Wearing old clothes, but still going to school
The famous poet, Jovan Jovanovic Zmaj stated, “From cradle to grave, the most beautiful (period) is the school age.” This statement, however, could hardly be supported by those familiar with the education that children living in the Konik camps receive. World Bank statistics report that only 32 percent of Romani and Egyptian children finish primary school compared to 98 percent of all children in Montenegro. In order to increase the number of Romani and Egyptian children attending primary school as well as to enabling them to complete school, the Roma Education Fund (REF) has committed to joining a complex process of integrating the children living in Konik camp into mainstream society.
Only one in three children finishes primary school:
According to the data from the last population census conducted in 2011, approximately 95 percent of all school-age children were attending school. Yet when looking closer at the breakdown of demographics, the number of Romani and Egyptian children who were school aged and attending school stood at 51 and 54 percent, respectively. Out of those that attend primary school only one third are expected to complete it and a respective seven percent are expected to continue their education and complete secondary school.
The publication “Study on Obstacles in Education in Montenegro,” prepared by UNICEF Montenegro, states that “support of parents is of essential importance for remaining of children in school, but also for their achievements.” UNICEF also states, “the low educational achievements of Roma and Egyptian children represent one of the main challenges in the sphere of human rights in Montenegro.”
Within the “Assistance Program for Integration and Return of RAE Population and Other Internally Displaced People Residing in Konik Camp,” the Germany charity, Help (Hilfe zur Selbsthilfe e.V), and the Budapest-based international NGO, the Roma Education Fund (REF), conduct educational integration of Romani and Egyptian children living in the Konik camp in close cooperation with the Ministry of Education. “Financial assistance of the program has been provided through the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA) of the European Commission and funds of the Government of Montenegro,” says REF Montenegro Coordinator Dragana Vukcevic Radoman.
As of September 2013 the enrollment of first-graders in the branch school located in Konik has been discontinued and Roma and Egyptian children are currently attending integrated schools. The educational needs, mainly the regular attendance of children living in Konik camp are being met by REF mediators as well as their parents and are currently attending six primary schools throughout the city: B. V. Podgoricanin, Marko Miljanov, 21. Maj, Savo Pejanovic, Vuk Karadzic and Vladimir Nazor. Daily bus transportation is provided for 62 first graders.
Both parents and mediators are involved in the program “Support to Integration and Voluntary Return of Internally Displaced Residents of the Konik Camp in Montenegro,” and participants state that they are satisfied with the progress of the children who have been enrolled into six city schools. They express that the children who are involved are much more satisfied and happy and are now capable of overcoming obstacles much easier than before.
It is better for all children to go to the “right school”
Roma mother, Perjana Salihi, who has three of her nine children attending mainstream schools, says that she is very satisfied with the program offered by REF. She is happy with the provision of transportation as well as the mediator who is aids her twin daughters going to school in the city. Speaking from previous experience with her older children who attended the segregated school located in the camp, she stressed that the city school is much better for providing a quality education.
Salihi states that one of her older daughters who attends the school in the camp does not have a positive experience. “She is really regular in school, but she always comes home from school crying. Children often hit her in school. It would be better if she was going to the ‘real’ school instead to this branch school.”
She goes on to explain that her daughters who are attending school in the city are learning in a much better environment and they sing songs and look happy when they return home.
“I can really notice with my girls going to the city school that they are coming back satisfied and happy. They always make me feel happy when they tell me they have some homework to do, a drawing to make, an essay to finish or when they ask me to help them with something. They always asking me on Sundays if they are going to school the next day, as they like going to school,” says Salihi, smiling.
She adds that even though she completed primary school she learns new things from her children every day. “I have finished the primary school and have certain knowledge. I married young and now frequently feel bad for not continuing my education, as school means a lot.”
Her coarse voice and rough hands show that life did not treat her with much kindness, yet she emphasizes that she will support the education of her children and motivate them to finish school and become independent people.
She emphasizes with pride that one of her twin daughters is an excellent pupil and that she loves learning, and that both her daughter and their teacher are very satisfied. She stated that in the beginning the other children in the school did not accept her children at first, but that everything got easier with time.
Salihi says that her children are learning more and more and beginning to understand the Montenegrin language.
She also explains that this task is much easier with the assistance and support of mediator Enis Eminovic, who is in charge of the school attended of her twin daughters.
“I have one nine-month old child suffering from a heart disease and Enis is of great assistance to me. He comes for my two little girls and brings them back from school. Whatever the need I have he always comes and talks to me,” explains Salihi. This points to the fact that the importance of the mediators does not only rest with the children but also the parents.
“What else can I say more than that I am really satisfied? The only thing I would say to other parents is to start sending their children to school, as the school means a lot. Children should learn while parents should help them,” concludes Salihi.
Link between parents and school
Six REF mediators make sure that the children safely arrive to their respective schools on time. The mediators regularly communicate with the teachers of the children from the camp by organizing weekly meetings with them to monitor the progress of each child individually. The mediators are also tasked with addressing potential problems linked to regular attendance, educational achievements, work discipline and the overall inclusion into the normal class dynamic.
Mediator Enis Eminovic who has worked with the project since September views himself as a “link between the parents and the school.”
“I take Romani and Egyptian children from their homes to school and bring them back afterwards. I am very satisfied with their interest in school and regularity of their attendance, especially taking into consideration conditions they are living in,” states Eminovic with pride.
He also states that the children who are in his care are very well received by teachers, their peers and by others in the community.
“They do homework and assignments the same as all other children. Whatever they are given to do at home, they finish,” explains Eminovic.
Abandoning school in search for a better life a biggest problem
Enis Eminovic says that the biggest problem is the frequent departure of families and their children in search for a better life, and then their subsequent return.
“Children, usually, when they are not regular in school, lose the pace in learning, as other children go through curriculum while they are away. Nevertheless, teachers give their best to go through the missed curriculum with these children and help as much as they can,” says one of the REF’s mediators.
The mediator added that the process was more difficult in the beginning because most of the children had little knowledge of the Montenegrin language.
“There are children who not that proficient in Montenegrin language, so they say what they want in Albanian or Romani language and then children who know Montenegrin language translate to the teacher,” says Eminovic. He adds that it is not only the language barrier weakening the integration process but also the extreme poverty and living conditions that most of the children are living in.
He reflects on occasions where he would have to take children home to change their clothes if they showed up to the bus stop in clothing that would cause the other children in the school to tease them.
“Parents have mainly accepted well the role of mediators. Moreover, they have a full confidence in us and give us much more space for care about children, so they could pay more attention to their younger children, and so they could concentrate on providing financial means for their families,” he explains.
One of the biggest achievements of the children who are under his care is the increase of regular school attendance.
Eminovic’s assessment is confirmed by the fact that out of 62 children who were initially enrolled, 60 of them are still attending school regularly. The other two children are no longer in attendance because their families have moved out of the camp.
Persuading parents that children need to continue education: Mediator, Scipe Kabasi, who was in charge of a child who left Konik camp with her mother in search of a better life, explains to Portal Analitika how she persuaded the child’s mother that education was important.
“We insisted on taking the girl each day to school. However, the mother is in difficult financial situation and they are living in ‘disastrous conditions.’ This is why they decided to go to the north of Montenegro where her family lives, and the girl was absent from school for six months,” says Kabasi, and adds that after the six-month period the family returned to live in the camp.
Kabasi contemplated on how to convince the mother to allow her daughter to continue attending school and she came up with the idea of taking them to visit the “Toy Library” located in the camp.
“I called the mother and aunt to come and see how this library operates. They accepted the invitation and came, much to my surprise. The mother promised me that her daughter would again start going to school, by herself, each morning. I took her to school this morning and she again started attending classes. I am truly happy that I got her back in the classroom and into the educational system,” proudly says Kabasi.
Scipe Kabasi, who has worked as a mediator for ten years, says that she sees herself as a second parent to children in her care.
She describes her work and the role as the “second parent,” as her job is to care and monitor these children. She says that parents have a trust in her. Describing her workday, she says that she gets up early, since she is working on the Camp 1 and Camp 2.
“I get up half an hour before departure of the school bus. I knock on the door of each house, wake up parents Then, after five or ten minutes, I go back to see if the children are ready, and then I take them to the bus,” describes this mediator one school day.
Kabasi adds that she personally takes each child to the tutor or teacher and that after school is over she takes the children home to their parents, whom which she frequently communicates with.
“For example, if a child has problems in school I inform the parents. I also inform them if there are some additional assignments or homework to be done or something else,” says Kabasi for the Portal Analitika.
Kabasi explains that the children in her care have settled into the school very well but she stresses that the school is doing everything in its power to provide assistance to Roma and Egyptian children. The school frequently collects clothing and footwear and provides extra academic support to the children. From her experience the Roma and Egyptian children in her care were received well not only by the teachers and school staff but also by other children and their parents.
“If their classmates celebrate birthdays, their parents do not separate our children, as each of our children gets an invitation for the birthday party,” says Kabasi, adding that in the school where she is a mediator there is not a “single difference when it comes to Roma and Egyptian children, as they are accepted the same as any other child,” which confirms the experience of her colleague Enis Eminovic.
An interviewee of Portal Analitika states that Roma and Egyptian children were silent and shy at the beginning of the project because they had never left the camp before. However, the story is completely different today, as now they go out with their school friends to plays, and frequently also take part in them within school projects.
In old clothing, but still going to school
The Roma Education Fund mediator says that at the beginning of the school year the situation was difficult because of the language barrier, but that today the situation is much better as children better to understand and speak the Montenegrin language.
“Each day I get some good news from the teachers who say that our children can even go to competitions in certain subjects without any problems,” proudly says Scipe Kabasi.
The most difficult thing for both her and the children are the living conditions, but she adds that when one tries so hard and goes to school regularly, even such obstacle seems solvable.
“They are giving their best to go to school and are not giving up. They are going in their old clothing, but they make sure it is clean and tidy before they leave for school,” proudly says Kabasi, adding that over the past several years both parents and children have started to understand the importance of education.
She also explains that on several occasions mothers told her how important it was for them to see the work she is doing with children and how that work affects the entire family.
“The school is very important. I get some paper or something else I can’t read. I pray my child becomes literate and help me, and not someone else,” Kabasi recalls her experiences with mothers of children attending school.
Integration is the better solution than segregation
Since she works for ten years as the mediator, Kabasi says that there is a huge difference between the education that was provided by the branch school in the camp and the education provided by the city school. Even though teachers in the school camp have invested a lot of effort to their students, the poor conditions in the camp prevented Romani and Egyptian children to advance further.
“Integration into society is the best solution for Romani and Egyptian children. In the detached school department children cannot advance as they are constantly together. For example, one class had more than 30 children speaking either Romani or Albanian language, so they were forgetting even than little Montenegrin language they learned,” Kabasi explains the difference between the city and detached school departments.
Kabasi’s opinion confirmed by others, the program “Support to integration and voluntary return of internally displaced residents of camps in Konik in Montenegro” is conducted with the support of the European Union Delegation to Montenegro and the Government of Montenegro in partnership with the German organization HELP.
“The education component of this program is conducted by REF in partnership with the Ministry of Education, Bureau for Education Services, Center for Vocational Education and Preschool Institution ‘Djina Vrbica’,” says the program coordinator Dragana Vukcevic Radoman.
World Roma Day which was established for the purpose of calling attention to the difficult situations that most Roma are living in as well as to motivate nations to pay attention to the need to improve their position in society. World Roma Day represents an opportunity to address the fact that only one in three Roma and Egyptian children finishes primary school, which is compulsory in Montenegro.
This article was written by Kristina Cetkovic and originally appeared in Portal Analitika in Montenegrin. It has been translated and edited for clarity. It is with their permission that it has been republished.
 The project stopped the enrollment of children into the first grade of segregated school. Therefore the camp school still covers children from second to fourth grades, after which they are supposed to join the main building of the school, which is outside of the camp. Due to the gradual closing, in every year there is going have less and less children in the camp school.