Romania: A Doctor in the Family

a doctor in the familyCLUJ-NAPOCA, Romania | Watching an older brother slowly recover from a serious car crash a few years ago, Alina Calin, then a teenager, gradually realized she wanted nothing more than to become a doctor. Not only did she decide she wanted to save lives; she also considered this a good way to help fight the ethnic discrimination she says she then witnessed in the Romanian health care system.

One of five children of a poor Romani family from Podu Iloaiei, a small town near Romania’s eastern border with Moldova, Calin has since come a long way. She is now a third-year general medicine student in the northeastern city of Iasi and a role model for her sister, Mariana, who followed in her footsteps at the same university. The two are among the first recipients of scholarships for Romani students who pursue degrees in medicine and pharmacology.

Through a joint program by philanthropist George Soros’ Open Society Institute and the regional nonprofit Roma Education Fund, Romania became the first country in Central and Eastern Europe to offer these scholarships, as part of the larger international Decade of Roma Inclusion initiative. Bulgaria comes next, as it begins implementing the program this year.

“I’m now motivated more than ever to do well and really deserve this,” Alina Calin said. “It’s an unbelievable incentive for us to give it all we’ve got and work toward becoming responsible professionals.”

The scholarships cover tuition at state-accredited and recognized medical and medical-vocational schools, as well as living expenses. Based on their academic results, professional motivation, and leadership skills, 35 undergraduates and residents from across the country were selected last fall to receive scholarships of up to $6,000 per year. Students are eligible for supplementary funds should they choose to participate in professional conferences or study toward foreign language certificates such as Cambridge ESOL in English or Sprachdiplom in German.

The scholarship program is the most financially solid effort to date that sustains Romani advancement in the Romanian health care sector. Previous programs included training Romani health mediators and creating special tuition-free places for Romani students at several medical universities across the country.

Aside from the financial component, the scholarship package included a one-week advocacy camp in September, just before the school year began. Students learned about different problems Roma are confronted with and how they can position themselves to bring about change.

“First and foremost we tried to help them rethink the way they feel about being part of the Romani minority,” said advocacy camp trainer Daniel Radulescu, president of the Bucharest branch of Sastipen, a European program aimed at improving the health of Roma. “When we started this camp, several students had low self-esteem and complained about repeatedly falling victim to discriminating attitudes and practices. Others confessed that they’ve done their best to hide their ethnicity. We tried to empower them instead and make them see this as an extraordinary challenge. They have a great opportunity to become leaders and help break old barriers and prejudices.”

Following a six-day theoretical workshop, students then traveled to several remote, underdeveloped Romani communities to see firsthand the critical situation on the ground. Some, who grew up in urban or ethnically mixed areas, admitted they were shocked at what they saw.

“I knew it was bad, but I didn’t realize it could be so bad,” said Aurelia Dulgheru, a third-year balneo-physiotherapy student in Bucharest. “Seeing those precarious living conditions frustrated me enormously but also gave me strength. I’m glad I’ll soon be in a position to help out my own kind.”

Dulgheru, together with two other Romani students from Bucharest, has already offered to volunteer at a new medical center that provides free consultations in a predominantly Romani neighborhood of the capital. Radulescu values their commitment but at the same time outlines a “vital principle” for all future Romani health care professionals: they should not offer special treatment to Romani patients.

Into the Community

“Such a tendency would defy the whole purpose of what we are trying to do,” Radulescu said. “We must not get to a point where Romanians discriminate against Roma and the other way around. That would basically amount to a state-within-a-state situation. We have a unique chance now to adopt new practices and really learn what mutual respect and teamwork are all about.”

No one knows how many Romani doctors practice in Romania, but Radulescu said many have sought to keep their ethnicity a secret. Although he concedes that biases are hard to change in a society that sees little of value in Romani ethnicity, he said the scholarship program is a small but valuable step in proving that Roma can be successful. He is convinced that Romani doctors can earn trust and respect.

“In the end it will come down to who can treat you better,” he said. “Any patient will prefer the best doctor available, and I cannot believe that there would be problems if that doctor happens to be of Romani or other ethnicity. This is no different from other professions where Roma are active. If they are good at what they do, then people ask for their services and spread the good word around.”

The scholarship program tries to build in regular intercultural dialogue by assigning mentors to all the Romani students. Typically doctors in the cities where students pursue their degrees, mentors assist with practical advice and more.

“I’m passing information to them I wish I had when I was an undergrad,” said Cristina Agavriloaiei, who mentors the Calin sisters and another student in Iasi. “We also talk about personal stuff, and I try to be a friend as much as I can. I respect the girls, and I never think of them as any different from me and my other colleagues.”

Eugen Varga, a fifth-year general medicine student in the western city of Oradea, remembers his first meeting with his mentor.

“The first time we talked I felt important. It was all suddenly different, when a Romanian doctor really looked after me and tried to make sure I was doing all right. She helped me with books and took me along when she was on call. This has all been priceless for me.”

Building on the successful 2008-2009 pilot, a second edition of the program has been launched. Just like last year, when only 53 people applied, 60 scholarships will be available. Robert Matei, the Cluj-based national coordinator of the program, believes participation will be more substantial this time around, as students are better informed and have more time to prepare their application packages. Current scholarship holders can also reapply as long as they meet the general eligibility requirements – most importantly, to have passed all exams. Also eligible are Moldovan citizens of Romani ethnicity who study in Romania.

The Health Ministry has hailed the program. At a press conference to launch the second wave of scholarships, ministry undersecretary Raed Arafat said, “We must all support these young men and women, who are on the way to achieve big things.”




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