  Usually illiterate and uneducated, the cultural tradition of begging as a livelihood is difficult to break.  Yet, when given the chance, the families in Makiš were eager to learn.  As my colleagues from Church World Service and I walked through the container camp alongside the teachers and social workers from Branko Pesić Primary School, we received a hero’s welcome—all of the children and their parents had learned to trust and love the staff of the school.   When they could not afford to send their children to the school itself, the staff of Branko Pesić brought the school to them.  For the first time, these usually “invisible” children were suddenly seen.  Someone believed in them—even enough to offer them an education. 

Through the help of CWS, the Branko Pesić staff set up a classroom in the tiny one-room building of one of the containers. Classes are in session every single day, including some classes for adults on the weekends.  Thus, in addition to their children receiving a primary and secondary school education, their mothers also have the opportunity to learn to read.  Sanja, a 21 year-old mother of two children who never went to school is now attending literacy classes.  Gordana, a 37 year-old mother of five children said to me with gleaming eyes, “I can’t wait to go to school!”  She will not only learn to read, but she and the other women will also attend workshops on issues such as health and hygiene; life responsibilities; family relations; human rights and citizenship; conflict resolution; legal assistance; and confidence-building.  Sahata told me, “We love the chance to go to school; it’s a dream come true.  We are not used to people giving us these kinds of chances.” 

Their daughters also spoke with me about what getting an education has meant to them. Violetta, age 14, wants to be a hair stylist now.  Indira, age 12, wants to be a teacher.  And Suzana, age 12, can’t wait to become an actress.  She entertained all of us as she modeled for the camera. 

Used with permission of Church World Service. Photo credit: Frederic Vigne

Most inspiring for me was to witness how education truly changes someone’s life.  It is the key to development; the way to a better world.  The needs among the Roma community are constant, but in the eight years of supporting our partnership with Church World Service and the Branko Pesić School, it is clear that our dedication and long-term vision have made a great impact.  Roma teenagers who began as primary school pupils at Branko Pesić are now graduating high school.  Many of these graduates have now found jobs and are supporting themselves and their families. 

Slowly but surely, we are making a real difference in the lives of some of the most marginalized people on earth.  This could not happen without your faithful support and courageous compassion.  Thank you so very much! 


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