Roma are the last minority in Europe against whom it is political and socially acceptable to discriminate. Largely segregated and oft regarded as a problem, Roma have a second-class status in terms of access to housing and education, employment and services. Viewed unfavorably by majorities of national populations in countries like Italy and France, Roma are associated in the collective imagination with criminality and antisocial behavior.
Hungary is home to one of the largest Roma communities on the continent. Roma constitute 8 percent of Hungary’s ten million-strong population; in 2013, The Economist characterized their common experience as “an enormous waste of human potential.” In explaining their place in Hungarian society, the author asserted, “Roma society is often clannish and atomized, with no recognizable leaders to negotiate with outside authorities.”
In addition, “talented youngsters are often not encouraged to study, but are instead pressurized to marry young and have numerous children, which furthers the cycle of welfare dependence” and “outsiders are often regarded with deep suspicion.” The nub of the issue then, it can be argued, is not only an absence of leadership but also the structure to produce a new generation of leaders.
Attempting to address this is MORE – Roma-Jewish Youth Leadership Training, a program that is applying the model of informal young leadership education and training used within the Jewish community to Hungary’s Roma. Working with ninth and tenth grade students at the Dr. Ámbédkar School in Sajókaza – a village northeast of Budapest, near the border with Slovakia – the goal of MORE is to create a Roma youth organization that will in the long-run strengthen their capacity for self-organization, build advocacy skills, and establish connections between Roma and Jewish youth.
“We started this project with friends from the Jewish community because we had some common experiences with youth leadership – in Hashomer Hatzair, in Szarvas – and we were madrichim together,” Hanna Mikes, one of the initiators of MORE, explained. “For our identity, for our community, it was very important to be a youth leader, to use informal education as a tool to create a community.” The organizers had a good relationship with the school in Sajókaza, and decided to find out if their methods could be applied there among the Roma.
MORE began as a pilot program with young people aged sixteen to twenty in the form of two three-day bursts of training, which then concluded with a Roma-Jewish camp which the Roma youth had a hand in organizing. In part, Mikes and others did this to see if the Roma would take to this kind of camp structure but also because its organizing and execution was a form of empowerment and a way to apply the skills learned in training.
“To be honest, we were not sure at all if they needed it or if they would like it,” Mikes said of their style of leadership training. “In the very beginning, we didn’t say, ‘This is youth training’ or ‘this is because we want you to have an organization at the end.’” At that time, it was more about getting to know one another and testing how things might work; that it was a youth training program, the participants figured it out by themselves.
The success of this initial pilot taught the organizers of MORE that the project needed to go deeper, Mikes told me, with more frequent meetings and something that would be sustainable into the future. First, beginning in October 2014, they set up a team building camp for the Roma children, and this was followed at the Dr. Ámbédkar School by a series of bi-weekly meetings lasting two hours. Each semester, the meetings revolved around a different topic; the first was one Roma identity, who I am and what does it mean to be Roma.
“For those people living in a poor community, being Roma means that they are stigmatized. It’s not a positive identity – it’s a negative thing that’s chosen for them and it’s difficult to change it from a negative to a positive thing,” Mikes said.
The second year of the program began in October of this year. After further training that will focus on problem solving, communicational and debate skills, community roles, understanding how civil organizations work, and community development, together Roma and Jewish youth will put together a five-day long camp in April 2016. The success of the camp will, therefore, be an apt demonstration of some of the skills they will have acquired over the two years and can apply into the future into community building within the Roma population.
The organizers of MORE are operating in a challenging environment. Not only is Sajókaza an exclusively Roma settlement, but the Buddhist Roma Dr. Ámbédkar School is a second-chance school, attended by those who have already dropped out once from the mainstream educational system. There has been a high turnover in those attending MORE, as children leave the school due to external pressures like the need to work. “In this environment, it was obvious to us that we could not do the same madrich training as we had done before,” Mikes said. “We had to keep the basics but change all the methodology.”
At this stage, the final outcome of the program is undetermined; it remains to be seen whether the Roma youth have the capacity to organize an entire summer camp or want to have their own youth organization long-term. But already, the teachers at the Dr. Ámbédkar School say that among participants, detentions in school are declining; they are becoming more self-confident and know how to resolve conflicts among themselves in a different way. In the MORE seminars, the Roma youth are more able to lead games, better organize, and work as a team. Counselors from the JDC-Lauder Szarvas International Summer Camp, trained by JDC’s intensive Leadership Training program, provide the leadership training to Roma youth, empowering them to build their local community.
For Hungary’s Jewish community, meanwhile, MORE has opened up lines of dialogue and interaction between them and the Roma. There are other programs that encourage Jewish-Roma collaboration – Haver Hungary, for example – but in general communication is rare, she explained. Hungarian Jews and Roma are isolated from one another in that way. “It’s a goal to reach those Jewish people who have prejudices about Roma people and offer an example for how we can cooperate and have amazing experiences together,” Mikes concluded.