I had the great fortune to be able revisit the segregated Roma school that I wrote about in January 2007 and to take more pictures. Following over a year and a half of negotiations, it has been decided (for now) that it is better for the school in Psari Asproprygos to remain as a ghetto school than for the Roma children to have no school at all. You might remember that not long after my first visit there the school was vandalised and set on fire. Earlier this year, another of the prefabs was vandalised so the school was left with two small cabins for classes and an office. In my initial post, I was against the very idea of this place but after much thought and discussion I realise that the situation is very complicated and that it is indeed better for these kids to have some kind of education, in whatever way that is possible.
On the day, I visited new prefabs were being delivered. Thanks to the efforts of a few hard-working teachers, activists and supporters, over a hundred children from the local settlement have been registered. Only 16 were present on the day I was there, partly due to the weather and the swine flu scare but also to the problems I have already written about in my post on the education of Roma children.
I met one of the dedicated teachers at the school who was teaching a very lively bunch in one of the two old classrooms. I wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in there, given the level of noise and energy bursting out of the room. Teaching is hard and made so much tougher given the situation faced by this particular school. Attendance is sporadic. There is little support from any governmental or municipal organisations. There is little hope that any of the students will graduate to high school and if they do, will probably be unwelcome.Having said that, witnessing the arrival of the new prefabs and meeting this energetic teacher was a symbol of hope. That change can happen.
At the moment, the school has two teachers. If all the enrolled students attend, more teachers are needed. The education authority will only provide more teachers if more children attend over a long period of time. So there is a problem. All the enrolled children cannot attend together because there are not enough teachers and the authorities cannot assign more teachers unless all the children attend. Which came first ? Chicken or egg, springs to mind.
The children at this school have already overcome many obstacles to be there. Their lives and living conditions are difficult to even imagine. Just visiting their homes for a short time is deeply depressing although the community has made vast improvementss to this particular settlement at Psari Asproprygos. The shacks have been upgraded and now look more like homes rather than shelters.
The gravel is new and helps keep the mud away from the homes and raising them higher off the ground has helped against rats and the like. The creative and organised effort of this community again made me feel hopeful. They have had no outside assitance. They still have no water pipes or taps, no toilets, no electricity supply, in fact, no basic facilities at all. Yet somehow, they have managed to improve their homes and take pride in that acheivement.
I was asked again why I cannot do anything for their community. The cameras come and go, government officials come and go, delegations from European organisations come and go but little or nothing has actually changed for them in the almost three years since I was there. I do feel guilty about my inability to make a practical contribution. Surely it should be easy to just organise a few taps for this community? What a difference that would make. I heard that many children do not go to school if it’s been raining because there is no way of getting clean before classes. What parent can send their child to school covered in mud ? I had never made the connection between water and education before !
I have more to write about the other settlement I visited but that will have to wait a few days. In the meantime, my mind is full of the children I met this time round. Hoping that the school is a success for them and that they will have a chance at an education. I am also thankful to the people that do the real work for the Roma community. The Greek Helsinki Monitor who are tireless advocates for Roma rights, the activists that volunteer their time and energy to improving the lives of Roma children and the teachers at this ghetto school who are working so hard to give these kids a chance despite the odds stacked against them.
If you haven’t done so already, please see The Roma Series which is a more in-depth look at the challenges facing the Roma community.