The Roads Before Romani Education: Thoughts after a Public Debate

07 November 2002

Emil Cohen1

On September 24, 2002, the Sofia-based Center for Culture and Debate –"The Red House" – organised a public debate on Romani education. The debate was an extraordinary event not only because it was attended by the Minister of Education and Science, Mr Vladimir Atanassov, or because the composition of the audience – primarily Romani activists – was unusual for the debates organised to date by the Center. The impressive fact about this debate was that, for the first time since its establishment, the Center for Culture and Debate managed to outgrow the limitations of the interesting yet unsubstantial intellectual play. Academics and practitioners were brought together to discuss the burning yet hopelessly bogged down problems affecting thousands of Roma in Bulgaria.

The topic of the debate was "Education for the Elite or Education for All?" The title was based on the assumption that the desegregation of Roma in education in Bulgaria produces benefits which are accessible just for a small part of the Romani community. It is accurately observed that, so far, desegregation has affected just a small portion of the Romani children in Bulgaria. Skeptics claim that the scaling up of the desegregation process requires a lot of money and effort, which might turn out to be impossible to secure. Consequently, skeptics assert, the practical effect of the idea to place Romani children in the mainstream schools would be to create a small elite but not to improve the overall status of Romani education. And what about the underprivileged majority of Romani children whom the foundations working on desegregation fail to reach? Is it not humane to make projects which aim to improve the ghetto schools in the Romani neighbourhoods and shall we not channel efforts and funds in this direction? These were some of the questions raised at the debate, which received various answers.

Several issues came up in the course of the debate. One was, how do we perceive the Romani community in Bulgaria – as an utterly marginalised community with no prospects for integration in Bulgarian society, or as a community which despite the poverty and disadvantage has viability and potential to overcome the present situation if adequately assisted by the state? A number of scholars and activists tend to emphasise the utter poverty of the Romani community. I don't have doubts that these people have good intentions – the alarming facts and figures about Roma in Bulgaria are meant to prompt governmental action. But what kind of action? The picture of Roma emerging from a number of studies is one of a hopelessly backward and degraded community that has no chance to become "normal" according to the majority standards. If public policy is premised on such an apocalyptic vision of Roma, then the most probable solution would be the following: Due to the fact that Roma will never be able to overcome the misery of their situation and reach a status comparable with that of the majority, we should work to improve their situation but should keep them separate from the majority. Roma should stay in their neighbourhoods and in the ghetto schools. What is needed is to improve the ghetto schools – provide some equipment, renovate the teacher body, revamp the buildings, etc.

Numerous arguments are being provided in support of preserving the all-Romani schools in the ghettos, ranging from the preservation of Romani ethnic specificities and the right to choose what school to attend, to national security. Curiously, these arguments are shared not only by conservative Bulgarians, but also by some Roma.

The consequences of policies that were aimed at keeping Romani children within neighbourhood schools, are painfully evident today. The combination of the ghetto and the school based in the ghetto does not serve any other purpose but the reproduction of ghetto culture together with all its horrible effects. Time and again – with each single child – this combination fosters the vicious circle of bad education, environmental resilience to change, lack of qualifications and finally – no escape from the ghetto. Through the "ethnic" schools, the marginalised community perpetuates its marginality. Because the ghetto is a self-sufficient microcosm and its invisible walls are even less penetrable than concrete walls. The proponents of the "ethnic specifics" and the "right to choose", however, tend to forget that the Romani settlements were not built because Roma so desired, but because, from the perspective of the authorities, this was the easiest solution and, from the perspective of Roma themselves, this was the safest solution. The settlement is a means of collective self-defense against the discrimination of a hostile environment. Consequently, the proponents of the apocalyptic vision might find themselves, perhaps against their will, on the same team with careless authorities and fundamentalist Roma. The former, out of idleness or badly concealed chauvinism, do not want to make the least effort in order to start the desegregation process; the latter are afraid that desegregation will destroy the Romani identity which they, curiously enough, tend to identify not with the modern national consciousness, but with the memory of the patriarchal childhood.

The debate also raised the false dilemma of whether desegregation is the only possible way to reform Romani education. The defenders of desegregation have offered forceful arguments to that end. No one in Bulgaria, indeed, can reasonably claim that the all-Romani schools are anywhere near the quality of education provided by the mixed schools. Secondly, it stands to reason that two communities that have lived in separation are more likely to nurture prejudices for each other than if they were in a day-to-day interaction. For lack of any meaningful counterarguments, desegregation opponents arduously claim that desegregation is not applicable everywhere, especially in the small villages where Roma prevail or are the only population. In these villages there is no one to mix Roma with. The all-Romani villages are also a kind of ghetto, no matter that they are not a part of larger towns or cities. There, not only for demographic reasons, ethnic Bulgarians are vanishing. And the circle closes. Once again we are confronted with the reproduction of conservatism. The most probable road of the poorly educated Romani children would be towards the nearest town or cities where there are better prospects to find jobs than in the economically devastated Bulgarian villages. In the town, the only "warm place" for the Roma is the ghetto. It is difficult to think of a place in Bulgaria where the village is more than 20-30 km away from any town. Is this an insurmountable distance for a school bus? The argument of the inapplicability of the desegregation in the all-Romani schools in the villages is based on the poverty concern. But should poverty concerns of today be the judges of our future?

The third issue focused around the illusionary dispute over whether to have teacher assistants or not. The defenders of desegregation were right to see the position of the assistant teacher as it exists now as contributing to perpetuate the status quo. Romani children are bilingual. The only way to learn Bulgarian well is practice it constantly – not only before the teacher and in front of the blackboard but all the time they spend at school. This could only happen naturally – through the "compulsion" to communicate with a Bulgarian friend and not to listen to the interpretation of the assistant teacher. The assitant teacher has a role, indeed, but not the role of an interpreter. He has to be the supervisor of the Romani children at school and the link between them, the teachers and the parents.

I regret that, involved in disputes among themselves, the participants failed to give the floor to Ms Donka Panayotova, the leader of the Vidin-based Organisation Drom. Everyone knows that Rumyan Russinov is the ideologue and the engine of the desegregation process in Bulgaria, while Donka Panayotova is its brilliant executor. Her participation in the debate on desegregation would have been substantiated by a three-year effort, thanks to which in another two or three years the all-Romani school in the Nov Pat Romani neighbourhood of Vidin will probably remain just a memory.

Two important issues remained outside the debate's scope. The first one is practical and the second is a matter of values. It was not discussed how to guarantee the irreversibility of the process. Apparently, this cannot be achieved only through the implementation of the Ministry of Education and Science "Instruction on the Integration of Minority Children and Pupils". A national institution should be set up to deal with the desegregation process. It is necessary to establish a body which would raise and distribute funds, as well as provide methodological guidance on desegregation.

Finally, are concerns that some people hold justified that the mixing of Romani and non-Romani children is the short way to the undesirable assimilation of the Romani children and to the disintegration of the Romani identity? Can we bear the sin of the gradual assimilation of Roma? The answer has two sides. First, only the educated can develop a self-conscious rather than "first signal" identity. Second, Roma and their organisations as well as all those who support them, should insist that practical steps are taken to teach Romani children history, folklore and culture of the Romani people. And this is only half of the job, because Bulgarian children should also know more about the past, present and future of the child sitting next to them at the school desk, the neighbour living next door, or the human being sharing the same fate. Only then will chauvinisms – Bulgarian and Romani alike – have no chance.


  1. Emil Cohen is Executive Director of the Sofia-based non-governmental organisation Human Rights Project and member of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee. A version of this article appeared in Bulgarian in the journal of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee Obektiv, No 91, September 2002.


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