Common Sense Prevails for Community School, Celebrating Roma Culture

At last, we have a happy ending in the long ordeal of a church-run school in eastern Hungary. The Greek Catholic Church had opened the school in a troubled neighborhood in eastern Hungary to serve the disadvantaged children of the Huszár-telep Roma Settlement near Nyíregyháza. The school has been providing quality education to some of the poorest, most disadvantaged children in the region by following the classic neighborhood community school model and through the service of dedicated teachers. While their hard work has been producing results and many of the children have been making progress academically, the school was constantly under attack.

The critics charged that the school has been segregating the children and should be closed. Most of the students are indeed Roma, but the school serves the disadvantaged children of a particular community. In that community, the most disadvantaged children happen to be Roma. Nobody was forcing the Roma children to attend the school and nobody was keeping non-Roma children out.

Finally, last week the Hungarian Supreme Court upheld the school’s right to keep its doors open, ruling that the accusations of segregation were unfounded. The school stays, and the parents, who demonstrated in support of the school, can be assured that their children will continue to have access to quality education and a better chance to overcome their disadvantage. Common sense prevailed, and the Huszár-telep settlement and its Roma community have won.

That’s not the only occasion for celebration in the Roma community recently. Early this month, we celebrated International Roma Day and the Gypsy Wheel — Roma Values Festival. Various programs in Budapest and the countryside presented heroes from the Hungarian Roma community, featured in a video campaign and outdoor displays, while exhibitions, concerts and sporting events highlighted the rich culture and diversity that this community has contributed to Hungary.

As a former minister of state for Social Inclusion, I had a unique opportunity to participate not only in the government’s efforts to promote the social integration of the Roma but also to see firsthand the challenges that Roma communities still face in today’s Hungary and in the European Union. Despite the determination of the Hungarian Presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2011 to elevate these issues so that they receive proper attention, we still have a lot of work ahead of us.

Sources estimate that the Roma population in Europe numbers about 10 to 12 million, and approximately 750 thousand live in Hungary. All too often, the discussion around Roma issues seems to focus on problems. But Prime Minister Orbán stresses the “hidden potential” of this community, the opportunity rather than the challanges and says that the focus of the government’s work should be on diminishing social inequalities in order for them to succeed to the benefit of the whole society. It’s not easy, “decades of setbacks must be overcome,” as a Hungarian member of the European Parliament put it recently. According to MEP György Hölvényi, setbacks must be overcome on the fields of housing, education, employment and access to social services, adding that each European member state has to do its own “homework.”

Here’s where we stand with ours:

In the field of education we introduced compulsory pre-school attendance, raising the enrollment rate of Roma children to 79 percent to counter the phenomenon of early dropout. Also, we decided to provide free meals for the children enrolled in this program, so children from families that struggle to provide regular meals have access to the right nutrition they need. Classes on Roma history and culture were also built into the national curriculum, highlighting how intertwined they are with Hungarian culture and history.

We’ve taken steps to enhance their work opportunities, mainly through the government’s public employment program, which also provides Roma mentors for those participating. This initiative is aimed at families whose members, in some cases, have been out of work for more than a generation. It offers work and a wage instead of welfare checks, helping them reintegrate with the active work force and to know again what it is to go to a job everyday.

Besides these social inclusion measures, the government has also had to address serious issues of prejudice and anti-Roma sentiment.

As we prepare for the International Romani Holocaust Remembrance Day this summer, we also recall the series of cold-blooded murders of Roma that took place in Hungary between 2008 and 2009. The Neo-Nazi perpetrators were caught, brought to justice and sentenced to the highest possible punishment: life in prison. Their second trial has just begun. Although money cannot compensate for their horrific loss, the families of the victims have been given compensation from the state. How the investigative authorities under the former Socialist government allowed these heinous criminals to roam free for months without being captured is currently under investigation.

Hungary’s new constitution, the Fundamental Law, bans hate speech by allowing a member of a community to pursue a civil law suit if his or her community suffers verbal attacks. Roma people also have the right to a minority spokesperson in the Hungarian Parliament, representing their interests in the country’s highest legislative body.

The social integration of the Roma peoples got little if any attention before 1989, in the communist era, and was badly neglected in the decades since. We have years of setbacks to overcome and, even if we’ve seen great progress recently, Hungary and Europe still have a long way to go.

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