Vlado Rafael: Integrating the Roma? I know we can, though the reasons preventing it never cease to amaze me

In the summer, the V4 Revue wrote about the breakthrough decision by the Slovak courts that ordered the school in Šarišské Michaľany, a small village in the east of the country, to abolish the practice of segregating Roma from non-Roma children. A non-governmental organization eduRoma, whose mission is to help create mixed classes and introduce teaching techniques designed to make the school a better experience for all pupils, has been active in the village since February of this year. We spoke with Vlado Rafael, eduRoma director, about the multitude of little steps as well as the shocks accompanying this undertaking, about the Slovak debate on the Roma and about what’s ailing the education system.

Foto: Tomas Rafa (www.your-art.sk)


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You started your work with youth in the Slovak Tourist Club. Why did you end up deciding to study social work and not tourism?

I grew up in an orphanage where I saw all sorts of things that I wanted to change.  I realized early on that if I wanted to change anything at all I had to study a field related to the issues. Initially, I chose to study under the department of Roma culture, which still existed back then, with a focus on fieldwork. However, the program was awful. We had about three lectures during the whole semester. The classes just kept on being canceled.

Did the teachers not go to work?

They didn’t give a damn; it was complete chaos. So I switched to Bratislava where it was more rigorous. I completed a degree in social work and although I thought that this would lead me to work with orphanages and other institutional children’s homes, I ended up dealing with the Roma topic.I discovered that the key is to work with the original families so that these kids don’t wind up in institutionalized care in the first place.

When did you first realize that you were Roma? Or, when did you start seeing yourself this way?

We were raised as gadjos (i.e. non-Roma) in the orphanage with a strict indoctrination theme – to become the “new Slovaks”. During my childhood I performed a dozen times in Slovak folk costumes and we were taught Slovak folk songs. Problems began popping up during my teenage years. Quite a few of us realized that we looked like Roma but behaved like gadjos. At the same time, Záhorie (a region in south-west Slovakia), where I was growing up, was a stronghold of skinheads in the nineties. I had friends, Roma, that began dressing as skinheads so that they could stop being scared of themselves, on the one hand, and of the skinheads on the other. Luckily, I was spared this fashion trend.

How many of you in the orphanage were actually Roma?

Unofficial estimates say that 70 to 80 percent of children in institutional care are Roma, it was the same back then.

What does it mean that you were raised as a gadjos?

The word gypsy, later Roma, was used as a vulgarity. We didn’t identify ourselves as Roma, we used it as a swearword or as something to define oneself against. Also the tutors kept on telling us – you are not Gipsy, you are Slovaks, because to be Gipsy is something bad and abnormal. You could frequently hear the tutors hint that we should stop behaving like gypsies! The word was so vulgarized that we’d naturally distanced ourselves from it. My awaking came only during my first year at college in the department of Roma culture. That environment made me read a considerable amount of history, think about it and spend a lot of time talking to Roma people from “regular” families.

What is Romani and what is gadjo in your upbringing?

I’ve always had a double way of thinking – today it’s called inclusion. I’m not an ethnic Roma that ended up segregating myself. There’s a number of non-governmental organizations in Slovakia that have distanced themselves from the majority NGOs and created their own little world. They say: We, the Roma, must stick together, we have to insulate ourselves against that bad majority. I’ve never had that type of thinking. Just like the old saying that it takes two to tango, so too it takes two to integrate – the gadjos as well as the Roma. I’ve had – and I still have – a lot of friends that do not agree with me. They say: in order to grow, to awaken, we must be nationalist and define ourselves against the majority.

What is specific about these two elements – the Romani and the non-Romani?

A colleague from the university, a great social anthropologist, once said that ethnic identity isn’t something that you’d think about every day, for instance in the morning while brushing your teeth. It takes a specific situation and a specific cause to arouse any signs of ethnic identity. I think of myself as Vlado in the first place. My ethnic identity only surfaces in particular situations,one of which is when politicians make racists statements. It was also stirred by the court ruling on desegregation.When I read about that, I was naturally dragged into the field thinking that something must be done about it because nobody really seems to care.

In Slovakia, we see a confrontation between the inhabitants of neighborhoods or villages with a poor Roma population and the intellectuals of Bratislava. In the East, they build walls, in Bratislava, they speak about human rights. The response from the East goes: “You do not understand us, come here and experience it for yourselves.”

I’m on the side of the Bratislava intellectuals because they are talking about how things should be. Many people in Eastern Slovakia are too closely involved in the problems to maintain a broad perspective. Often, there are quick solutions – they build walls and maybe both sides feel better. Even in Michaľany, during desegregation, it was the Roma parents who came to us asking for their kids not to be mixed because they feared that their children might be threatened. Separated, they felt safe and secure. What worked was taking the time to give them aproper explanation. They got the point and then gave us the green light. However, Bratislava intellectuals are often very confrontational. They also lack a positive attitude in their reasoning. It is fashionable to spread distrust. We do not have intellectuals who are able to give people suffering from a specific problem even the faintest glimmer of hope. We even have intellectuals, both Roma and non-Roma,who are clearly anti-Roma. For example Ján Baláž, the former head of Prime Minister Radičová’s advisors.

What does he say for instance?

Last summer, we had an exchange in the SME daily about theHurbanovo shooting in which an unthreatened local policeman shot three Roma people.I felt Baláž didn’t stand up for the victims,instead he got all excited wondering in print how long we were going to tolerate “those unable to assimilate”. In response, I wrote that I had no illusions about local elites, but those fitting themselves into this role should at least watch their language. I was shocked, as his usual articles were rather humane. He was one of the few intellectuals to speak out when Remiáš was murdered during Mečiarism.Remiáš was killed because he annoyed someone. Just like in the case of that policeman – he murdered those people because they annoyed him.  Baláž was willing to stand up for Remiáš, but when the same thing happened again, this time involving Romani, he suddenly took a different view.

You can also view this as a conflict of two empathies – on one hand, there are people who sympathize with victims of racism, and on the other hand, there are those who have an understanding for the victims of the consequences of poverty and exclusion.

I once sat with a guy from one of the artistic circles who tried to explain to me how he felt: “Vlado, I’m not bothered by the Roma as such,by their skin color, by them being musicians or by their traditions. But I’m an empirical racist. I do have a problem based on experience with a particular person. And I do realize that I tend to generalize. And for instance, I now have noisy neighbors and I’ve got no clue what to do about it. So please tell me what you think I should do.” And I replied to him that I had no clue either.

Such a question pops up more and more frequently – I’ve heard about and read several people who are confronted with noisy neighbors asking ‘how should I handle this so as not to be racist’?

If neighbors respond to their loud neighbors by putting up a thicker wall and installing a soundproof door, those are adequate reactions, just as calling the police is. The problem is that this is getting to a media-political level and at that point it stops being funny. Individual examples are being generalized and this is how laws are being created. Like the “no pain – no gain” rule, assuming that Roma don’t want to work. Such views are even legitimized by Roma elites serving today’s unicolor government. In my view this is a much more severe problem than the quarrels in small villages and towns, where in the end people always find a way to coexist.

Why do politicians consider this such an exciting topic? Last summer, two SDKÚ politicians – Frešo and Kaník – campaigned for a law on illegal construction in front of a settlement and not in front of some big shot’s palace.

That’s human psychology. People are generally used to perceiving things that affect them directly and are clear to see as opposed to say corruption, which they can’t even imagine. They can’t imagine the amounts of money stolen by politicians as clearly as the usual neighborly quarrels – those fields with stolen potatoes, the few trees hacked down in Slovak Paradise.

How many people realistically own fields with potatoes stolen by the Roma and how many people are affected by corruption or by the fact that we don’t have appropriately   remunerated teachers in this country? 

I can’t really judge why the minority question is so sensitive –here it is the Roma, in the US, it is the Latinos. When I visited North Ireland they had the same problems. For them it is new – they have not always had the Roma, but now they have a large number from Romania. And when I asked them about schools and the education of the Roma children, they pointed to problems similar to those experienced by the Czechs or the Slovaks. In Finland, they speak loudly of segregating these kids as they are not able to work with them. In Canada, I was approached by a sociology student who said:“You know, we are now considering special schools for the migrant Roma.”  I tried to explain to him, don’t do it, we are about to abandon that in the Czech Republic and in Slovakia. He was surprised.

You can frequently hear exclamations that in the past twenty years, nothing has been done for or with the Roma (depending on who’s speaking). Why is it popular to say that nothing has been done and everything must be built from scratch?

People’s memory is short and most don’t pay attention to expert questions. Much was accomplished during Klára Orgovánová’s, the former government plenipotentiary for Roma communities, tenure. It was a period that worked with expert questions in order to persuade politicians and state officials to push through laws that addressed the issue of poverty. However, since these are not mainstream topics, ordinary people don’t really know about this –the media ignore it completely, especially the commercial media. You still have young people today speaking nonsense, such as that Roma receive sizeable social benefits. Had they spent any time studying the topic, they’d know that this ceased to be true a long time ago. I remember Peťo Polák, when he was elected to parliament, making one perfect gesture. He asked all MPs to stand up for one minute in honor of the victims of the Roma holocaust. Nobody had ever done that before him. I told myself that if he was going to follow this direction, it would be great. The symbolism of the moment was huge. It is a pity that we do not have Roma elites who are able to balance the general public discourse with such symbolic gestures.

Several years ago, Roma intellectual Denisa Havrľová was interviewed with the headline that the “Roma question is irresolvable”, saying that “the Roma are terribly ungrateful”.

If anyone does anything only to receive gratitude, they should just forget about it. My understanding of intellectuals is that these are educated people capable of reaching beyond their field of expertise and entering public discussion anytime they feel that society’s values are being endangered. There aren’t many such people in Slovakia and there are even fewer within the Roma community. I don’t know why. Some have taken cover inside NGOs that have closed themselves to the outside world, frequently functioning as family businesses that no longer fulfill any public function. In the nineties, Roma NGOs carried out a clear political function. Yet, this has come to an end – you can see a number of tiny Roma NGOs, often family businesses, serving specific economic interests rather than social and educational ones. They rarely ever address any social issues. If at all, then they write Roma poetry, often in the Roma language, that ordinary people simply can’t read.

You left Bratislava’s Open Society Foundation (OSF) after six years and founded a new NGO – eduRoma. How did you start?

People from the government office for Roma integration called me up to say that the Michaľany case will most likely not be the plenipotentiary’s priority and will require an independent initiative. I agreed with Igor André from the government officethat we would draft the vision and find an NGO that could take it up. As we were working on the project we decided that we’d do it ourselves and handed in our notice.

How did you get the resources?

We’ve covered it from our severance pay. In the start, we had an unpleasant experience. A potential donor, who is now running for the presidency, repeated to us several times: “Guys, I do not care about public services, I do not understand those strategies”. We asked him to come into the field with us, to see it for himself and consider his support. He did not have time and instead went to his company meeting. There were people promising us support at the beginning who have since simply vanished, refusing even to respond to our emails.

So how are you making a living?

We’d been registered with the Employment Office for quite some time. After eight months, I started teaching again. Later, we fortunately came across a man trading in agricultural commodities. He listened to our story and said: “Guys, I don’t quite understand what this is all about, however, I’m on board. You’re so excited that I just want to support you.” And he gave us some money to start. A true angel. Now we’re trying to secure some resources from abroad as we have not really succeeded in getting anything in Slovakia.

Let’s get to day one – whose door in  Michaľany did you knock on and what did you say?

Our initial strategy was to be backed up by authority. We are just two people, Rafael and Andre, we are nobody. We phoned the new school director in Michaľany and agreed on the idea of cooperative classes, up to then unsuccessfully coordinated by the government office. The first meeting took place in February in Spišská Nová Ves, the government office handed over the Michaľanycase to eduRomaand the elementary school in Michaľany agreed that it would cooperate with eduRoma on the model of inclusive education.

What was the most important thing that has happened since February?

We’ve started the desegregation phase. We are gradually implementing the court resolution. If the resolution says that the school must show the way and demonstrate good will, then this way and good will have been expressed by the fact that the children are now mixed. Some Roma classes still exist, but this is for objective reasons – the Roma population curve is steeper, so you can’t always have a 50:50 distribution. The school formerly distributed only dry lunch packages with food past the expiration date – now the kitchen will have an oven and all kids will receive hot food.

How did you manage to mix the children?

Many people tell me – if you want to change anything in practice, you first need to change peoples’ minds. But you’d need to live there for twenty years to do that. You do not have ten years to persuade the teacher – be so kind and integrate those kids. So, often it was orders from the new school director – just as one segregates by command so too can one desegregate by command. For instance, we were able to agree the abolition of the “informed consent” agreements that parents had had to sign in order for their child to be permitted to attend a “mixed” class.  Before, the school administrators would ask parents if they agreed that their child could attend a mixed class. That’s done with. The white and black courtyards have also been gotten rid of.

How were the new rules implemented?

Segregation is a matter of habit. After new busing service was introduced for the kids from the nearby village of Ostrovany, most buses initially remained empty because the kids were simply used to walking home after school. We ensured that assistants were at hand to take the little Roma kids to the bus in order to help them get used to it. With segregation, it is the same. Initially, mixed classes triggered psychosomatic problems in the kids. They cried, some even got sick. They did not want to attend mixed classes. They had to get used to it to stop self-segregating, which is now happening. We organize fieldtrips, exhibitions, all sorts of thing to enable the kids to break the ice and get used to each other. The work with teachers is different – it is much harder. They do not concur with the court’s ruling, in fact they feel offended. We did not come to Michaľany blaming anyone; we have stuck to the role of a facilitator. But it’s hard. It’s not at all rare to hear racist remarks by local decision makers – and I’m not talking about the teachers. I take these quite personally, however, in order to achieve anything I keep quiet. I’m trying to show these people that I understand, to get them on my side to achieve something. Over the past eight months, we’ve managed to change the social atmosphere.

At a recent workshop in Prešov, you described the horror with which you found out what a complex system segregation had been and how much effort must have been invested in devising it.

I’m still thinking about – and perhaps we will find out one day – how the idea of black and white courtyards sprang up. For segregation is present in various schools, it’s sophisticated.They put ‘dark’ kids behind walls, into a small courtyard dedicated just to them, and they walk around like prisoners. While the white kids have a big, open soccer playground. This is completely incomprehensible to me. The most shocking part of this is that this was done by the very same teachers who’re still there today. Nobody has been replaced – today,  we’re trying to persuade them that they should teach differently and also start viewing things differently. For example, we heard during the workshops for teachers that the Michaľany school does not belong to the children from Ostrovany at all, why should they attend it? I asked, what did they then want to do with the available space? Those kids, when they come to  school here, draw substantial money from the state. The response was “Yes, that is the only reason”. The next response was that even if some space were to become available, then it should be rented out, or some kind of guesthouse could be opened there. The segregation of children is relatively well thought out, which makes it hard to eliminate. These excuses that perpetuate segregation will never cease to amaze me.

What was the difference between Roma and non-Roma classes?

The school audit that we carried out at the beginning showed that children were more orderly in the Roma classes. They had more respect for the teacher than the kids in the regular gadjo classes, where they shouted over each other, did not bother to raise their hand and often just went on saying aloud the first thing that came to their minds. So we do not see any reason why Roma children should be an obstacle to integration in any sense. We are trying to convince teachers by using specific practical examples that it is possible to get things done. For example, as the curriculum in Roma classes was typically behind that of the other kids’ classes, we suggested extra classes after school to enable the Roma kids to catch up. The teachers’ first thought was that the kids woldn’t show up, but that turned out not to be the case. This past eight months have been about persuasion, about building up a model, about demonstrating that those little steps are possible to implement and that it all makes sense.

Who then is the biggest obstacle?

Local politicians, teachers’ attitudes, parents’ indecisiveness, plus there are enormous pressures exerted upon the current school director, who must carry out all these decisions. He can’t bring himself to make such decisions overnight and only gets to them in two months’ time or so. This is why it all takes so long, you need to do it all very slowly.

What is the problem with local politicians?

We are always told: “Guys, it’s not possible to do it right away.” There are also conflicting interests. Perhaps most importantly, 2014 is a municipal election year. We met with one mayoral candidate who does not quite agree with what we’re doing. He asked me – guys, why does a doctor need to see a patient who is not sick? I tell him – listen, you have a court ruling on the desk and you will have to do something about it. The state can’t be bothered to help you with it, and here you have two fools from Bratislava spending their own money on gas and trying to collect some funds to put together workshops for teachers. Hundreds of other schools in the region have the exact same problem. We want to help you, but we also want to use this case to push through a change in education legislation.And he took that for an answer, he said he understood. On the other hand, the relationships in the village have their own history and you can’t break them up just like that. For example, we thought that since the new school director comes directly from Prešov, the regional capital, he’ll be better able to withstand the pressure. However, it has been hard even for him. The current mayor told us openly that he’s in favor of segregation. The Education Ministry has no influence as the responsibility for managing the school lies with the mayor.

You work in one school – can you imagine that what you are doing now, in a specific village, could be replicated elsewhere?

Someone mentioned Spišský Hrhov as a good practice example. The director of their local school invited us for a visit. My colleague concluded that Spišský Hrhov had such a great atmosphere that if you planted a banana there in the winter, it would still grow. And he was right, because the mayor and the school director there knew what they wanted. You can’t replicate such cases. What you can do is work with interpersonal relationships and have determination. Often, it does not take two guys from Bratislava, nor is itreally that expensive. This Michaľany case might help convince politicians that a change in their perception of education is a recipe to contribute to good things. I believe that the key cause of  schools’ lack of success has a lot to do with the decentralized system; administrators within the system have got used to the way things are and don’t want to change them, for various reasons. Imagine that for twenty years, you’ve been convinced that segregation is good and suddenly, someone tells you one day that in fact, it is not good at all and you should change your mindset right away. Why? Why should you do that?

In the US, Obama won with the motto of “change”.

Yes, forty years since desegregation in the States. But even Obama says – I know we still have segregation in schools. The difference is that this is the American president saying it aloud. None of our politicians has acknowledged the Michaľany court resolution, all are keeping their distance. Both the former and the current Education Minister. They speak about it in the privacy of their offices, but not publically.

Why do you think this is so? Why do they not take a stance?

Because they would have to admit that Slovakia is a segregating country, at least in the area of education, and maybe in housing as well, and that the problem of segregation is present and something needs to be done about it. The issue is that people can’t imagine having integrated education; that Roma and non-Roma children should be together. People even welcome special schools. If they acknowledged segregation as a problem they’d have to do something about the special schools.

For several years, we’ve had reports available confirming that Roma children don’t end up in special schools only based on factual mental impairment, but frequently just because it’s become a general approach. And often, Roma parents decide alone that their child should go to a special school. So we know about this.

Everybody knows that. So I’m just asking what would happen if the Education Minister, or perhaps even the Prime Minister, would say openly that yes, we know that children are being segregated here, that they are being incorrectly diagnosed, and that the entire pedagogic-psychological diagnostic as it is currently applied is a complete joke. What would follow? Imagine trying to challenge the entire psychological discipline upon which these policies rest, all those consultations, all those tests…

But it has been challenged already.

Not on an official level. The Education Minister admitted that errors occur in the diagnostics, but he hasn’t done anything to change that. I don’t know why they don’t talk about it out loud. The question is what would happen if they did. A change would be necessary, it would not be politically popular and perhaps it would even be costly, and the school reform that has beendiscussed for years would actually have to take place – it would take much more than the typical legislative patches.

Lucia Najšlová

Lucia Najšlová

is the editor in chief of the V4 Revue. She is a lecturer at the Charles University in Prague and at UPCES CERGE-EI and associate fellow at the IIR in Prague.

Vlado Rafael

Vlado Rafael

is director of EduRoma. In April 2013 he was appointed as a member of the Curriculum Council, an advisory body of the Ministry of Education. Vlado is a regular contributor to national newspapers SME Daily and also published a collection of poems Cudzie krídla in 2007.