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August 14, 2022



Magdalena Karvayová: Parents in the ghettos need to see education offers their children a future

23.7.2019 17:44
Magdalena Karvayová (PHOTO: Karolina Telváková)
Magdalena Karvayová (PHOTO: Karolina Telváková)

Even though she was a top student, one of her teachers in the Czech school system once told her that she would be better-off at a "special school" among her "own race". Today Magdalena Karvayová is a college graduate aiding Romani parents with enrolling their children into mainstream education so that segregation will disappear from the Czech school system once and for all.

She was born in Slovakia in 1989 but has lived in Ostrava, Czech Republic since childhood. She graduated from the Townshend International School, which teaches in English, and then graduated in Comparative Law from the Anglo-American University in Prague.

She has worked as an intern at the British Embassy in Prague, as a coordinator for the Open Society Fund in Prague, and established the Awen Amenca association. She is currently in the LLM program at the University of New York in Prague.

Q: You are the only Romani woman to have been given the Alice G. Masaryk award for Human Rights by the US Embassy in Prague, for advocating for inclusion in the schools. What does that mean to you?

A: This is a clear signal that the majority society is beginning to see that Romani people - and above all, those Roma for whom this is an issue - are endeavoring to make sure their children get the same education as anybody else here. It also confirms to me that we are heading in the right direction, towards better mutual coexistence, even if there is a long way to go still. We may not see the consequences of our work immediately, but by doing it we are preparing the ground in which the next generation will be able to plant something.

Q: When you look back on the D.H. case, what do you make of it? In 2012, when you were a student of law at Anglo-American University, you contributed to implementing that judgment.

A: I first attended meetings with the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe and representatives of other international organizations such as the European Commission, OSCE-ODIHR, the UN, etc., that are responsible for following the implementation of the judgment. I then also participated in the drafting of the wording of the amendment to the Education Act in 2016, specifically the parts about children with special educational needs. We realized that it was necessary to start at the top, i.e., at the political level, while also working simultaneously at the "grassroots", or from below. Since 2014 my colleagues and I have been encouraging enrollment by Romani children into non-segregated, quality schools in Ostrava. We ourselves have the good fortune to be educated, which most people in excluded localities do not, but once they are informed, they are able to make better decisions. I believe, looking back at the D.H. judgment today, that the systematic discrimination of Romani children will one day cease. These children will no longer be disproportionately diagnosed with "mild mental disability" and therefore assigned outside of the mainstream, as it used to be in the so-called former "special schools", which were then re-named the "practical primary schools" - and which today, after the Education Act was amended in 2016, we no longer officially have in the system.

Q: However, it is still the case, more or less, that Romani children continued to be diagnosed with mild mental disability at the same rate. That was one of the reasons the European Commission, in 2014, launched a so-called infringement proceedings against the Czech Republic, the outcome of which was the amendment to the Education Act that you have mentioned. Are things one way on paper and another in practice?

A: Romani children may be educated in mainstream schools today, but expectations about their performance are reduced according to their diagnoses, because they are still more diagnosed with ADHD and behavioral disorders than other children are, so they are now being given different labels for their special educational needs. That means they are receiving the same information as other children, but for example, during tests there is a lower level of achievement anticipated from them in advance. To the average person this all looks standard from the outside, but we know there are schools that divide the grades into classrooms designated as A, B or C according to a focus on languages, or on math - or as a classroom for children with "mild mental disability", and that is where most of the Romani pupils will be assigned. Another form of segregation is that children may all be attending the same primary school, but it will be set up in two separate buildings, one for non-Romani children and one for Romani children. In practice we know that pupils who graduate from the primary schools attended by many Roma will enroll, in the best-case scenario, in the "B"-class apprenticeship opportunities or other secondary schools that do not include final examinations and do not qualify them for college. I am grateful for the change on paper, but what we need is change in practice. So yes, the discrimination of Romani children in the Czech education system persists, it has just "disguised itself" in a different form. 

Q: You yourself encountered a bad approach by educators in primary school. If were not for your parents, you would never have graduated from university. What happened back then?

A: There were only two Romani girls in my school, and because of my origin, I was subjected to bullying. I could not comprehend why my origin bothered people so much. My father came to the school almost every day to raise it with the administration, and the consequence was that some teachers wanted me to be examined by an educational-psychological counseling center and then be recommended for enrollment into a "special school". One teacher back then even told me that if I were at a "special school", among my "own race", I would be better off. Fortunately my parents refused that - I earned nothing but the highest grades - and they insisted that the bullying be addressed differently. As a child I experienced agony - constant abuse calling me a "dirty gypsy", saying I would never amount to anything, and even physical assault. Eventually, in the eighth grade, I transferred to an international college preparatory academy in South Bohemia. It was a private school and the tuition back then was between CZK 15 000 - CZK 20 000 [EUR 600 - EUR 800]  per year. That was an enormous financial burden to my family, but I felt I would not be considered "different" there. I recall that my Mom was working as a cleaning lady in a military barracks, and my father - who has a college education - was focusing on his fortune-telling business. We knew that six years of study would cost a lot, Mom had to borrow money more than once to pay my tuition, and that is why I am immeasurably grateful to my parents and siblings for their sacrifice. I then completed a Bachelor's in Comparative Law and currently I am earning my LLM at New York University in Prague. I managed to prepare my brother to attend one of the top three secondary schools in Hong Kong, and also my sister to attend a college preparatory academy in Prague. Today my brother, at the age of 22, is working for Česká spořitelna as a banker in their Erste Premier services for their most demanding clients.

Q: How does a child feel when he or she daily encounters incomprehension, low self-confidence, and the opinion that he or she does not belong at a primary school even if his or her grades aren't bad?

A: You feel like garbage. I recall situations when I did not want to go to school because the very idea of it made me want to vomit. The feeling that nobody wants to sit next to you, that I'm going to be slapped again, or I'm going to hear that I'm a "fat gypsy" and a "black swine" - that was actually horrible. I had to physically defend myself more than once, but I was the only one to ever get written up for "my" behavior. What was worse than being slapped, though, was the feeling that nobody believed you, the sense of injustice was really strong. I wanted to show my classmates and teachers that I am not inferior, and so I carefully prepared myself for each examination.

Q: Then you graduated from the Townshend International School, where instruction is in English. How did your primary school colleagues view the fact that it was you, in particular, who went to study at that prestigious school?

A: When I told them I was applying to Townshend International School, where the instruction is in English, my teacher laughed at me and told me that I shouldn't even try because I didn't have what it takes. I asked her why, and she answered: "Look at yourself, you're a gypsy and you always will be." My disappointment was replaced by motivation to do even better, to actually pass the entrance examination. After three months, and despite a significant language barrier, I became "student of the month" at my new school, and I earned my diploma. I can still recall how my father, who is no longer with us, took that diploma to my primary school. The principal's eyes almost popped out of their sockets and it was clear he couldn't believe it. Eventually they hung a copy of it up in the principal's office, and my father left saying:  "You'll be hearing about my daughter in the future!"

Q: What kind of a world opened up for you when you transferred to an international school where your Romani nationality was not a burdensome aspect?

A: An absolutely different world. My family and I drove onto the campus and the faculty was waiting for me outside. I got out of the car and they hugged me, and I had the feeling that I had become a human being again. It was only then that my fear of the future fell away. My six years spent in the boarding school with children from 200 countries all over the world was immeasurably enriching. My self-confidence and desire to fight for Romani people to have better lives was cultivated and supported there. Ever since I left Townshend, the word "impossible" doesn't exist for me anymore.

Q: Your father had a college education, but frequently the young Roma who are earning secondary educations and college educations are the first in their families to pass graduation examinations or earn a degree. Does that experience become something binding for a family? Your brother studied abroad, your sister is in college prep...

A: My Dad was the only one of his siblings to graduate from college. My Mom was never educated at college. I, as the eldest, would aid her in caring for my younger siblings, but at the same time I did my homework and faced bullying on top of it all. Dad always said education was the way out, that I would be the one to end the vicious circle of poverty in which we were living. My siblings recently confided to me that I was an example for them. Our parents never forced us, they just pointed out the value of an education. During college I held three jobs in order to deal with financially assisting my parents and my sister, who was living with me while going to college prep school. We went through a hell of hunger, poverty and stress - that was when Mom was diagnosed with cancer and Dad passed away. I partially took on the role of our parents and did my best to finish what they started for us - that our family will be educated and will move up a rung on the ladder.

Q: You have said that you and your colleagues, during the last five years, have managed to enroll more than 500 Romani children into mainstream schools in Brno, Ostrava, and surrounding areas. How did that happen?

A: During the first two years, we encountered resistance from the schools. Some even were predetermining the number of Roma they would enroll during any given year. In 2014, two mothers involved with our campaign decided to sue a primary school for discriminating against their children. In 2017 the District Court in Ostrava-Poruba issued a verdict against the school for having discriminated. We are now working with Romani parents in four excluded localities, and ever since we have never encountered a problem with Romani children not being enrolled - but different instruments for segregating them are appearing. For example, they reassign the Romani children once school begins in September, or during the course of the year, within a school, into the buildings on a segregated basis.

Q: How can this be combated?

A: We are recommending Romani parents enroll their children into schools where most of the children are from the majority society. It is exactly from such schools that their children will be able to access the material they need to master in order to attend a college preparatory school and then a university. Because until very recently we had no access to statistics about the numbers of Romani people at different primary schools - officially they did not exist - we have been undertaking such surveys ourselves and collecting the relevant data. One criterion we use to identify a quality primary school is that the proportion of Romani pupils there should not exceed 50 %. Parents should also be careful when giving their consent to their children being assessed by an educational-psychological counselling center. If a child actually needs the aid of a teaching assistant, then they should agree to the assessment, but they should know how to proceed if the diagnosis does not seem accurate to them - they can demand re-diagnosis for a second opinion from a different, independent psychologist.

Q: In the Awen Amenca association that you co-founded, you are doing your best to mobilize Romani parents to get involved themselves and to demand better educations for their children. Are you succeeding?

A: For the time being roughly 900 parents have joined the campaign in Ostrava, of whom 600 have enrolled their children into good primary schools. During the last two years we have also conducted a campaign to enroll Romani children into compulsory preschool - for example, in Ostrava we enrolled about 100 Romani children into nursery school. The mothers involved in the first year of the project have become leaders in their communities. First they worked as volunteers, but that changed in 2017 and they established the Association of Romani Parents, which brings together the parents of Romani children of preschool age, and they are conducting an independent campaign in Ostrava.

Q: Are Romani parents aware of the differences between practical schools and primary schools - or between schools that are segregated? Are they aware that the choice of primary school influences the future opportunities for their child to choose a secondary school?

A: In the beginning, in 2013, one could say there was zero awareness. At least not in Ostrava. They were not aware of how our education system functions, how the discrimination happens. It's not surprising, because Romani people, during totalitarianism, were predominantly educated in "special schools". We can't even expect them to know about this. Initially, most parents had the idea that their children would apply to a "B"-class apprenticeship after primary school, or something like that. By the end of the campaign, that had changed, they were speaking of their children becoming bus drivers, police officers, doctors, lawyers... Most of the children impacted by our campaign have become honors students. Now when the parents meet, they discuss which school is better and where they have enrolled their children.

Q: The majority society is frequently of the opinion that Romani people have no interest in education. How do you see that, given that you have been combating segregation for years and aided 500 children with enrolling into classic primary schools?

A: Most people of that opinion have never come into personal contact with Romani people and create their ideas on the basis of the depiction of Romani people in the media, or their own experience of something superficial in practice. We do not learn anything about the culture, or history, or identity of Romani people when we are at school. What we do learn is that anything associated with Romani people is mostly bad. What kind of opinion can the majority society have about us if they have no idea that during communism we were forced, systematically, to be educated in the "special schools", and that to this day this is having an impact on the future of Romani children - or if they have no awareness of what life in a ghetto and in poverty involves? A parent there thinks differently than one who has at least a secondary school education and adequate housing arranged for their family. It is not the case that Romani people are not interested in their children's education - they just have had no clue about what type of school teaches what kind of content according to which kind of educational program and what that means for their children. For that reason, also, we do our best to make sure each and every parent in the ghetto knows that it is their decisions that affect their children's future, and that the right decision will open the door to a better life for their children than they themselves have now.

First published in Romano voďi.

Rena Horvátová, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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