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Refika Mustafic - Opre Roma!

7 November 2001

Refika Mustafic is Human Rights Education Co-ordinator of the ERRC. In that capacity, she led the ERRC group to the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, August-September 2001. She is also founder of the Roma Education Center of Niš, Yugoslavia.

I graduated university with a degree in Serbian language and Yugoslav literature. I believe I was the first Romani woman in my town to have earned such a degree. I regularly attended the lectures, passed the exams, and I was like all other students. Nevertheless, both I and "they" knew that I was not the same as the rest, that I was strange, unusual, and until I actually completed my studies, it was generally presumed that I would be a failure: A Romani girl, who stated her ethnic identity in public and wrote it in the application form for next semester, aroused suspicion among the professors. Women from the administrative department gathered around me regularly whenever I was enrolling for the semester, applying for the exams or asking anything else. After reading my name, the professors could not resist and ask whether it was true, was I really a Gypsy?

I admit, sometimes it was even funny, but in those four years of my studies I got tired of explaining: Yes, I am Romani, you know, there is a difference between the terms "Roma" and "Gypsy". I always had to explain what my family did for a living and persuade them that I didn't work on the black market.

I got a job in a public school, continuing, in the eyes of my peers, to be a "miracle". I couldn't find a permanent job. I changed schools twice. In the first one, it was openly stated at a parents' meeting that, after one year of working, I "was not competent," because "they didn't want their children to be taught Serbian language by some Gypsy." Though the director of the school wanted me to stay, he explained that his position was in question, and he told me that "because he respected me and wanted to help me," he would transfer me to the "Roma school", i.e. the school with more than 50 percent of Romani pupils. Everything I know about human rights and human rights violations I learned in that school. I just want to present how far stereotypes and prejudices can go: Even my Romani children wondered if I was able to teach language and literature. Before I had my first class, the school board invited a state supervisor to investigate the level of my knowledge personally and to watch me teach my classes. There was a cold silence on the part of school staff, interrupting their conversations when I would pass by, and there were constant complaints about Romani children - about how they were dirty, stank, were messy and stupid. The parents were, I was told, irresponsible, without interest and also stinking and lacking in culture. This situation made me identify myself with every single child, made my connection with the pupils stronger, made me work with them in every free moment. I suggested to the school director that they should use me to improve communication with the parents, and that we should have obligatory supplementary classes even outside the regular classroom hours. I tried to explain what would help the children in overcoming the difficulties in the lessons, but I only found silence or a search for reasons against my efforts. For example, he told me that I could not call the parents in the name of the school, but only in my personal name. He also told me, "There are no free classrooms for supplementary classes," although at the same time the gymnasium was being rented to organised groups and the school was taking money for it. My colleagues did not see any reason for investing more of themselves for the sake of the children. This environment created children who did not believe in themselves, who believed they were not worth any attention and that they were stupid.

As one solution for improving the situation, I was part of a group which established a school for supplementary education of Romani children in Niš. At the Roma Education Center, we try to explain and overcome these problems. The idea behind the Roma Education Center is that this world can be a pleasant place for Romani children as well, where the teachers treat all pupils equally, simply because we believe we are all the same and that we can learn a lot from one another. Since coming to work at the ERRC, I have learned a lot about international standards for the human rights protection of Roma and the promotion of Roma rights. An articulation of the interests, attitudes and specifics of Romani children, work on their education and emancipation, as well as the development and encouragement of the idea of equal opportunities for Romani children, these are my battle and my dream.

*Opre Roma! "Rise up Roma!"

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