Last year’s deportation of Roma by the French government not only solidified many stereotypes people have about Roma but also inflamed public opinion against Europe’s largest ethnic minority. As the attention to the deportations started to wane, I was in Hungary to see first hand what Roma integration looks like.
Acs is a town in Hungary of about 7,000 people one hour northeast of Budapest. At the elementary school there we sat in on a math class where Roma and non-Roma kids learned how to add and subtract; we heard laughter next door from a Hungarian literature class and met with teenagers beginning their job search. The lines between Roma and non-Roma were blurred.
To some of you reading this the word “segregation” might seem like a thing of the past. The harsh truth is that the harmony we saw in Acs continues to be the exception, not the rule, for Europe’s Roma, a situation George Soros recently described as “the worst case of social exclusion based on ethnicity.”
In places like Ostrava, Czech Republic, Roma students are consistently shunted into separate schools and denied equal access to housing and health care, even after rulings from Europe’s high court declared the Czech government’s actions to be illegal.
The struggle for Roma inclusion is an uphill one, and cases like the one in Ostrava seem to confirm the numerous challenges faced by groups working to empower Europe’s largest ethnic minority.
But stories like the one in Acs serve to remind us that empowering the Roma can only happen if education is part of the equation. The Roma Education Fund, created with support from the Open Society Foundations, helps increase access to education for Roma students and prepare them to make their way in the world.
Through the Romaversitas program, the Roma Education Fund provides financial and educational support to talented Roma university students across Hungary. More importantly, the Romaversitas program is helping to shatter stereotypes.
Zoltan, Aliz, Dezso and Erzsebet are enrolled in the Romaversitas program. In addition to being Roma, they are also aspiring astrophysicists, professors, filmmakers, and architects. In my conversations with them I was struck by their awareness, both of their Roma background but also of their duty to succeed, to be the exception to the rule. You can hear some of their stories in the above video.