Speaking Their Language

The Konik camp, inhabited primarily by Roma refugees from the war in Kosovo, is where schools mediator Elvis Berisa makes his rounds. Photo by Balsa Rakcevic.

The Konik camp, inhabited primarily by Roma refugees from the war in Kosovo, is where schools mediator Elvis Berisa makes his rounds. Photo by Balsa Rakcevic.

PODGORICA | Montenegro’s newest effort to keep Roma children in school is happening far from the classroom – and often involves neither student nor teacher.

Instead, it takes place in shacks, tents, or housing containers and usually comes down to a simple conversation between two adults.

Today that conversation is between Elvis Berisa and 24-year-old Djulja Seljimi, whose son, Ramiz, attends Savo Pejanovic primary school in Podgorica. A second-grader, Ramiz has been acting up during class and bullying other students. Berisa is a mediator for the school, and he has come to Seljimi’s container house to talk about Ramiz’s behavior.

At first, Seljimi is surprised and confused – she doesn’t know who Berisa is or why he is there. Calmly, he introduces himself and explains that the child is being naughty in the classroom. The news does not have quite the desired effect: the mother looks at her son, who stands at her side, and roars, “I’m going to beat you.” 

By this time, a crowd of curious children has gathered around the container in a sprawling refugee camp on the outskirts of the Montenegrin capital where Seljimi lives with her three sons.

His voice still calm and even, the 21-year-old Berisa explains that Ramiz has been attending school regularly and his grades are fine.

“He likes to go to school, but sometimes it seems that he gets overwhelmed,” Berisa tells the mother. “It’s not a problem, but he shouldn’t tease other children and bully them.”

Seljimi promises to talk to her son, and they leave it at that.

Berisa’s job is to act as a bridge between the school and the parents of Montenegro’s Roma and Egyptian students (Egyptians are an Albanian-speaking minority whose links to Roma are disputed). He is one of two mediators at the Savo Pejanovic school, in a program launched this year to battle the staggeringly high rate of truancy – 54 percent, according to the government – among Roma and Egyptian children. He makes his rounds almost every day, cajoling, counseling, listening, and troubleshooting.

Most of the parents welcome him, he said, because “they can speak with somebody and tell him in their language what problems they’re trying to solve to bring their children to school. They have somebody who will listen to them.”

Those problems run a wide range, from a lack of suitable clothes to a language barrier to foreign citizenship that obliges a family to leave the country temporarily to obtain crucial documents. A 2009 count put the number of refugees from the Balkan wars still living in Montenegro at more than 16,000. The census does not count displaced people, so it’s impossible to know how many are Roma, but a report this year by an EU anti-racism commission said there are more than 4,000 members of the Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian minorities from Kosovo alone living as refugees in Montenegro.

Many of those families, like Seljimi and her children, have lived at Camp Konik for 14 years. They lost what little they had this summer, when a fire swept through the camp. The ramshackle lean-tos destroyed by the blaze were replaced by tents, which are now giving way to containers. But the basics of life are still in short supply.

“When I talk with people from the camp, saying, ‘Please send your children to school, but those children have to be clean,’ they answer, ‘How are we going to do that? We don’t have any clothes to send them in,’ ” Berisa said.

Then there are attitudinal obstacles. Berisa said some parents he meets consider education a waste of time. “I try to explain to them that if their child doesn’t even learn how to write or count, even when they get old, they’ll do the same job he’s doing as a 5-year-old. He won’t be able to sign documents, drive a car, basic things.”

He also reminds parents that it’s illegal to keep their children out of school.

Jadranka Gavranovic, a psychologist at Savo Pejanovic, said the school works with the Red Cross to get necessities for its poor students. It has also started sending out “invitations” to wayward parents to come in – and to bring their children with them, as required by law.

“The parents sometimes come only because of the fear that the inspector will come knocking on their door,” Gavranovic said.



The 2011 census counted about 4,500 Roma and Egyptian children in Montenegro, but due to the stigma of identifying as a member of either group, those numbers are likely underestimates.

The EU-funded mediator program is one part of an effort to dismantle, one by one, the obstacles that keep those children at home. That task is made trickier by a simultaneous effort to move more Roma children from Camp Konik’s primary school to the city’s better-equipped facilities, where the camp children are in the minority. When children are pushed out of the camp school, their drop-out rate tends to soar, according to the Open Society Institute’s Roma Education Fund.

Mediators like Berisa work in eight pilot schools across Montenegro. They are chosen by a group of advocacy organizations on the basis of their language skills – more than 60 percent of the country’s Roma and Egyptians claim Romani as their mother tongue – and experience working with children.

Tamara Milic, a specialist on inclusion for the Education Ministry, said the idea grew out of an existing program that had Roma assistants in the classroom. Education officials decided more direct outreach to parents was needed.

“For that community, it’s more important if you have someone to mediate between the school and parents,” Milic said. “[Someone] who came, of course, from the community, who is [of] Roma origin, and helps the school explain to parents how important school is.”

Berisa lives with his family in one of the houses that ring the Konik camp. In addition to his job as a mediator, he is one of three Roma law students at the University of Montenegro, and he works part time as a journalist at a prestigious weekly magazine. 

Speaking Romani is an important aspect of Berisa’s job, but he also plays a more subtle motivational role, according to Gavranovic, the school psychologist.

“The children like to see Elvis in school. He’s a model for them, that life can be different,” she said.

“When we talk with Roma children here, we say, ‘Look at Elvis, he also started attending university.’ So we give them a good example, trying to present to them a different kind of reality. Their home is one reality, but there are different realities as well, which are achievable.”

Barbara Frye is TOL’s managing editor. This article was produced for the Next in Line project, which is co-funded by the European Union. The contents of this project are the sole responsibility of Transitions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.

Aida Ramusovic, a journalist for TV Vijesti in Podgorica, contributed to this report.


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