Building Bridges Between Roma, Jews

IMG_8305-editBy Alex Weisler

SAJÓKAZA, Hungary – Drive 130 miles northeast of Budapest, past the university city of Miskolc, past scores of shuttered factories that didn’t survive the fall of communism, and scores of utilitarian apartment blocs that did, and you reach it.

Sajókaza is one of the poorest villages in Hungary’s poorest county – and still, the Roma enclave at its east end has it the worst. About a third of the town’s approximately 3,000 residents live there – with roads pockmarked with potholes, outhouses in each yard, children with nothing to do, and wild dogs roaming aimlessly.

“I understand religion as community-building. That’s my Jewish identity.”

You can’t even find this part of town on Google Street View.

But turn down Sólyom telep, and you’ll see a bright blue building, the home of the Dr. Ámbédkar Iskola, a Buddhist-run high school that serves as a second chance for about 60 Roma youth who would not be welcomed in traditional educational institutions.

On every second Friday, Dr. Ámbédkar Iskola is transformed. For a few hours after school lets out, about a dozen teens stick around for a master class in informal education, an examination of Roma identity, a chance to imagine a different future – JDC’s MORE Roma-Jewish Youth Leadership Training program.

MORE – pronounced “mo-reh,” the name means “teacher” in Hebrew and “person” in the Romani language – is the brainchild of a team of young Jewish women from Budapest, alumnae of and former counselors at the JDC-Lauder Szarvas international Jewish summer camp and the Jewish youth group Hashomer Hatzair.

Marianna Jó, who heads up JDC’s Women’s Health Empowerment Program and international development initiatives in Hungary, serves as a project manager and adviser for the team. JDC’s Hungary operation also facilitates the legal, administrative, and financial support that makes the program possible. MORE operates as a matching-fund collaboration between JDC, the Norway Civil Grant Scheme, and the European Union of Jewish Students.

From humble beginnings in October 2014, the project has steadily strengthened. With the pilot phase set to end in April and the future unclear, MORE has cleared a major milestone – registering with the court as the first Roma youth organization in Sajókaza, a legal distinction that will hopefully enable it to apply for government grants and other services.

It’s a landmark moment not lost on MORE’s twenty-something organizers.

iwd-more-1“We were sitting in a circle and they had to say how their week was, and they were all so shy. They’d never been in a situation like that before,’” organizer Anna Sára Ligeti, 28, said of the program’s first session. “Now, they’re organizing their own programs for the younger kids.”

On a recent Friday, a group of ten Roma students broke into small groups to discuss their plans for a MORE “roadshow” – a sort of traveling caravan that will have Dr. Ámbédkar students visit three other Roma schools across Hungary later this month to share the informal education technqiues they’ve learned in Sajókaza. The students will also coordinate programs for younger children in these other communities.

The Roma population is the largest and youngest minority in Hungary, estimated to be about 800,000 – or about 8 percent of the country. In big cities and small towns, they face social and economic challenges, hindering their growth. In Sajókaza, some students don’t learn to read until the 10th grade.

“What they’re doing at the Dr. Ámbédkar school in Sajókaza, it absolutely takes my breath away. The MORE program is an amazing opportunity – not only broadening the horizon for those youth who participate in it, but also creating a transferable best practices model for boosting academic potential in teenagers from socially vulnerable backgrounds,” Jó said. ”MORE helps these kids understand how to take responsibility and use the experience to help younger kids. That potential for social innovation is what drives us at JDC to go out of our way to make good projects happen.”

The Dr. Ámbédkar school draws students not just from Sajókaza and nearby villages. Some even travel from towns in neighboring Slovakia, a long commute of many miles and bus transfers each day. They said they know how special the school and the MORE program are.

“It gives us a chance to push ourselves,” said Evelin Jóni, 16.

Her friend chimed in, agreeing.

“First, I had no confidence standing in front of a group, speaking, leading people,” said Bianka Galyas, 16. “But now I trust myself.”

MORE’s Jewish coordinators also work with young Roma educators from Budapest, recognizing that, as middle-class Jews, they needed expertise from within the community to spark a thorough examination of Roma identity for some of the country’s poorest young adults.

This is the kind of cultural exchange that can happen when a Jewish community is strong, vibrant, and stable – a hard-won designation for the Budapest Jewish community and the culmination of more than two decades of JDC investment and innovation following the fall of communism in Hungary.

Using techniques they learned as Szarvas madrichim and honed at a previous Roma-Jewish camp in spring 2013 coordinated through JDC’s Bálint Ház JCC in Budapest, the MORE team devised a 20-month curriculum centered on sharing cultures and exchanging authentic experiences. That’s an approach that bears fruit in programming like a “Chanuchristmas” celebration honoring both cultures.

On a recent Friday, the students broke up into groups and hunkered down in three separate classrooms for an “Escape the Room” exercise – the wildly popular phenomenon where participants must solve puzzles and use their ingenuity to “break out” of a locked space.

iwd-more-2The teens laughed, comparing notes and arguing with each other as they attempted to use different methods – a deck of cards, a pair of dice, an old flip phone – to decode secret messages and reveal clues.

It was an exercise in leadership, problem-solving, and consensus-building – concepts this population isn’t always exposed to, said Gergõ Farkas, 22, one of MORE’s Roma educators.

The program has changed the way Farkas looks at his own Roma identity.

“It’s important because it gives the Roma kids here an opportunity to be better than what other people think they can be,” he said. “It’s really hard when you start at the bottom, but programs like this give them the chance.”

Julcsi Budai, who’s worked at Dr. Ámbédkar for six years as a literature teacher, outreach coordinator, and school manager, serves as MORE’s local coordinator in Sajókaza.

Students who participate in the program, she said, have better grades and less truancy. For the 9th-grade group who’s been exposed to MORE for as long as they’ve been at the school, the effects are even more heightened.

“Now they believe they’re capable. And once that starts, they get more motivated and they start to take bigger steps,” Budai said. “Now they know themselves better. They understand that they can be a part of solving the problems.”

The mother of a Dr. Ámbédkar student, Éva Gulyás also works for the school supervising janitorial services. She said she sees the change, too.

“He’s more relaxed and less nervous when he’s here,” Gulyás said of her 18-year-old son, Tamas. “It’s nice to see the kids put on programs for the little ones, to come here and see something positive.”

Budai said much of the success stems from the enthusiasm and can-do attitudes of the MORE team – Ligeti, Sára Szilágyi, Hanna Mikes, and Norbert Varga, a pediatrician and the group’s one male coordinator.

“I’ve never seen energy like theirs. They’re impossibly empathetic,” she said. “In everything, they see the good – even things that are difficult.”

iwd-more-4Ask the girls, and they’ll say they draw their strength from each other.

Their friend group of about seven young women – all former Szarvas madrichim – has stayed close for over a decade and prides itself on its social justice focus and activist spirit.

Mikes works with migrants and refugees, one friend is a journalist, another is a gender activist, another is a documentary filmmaker, and another is the former president of the European Union of Jewish Students.

As Hungarian Jews grapple with surging anti-Semitism and the troubling rise of far-right political extremism, the women said reaching out and forming strong connections with other marginalized communities is critical.

“We’re not trying to save anyone or help anyone. We’re trying to share what we’ve gained through our experiences and see what we can learn as well,” said Szilágyi, 26, whose day job is at Phiren Amenca, a Roma advocacy network. “When you work with people with a different social status, you have to pay attention to how to achieve a partnership relationship.”

The Jewish community in Budapest must also ask hard questions about its own responsibility – much of it economic, Ligeti said.

“I understand religion as community-building. That’s my Jewish identity,” she said. “We used our privilege to make a difference. It’s not theoretical anymore.”

iwd-more-5MORE is far from a panacea for the many challenges facing Sajókaza’s young people. But it’s undeniable that this program – a rare Jewish-Roma collaboration in an era when Hungary needs such partnerships more than ever – is helping to change the story.

Suddenly, these teens – especially girls unaccustomed to viewing women as strong and capable leaders – can dare to dream.

“We are in a small village in a gypsy ghetto. Young people here don’t normally leave the area,” said Tibor Derdák, Dr. Ámbédkar’s director. “But with the help of this program, they can have the first steps toward something more.”

This post is part of a series on the pioneering work being done by Jewish women in Hungary; courtesy JDC.