Roma children’s right to education, a basic children’s right, is being violated in Belgium. At least that’s what Elias Hemelsoet thinks, the author of Roma in Ghent Education and policy adviser within the flemish educational system. ‘The right to education goes beyond giving every child access to education. School has to be meaningful for every child. Right now, that’s not always the case for Roma children.’
Roma are the largest ethnic minority group in the European Union and they are often victims of discrimination. In 2011 all memberships states of the EU were obliged to set up a National Roma Integration Strategy. It had to tackle, among others, how Roma feel about education but also how education feels about Roma.
‘Belgium is the only country that submitted this akwardly late,’ says Elias Hemelsoet, author of Roma in Ghent Education: a separate story? ‘In Europe, Belgium is probably the country with the least research on Roma.’ It goes without saying that that doesn’t help the situation of many Roma. It certainly doesn’t help the children.
‘Every child has the right to education en this goes beyond giving every child acces to education,’ he explains. ‘Education has to mean something for every child, including Roma children. If not, Roma will continue to be trapped in a vicious circle of poverty and social exclusion.’ However, he underlines that it’s a two way street. ‘Obviously, we can’t create the perfect school to every parent’s wishes.’
‘My research showed that a Slovakian Roma child in the city of Ghent is 6.5 times more likely to end up in special education than any other child,’ Hemelsoet says. ‘That’s alarming from a children’s rights point of view.’
The principal of an Antwerp special education primary school* estimates that approximately 30 procent of his pupils are Roma. ‘One can ask how these children end up here, in special education,’ he argues. ‘It’s questionable if all these Roma children have developmental disabilities.’ However, he defends their presence at his school: ‘Our experience with previous Roma children allows us to give them a suitable education.
‘For their children, Roma are like tigers’
Some of the children that attend the special education school, live on the trailer park relatively close by. The Roma who live there are part of the Rom and Sinti groups. Each week Lena Pengel (29) collects several children with her minivan. She brings them to the School of Peace where primary school children with learning difficulties receive homework support from volunteers.
School of Peace is an initiative from Sant’ Egidio, a christian community that pursuits solidarity, peace and dialogue. Lena has been coming and going to these Roma since 2007 and the people trust her. ‘It took me a lot of time and effort before I could take the children with me to School of Peace, even though I had the best intentions.’
‘For their children, Roma are like tigers,’ confirms the principal of the special education school. Roma are cautious when it comes to trusting non-Roma, Lena explains. They are very protective over their children because they know how some people see them.
It are the connotations that non-Roma make with the term Roma that makes Roma feel ashamed. ‘They aren’t ashamed because they’re Roma, they’re ashamed for the way society sees Roma,’ clarifies the principal of the special education school.
23-year-old Floure° lives on the trailer park. And even though she’s not ashamed of being Roma – ‘It’s my identity after all.’ – she does feel like she’s treated differently once people know her origins. The employment agency recommended not mentioning the fact that she’s Roma.
‘No wonder that Roma parents don’t believe that present day education will give their children better opportunities’, says Hemelsoet. ‘We have to make sure dat what happens in that classroom, will contribute to their social opportunities.’
That’s not always the case which makes dropping out of school easier. Marriage among minor isn’t unusual in the Roma trailer park. After the wedding school is optional. ‘My sister is nineteen and quit school after she got married,’ Fennix° (11). ‘I don’t think she minded.’ He wants to marry when he’s fifteen. ‘Then I’ll quit school.’ He hesitates for a second. ‘Maybe. School is stupid. Lena is more fun and so is School of Peace. Or maybe I will follow part-time education. But that’s normal. That’s the way it goes over here.’
‘You know what life is like here’
Lena is aware of the problem. Sometimes Roma are faced with discrimination or they feel they are treated differently, she says. At his first school Ricardo* (17) felt that it didn’t matter how hard he tried. ‘It was never good enough,’ he explains. He’s not sure if that was because he’s Roma but it got him so frustrated that soon he started revolting.
Flash forward to today: Ricardo has had three suspensions and now he’s enrolled on a part-time school. Things are going better for him, but he wants to marry soon. Time is pressing. ‘Lena, soon there won’t be any girls left. You know how thing are here,’ he shoots back when she points out that he’s only seventeen years old.
In the van on our way to School of Peace, Sara° (8) says she really likes the homework support. ‘I also like school. I have a nice teacher.’ She never wants to get married. ‘Marrying is boring and kissing is gross.’ In the back seat, Amateo° shouts that he wants to be a policeman. ‘I’d rather be a cook,’ Sara admits. ‘Or a teacher. Or a star!’ Her best friend who’s sitting next to her is nodding fiercely.
In this article the meaning of the term Roma is in line with the meaning ascribed by the European Union. The term is overarching for several population groups including Sinti, Roma and caravan dwellers. The Council of Europe estimates that in Belgium there live approximately 30.000 Roma. That is 0,29% of the total Belgian population. An exact figure can’t be given as Roma is an ethnicity, not a nationality. In Belgium there are, for example, Roma with the Belgian, Slovakian or Romanian nationality.
* The principal preferred not having his name published.
° To respect the privacy of the Roma community and the children, the names used in this article are not their real names.
This article was created for the UNICEF Young Journalist Award, presented by Unicef Belgium and Stampmedia. The original version is a tad longer and in Dutch. It can be found on the site of Stampmedia: http://www.stampmedia.be/2017/01/roma-kinderen-in-belgie-wanneer-ik-vijftien-ben-trouw-ik-en-stop-ik-met-school/ and on the site of Unicef Belgium: https://www.unicef.be/nl/youngjournalistaward/