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Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Working Alongside the Roma, or Gypsies

Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Slovak Republic

Igor Naumovski served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Slovakia, in Central Europe. His primary assignment was to work with Roma children in a former mining village.


Hello. My name is Igor Naumovski. I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Slovakia from 2000 to 2002 as an advisor to NGOs, or nongovernmental organizations. I focused on working with the Roma, also known as Gypsies. For many people, the name “Gypsy” conjures up a negative stereotype—a dishonest, thieving, untrustworthy person from mysterious origins and culture.

During my service, one of the communities I worked with was the village of Rudnany —a village of approximately 3,000 people; about a third of the population are Roma.

The Roma live in two separate settlements on the outskirts of the village. There are about 500 people in each settlement. The village itself used to be a mining village. There were large iron and mercury mines that employed many people in the community.

However, the mine closed in the early 1990s and many people lost their jobs. In turn, the area became economically depressed.

Many of the Roma who worked in the mines stayed in the community and moved into the buildings that had housed the miners. The Roma complained to me that the environment and the land are contaminated from many years of mining mercury and iron ore.

They said that the soil is contaminated, the surrounding environment is contaminated ...

... and the water is contaminated. Many of the Roma who live in this community do not own the land. They are allowed by the municipality to live on the land, in these houses; however, they do not have any rights over the land or over their living conditions.

The Roma complained to me that there is also a lack of services in this community. For example, in each of the two settlements, there is only one water source—that's one water source for every 500 people. There is no sewage system...

...there is no garbage pickup in this community....

The Roma complained that there's a lack of healthcare. So the Roma who live here not only live on contaminated land, but really, they do not have the basic social services that every community needs to prosper and thrive.

Additionally, many of the Roma are not employed.

It is important to point out that many other Roma in Slovakia live in similar conditions. Here is a housing settlement in the city of Košice . It's the second-largest city in Slovakia . and is quite prosperous.

And yet, in the pockets of the city where the Roma live, conditions are just as bad as those in the village of Rudnany .

Here I am with one of the kids I worked with in Rudnany. My job as a Peace Corps Volunteer in this village was to work mainly with the kids. I was a mentor for these kids, I organized after-school activities and clubs, I taught English classes in the community, and helped out running other courses.

Some of the other classes that were offered were cooking and sewing, and classes that offered work-related skills to the Roma in the community—including music ...

...and dancing for performances.

This is the small office that was part of the community center. Here, the Roma could turn to social workers for advice and help in filling out forms, applying for jobs, and other socially related services.

They could always turn to the community center for help.

I learned while working in this community that there is a strong sense of pride in Roma culture and language. They were very talented people. Here, the women's group from the village of Rudnany —my village—dance in the neighboring town for a large annual festival of Roma culture.

There are similar events held throughout Slovakia that display the talents of the Roma. These festivals and performances are well attended not only by family and friends of the performers, but by the larger community—Roma and non-Roma come to these performances.

While many of the Roma live in extremely poor conditions throughout Slovakia , many of them had strong aspirations for a better life, just like you and me.

But the difference I observed is that the Roma do not have the same social and economic opportunities—just basic opportunities to improve their lives.

A good example is the special schools. This is a performance of Roma children in such a school in Rudnany. Many Roma children attend these schools for students with special academic needs. Before kindergarten, every child in Slovakia , including Roma children, is given state exams. Many of the Roma children do not pass these exams.

This is not because they are not as smart as their counterparts, but because many of the Roma kids do not yet speak or read Slovak very well. So, from what I saw, they are automatically placed in special schools that have a curriculum that is not as strong as the one in the regular public schools.

The opportunities for these kids are cut short—even from kindergarten—and this continues throughout their lives.

While living and working in the Roma communities throughout eastern Slovakia for two years, I realized that the problems the Roma are facing are complex and cannot be solved overnight.

It will take time. It will take a lot of effort from many sides, including the Roma side, for these problems to be addressed.

However, that doesn't mean that the Roma themselves want to live on the fringes of society. I came away with the understanding that the old negative stereotypes of the Gypsy are invalid. Really, from what I saw, it is the lack of basic social and economic opportunity that plagues the Roma community.

I met many talented Roma, both young and old, men and women, who worked hard and strived to improve their lives.

This is Igor Naumovski for World Wise Schools.