Despite democratic transformations in Eastern Europe, more than 10 million Roma face discrimination, especially in education. Change has been slow, although education is a key factor in overcoming poverty.
Integration at school is considered a key factor for breaking the vicious circle of poverty and social isolation
It was during his first few days at school that Nedjo Osman found out he was different than most of his classmates: "In the mornings they greeted me with jeers: a song that claimed I was dirty and that I had lice. It was the first time I learned that I was a 'gypsy.'"
But even later, as he was studying at the Academy for Film and Theatre in Novi Sad, he had to fight the lingering prejudice people had against Roma people. In the end, he gained acceptance - first as one out of about 10 Roma at his primary school, and later as the only one at the academy.
Prejudice and politics gone wrong
All this took place in socialist Yugoslavia of the 1960s - but it might have well happened in modern-day Europe. The fact is, prejudice against the Roma still exists.
Osman works as a Roma mediator in educational projects
Rumyan Russinov, long-time head of the Roma programs of the Open Society Foundation in Budapest, described how Roma are being marginalized: "It is generally assumed that they are neither willing nor capable of integrating." Russinov is long-time head of the Open Society Foundation in Budapest - a global network of such societies was founded by United States billionaire George Soros with the intention to strengthen civil society.
Negative attitudes towards Roma are tied to policies in the countries where Roma dwell - including in the educational sector, Russinov said. Deeply rooted clichés lead to discrimination and segregation.
During the dictatorships in eastern and southeastern Europe, a majority of Roma lived in ghettos or in the countryside. Schools in those areas were consequently attended mainly by Roma. The non-Roma population in the area then often prefers that their own children attend other schools. Similar situations of such segregation still exist in countries like Croatia, Hungary and Romania to this day, Russinov said.
Worse after dictatorship
During the dictatorship years, Roma students attended separate classes where the quality of lessons was significantly poorer. Some of the Eastern Bloc states even resorted to sending Roma children to special-needs schools.
Russinov explained that even once these countries embraced democracy, the situation actually worsened: "In socialist Bulgaria, about 50 percent of all Roma children went to segregated schools. Today, it's 75 percent."
Currently in the Czech Republic, thousands of Roma children attend so-called "practice-oriented schools" - institutions conceptualized for children with minor mental handicaps. Even six years after a verdict by the European Court of Human Rights against the Czech state, little has changed in this matter, an Amnesty International report from 2012 noted.
Poverty and isolation
Ilona Tomova, a sociologist at the Bulgarian Academy of the Sciences, confirmed this trend: Bulgaria is itself an example of how education for Roma children in former socialist countries deteriorated significantly after the democratic transition. Part of the problem, her study showed, is that neoliberal policy-making during post-communist years resulted in governments slashing their welfare spending.
In the educational sector, this specifically affected "afternoon daycare, preschool lessons and distribution of free textbooks," Tomova said. But especially for disadvantaged families, which includes most Roma, measures like these are particularly important.
Roma ended up disproportionately worse in the aftermath of Eastern Bloc countries' political transformations: World Bank figures show that in 1997, more than 30 percent of Bulgarians, yet 80 percent of all Roma lived in poverty. Later surveys confirmed that trend.
But it's not only poverty that causes problems, Tomova said, but also the language barrier. Most Roma first have contact with the official language of a country once they enter school. But that isn't enough, since after class they return to families where that language isn't spoken and the parents themselves have a low level of education and can't provide academic support.
Unless Roma children receive additional education, Tomova said, they are unable to keep up in school, and end up dropping out of altogether.
Unpopular Roma policy
Without education, it's almost impossible to break the vicious circle of poverty and social isolation. In 2012, the European Commission published a common framework for its member states, outlining national strategies for Roma integration. Notably, the commission named improvements in education as one the key factors for success.
Integration in schools is considered a key factor for breaking the vicious circle of poverty and social isolation
In many European Union member states, Roma make a significant fraction of the young population and, therefore, the country's future work force. But without an adequate level of education or training, employment chances remain slim.
For Russinov, these EU efforts came too late. "During EU membership negotiations, many Eastern European countries were a lot more willing to implement Roma integration measures. Now many of them insist on their sovereignty."
Adding to the difficulty is that since the beginning of the economic crisis, especially right-wing populists scapegoat the Roma for deteriorating living conditions during the economic crisis, Russinov said.
Focus on inclusion
Ending the social exclusion of Roma children is the big goal for activists like Russinov. An important breakthrough, he said, happened recently in the Bulgarian city of Vidin: With support from the Soros Foundation in Budapest, several hundred children living in Roma quarters enrolled in regular schools for the first time.
These days, Nedojo Osman lives in Germany, where he, too, advocates for the inclusion of Roma students in schools. He moved there in the early 1990s, a time when the Yugoslav Wars drove many Roma to seek refuge in Western Europe. Besides acting and working as a journalist, he acts as a Roma mediator in educational projects.
Having managed several projects in different cities, he says that desegregated classes with Roma and non-Roma children are the only way for successful integration. "This is the only thing that can make them feel like they belong to this society."