Yveta Kenety: We won't get rid of prejudice until we get to know each other
Yveta Kenety is from Přerov. She graduated from the Business Academy and Language School Prague and then completed her studies in Bulgarian and Serbian at the Philosophical Faculty of Charles University.
Kenety used to chair the Athinganoi association and has worked as lecturer, teacher and translator from English to Czech in both the commercial and nonprofit sectors. She currently works in the ROMEA organization as the coordinator of scholarships for Romani students and at the same time is the contact person for projects run by the Roma Education Fund in the Czech Republic.
Fifteen years ago, Yveta Kenety was working with the Athinganoi association while still a student herself. Education has been a theme of her entire professional career.
After many years working as a teacher and translator she is now focusing on the next generation of Romani students. "Usually these people are the first generation in their family to strive for a college degree," she says.
Q: Frequently it is said that many Romani children don't have the "same starting line" as non-Romani children here. What does that concretely mean?
A: We must not forget that today's parents and grandparents grew up during communism, an era of thorough segregation. Romani people were mostly educated outside of mainstream education and the consequence of that is that many of them just have a primary education or attended "special school" (zvláštní školu). Imagine a pupil who does not understand, for example, the concept of a square root when it is taught at school. The child goes home, asks Mom or Dad for help, and they explain it that evening. Many Romani children, however, do not have that option - some of their parents barely made it through primary school, so these children just cannot avail themselves of their aid with learning. A low level of educational attainment, moreover, leads to people not having very well-paid employment, which means they are unable to afford, for example, to pay for tutoring the way majority-society parents customarily do. It's similar with being able to afford the hobby circles where the children develop skills, or travel, which expands people's experiences and horizons. That's where I see the "inequality", because these children are just as intelligent as anybody else and have the same potential as anybody else.
Q: Of all the pupils who have been educated according to the adapted curriculum in the Appendix for Educating Pupils with Mild Mental Disability, 30 % are Romani, which is a high number.
A: Yes, that, too, is unfortunately still the legacy of the past. That appendix to the educational program regulated the education of pupils with mild mental disability and has fortunately already been abolished thanks to pressure from abroad - even though instruction according to that curriculum will still continue for some time. With the aid of the support measures now being introduced by amendments to the legislation, more and more Romani children will have a chance to gradually transfer into mainstream primary schools. Segregated schools remain a big problem, however, - children may be taught according to mainstream curricula in them, but they are educated separately from everybody else. Romani children frequently do not feel safe in the mainstream schools, they are subjected to bullying, and their parents therefore prefer to choose a purely Romani school for them. However, this is not good for their children's education or for breaking down the barriers between the majority society and Roma.
Q: Low educational attainment, worse chances on the labor market - this has been a vicious circle for several generations. How do we escape it?
A: Even though there is only a minimum of statistical information about this, from my own experience I dare say that the vast majority of Romani pupils who attend segregated primary schools will end up, in the very best-case scenario, at vocational secondary schools. There are still very few of them attending the kind of secondary schools that prepare one for higher education. Besides knowledge, what they also lack is motivation and self-confidence. They are afraid that even if they do graduate from such a secondary school, it won't aid them with finding work at all because of the persistent prejudice here. Unfortunately, I don't have a recipe for how to escape this vicious circle. Antigypsyism is deeply rooted in our society. Education is the answer but you can make a good living as an entrepreneur too for example, if you choose the right field, but even there you can't avoid the need for some form of education. So not everybody has to have a college degree to be successful but the chances are higher. It is also important to promote the "invisible", successfully- integrated Romani people who can serve as positive role models for other Roma and as a way to educate the majority society, which must learn how to see Romani people as individuals.
Q: How does the Roma Education Fund (REF) aid with that issue?
A: It is important to bring the very youngest children into the education system. We must convince Romani parents that it is important to send their children regularly to nursery school. That is why, in the Czech Republic, besides projects aimed at all other levels of education, REF also finances projects aimed at preschool education. Romani children have a chance to equalize their starting line with everybody else in the preschools. We further support projects helping pupils at elementary schools, to secure their suceessful transition to secondary education. REF also awards scholarships to Romani secondary and university students.
Q: This September another amendment to the Schools Act takes effect. The topic of inclusion continues to spark emotional, stormy discussions in Cech society. Why?
A: The public has believed the campaign in the media claiming that the state will be forcing the schools to do something as of September - and moreover, they believe it is something that will supposedly harm majority-society children. In our traditionally segregated system, special schools exist for various kinds of disebility, and children are educated separately from one another with the explanation that "it's better for them that way". The purpose of education, however, is not just to cram children full of subject matter. They are supposed to learn empathy and social awareness, and that can only be taught experientially. For most teachers, however, it is difficult to change their mindset and their work style from one day to the next. If there are 30 children in a classroom, however, inclusion cannot happen without an assistant, that is clear. If there are children with special needs in a mainstream classroom, then the total number of children in that classroom must, of course, be smaller. Schools must be able to offer the conditions that correspond to such inclusion, that's important. However, inclusion is already happening at many schools already. According to the Czech School Inspectorate, basically it is working at most schools - of 4 100 schools, individual integration is reported as happening in 3 175 of them. However, this frequently is just taking place "on paper",in my view, in the form of an individual education plan that not all of the teachers in the schools respect when it comes to dealing with milder forms of learning disorders.
Q: You are working as the coordinator of the REF's Romani University Scholarship project. You have encountered many stories of young Romani people through that project. Do they have anything in common?
A: One thing is common to almost all of them: Usually these people are the first generation in their family to strive for a college degree. Frequently they are studying pedagogy, because they feel it is precisely in the schools that they can aid Romani children the most. Without our support, they could not study, because their parents cannot financially support them during their studies. It's also interesting that in this country, many older students are seeking scholarships, sometimes they are even far beyond 40 years of age. I have to say that I greatly admire those people. They have their own families and jobs, but they are studying for examinations in order to continue their education and develop further in their careers.
Q: Is there a story from the recent students that has captivated you the most?
A: This year I met an applicant who has eight siblings and who had to move with her entire family from one end of the country to the other, into the mountains, in search of less expensive housing, and this year, despite her formidable personal circumstances, she was accepted into an architecture program. Her dream is to build a skyscraper one day. We also read very moving stories in the applications for the secondary school scholarship that the ROMEA organization is newly administering this year. One of many such stories is that of a girl who is living together with her three sisters in a children's home and who was abused by her aunt for several years before that. She cannot anticipate any support from her family and we are glad to aid her with completing secondary school, next year graduation awaits her. Her dream is to learn foreign languages and travel.
Q: Your own story is interesting, too. You began meeting with the group of Romani students brought together by the Athinganoi organization when you were a student yourself, and later became its director. How did that all basically begin?
A: At the age of roughly 25 I learned from my mother that my father is a Romani man from western Slovakia. I had certain "suspicions" before that, but when I told my mother that the children at camp had cursed at me for being a "Gypsy" when I was in first grade, she passed over that in silence. Who knows why she decided to tell me so late in life? In any event, I was glad to finally know it. Purely by chance I read a news report at that time about a meeting of Romani students that Monika Mihaličková (Editor's Note.: née Horáková) had begun to organize when she was an MP. I immediately contacted her and she invited me to that meeting, it had just been arranged. It's sad, but that was the first time I had the opportunity to get to know Romani people more closely, other than my father, who was orphaned himself as a child and whose extended family we never met. In Athinganoi we Romani students were in regular contact with each other we began to work on various education projects. I think most majority-society people here do not know anybody Romani, even though they express all kinds of "erudite" opinions about the Romani minority.
Q: Today you are focused on providing support for Romani students and you are even collaborating with Monika Mihaličková again. Was that intentional, or is it just happenstance?
A: To tell you the truth, Monika's activity back then made such an impression on me that I have always wished in my heart of hearts that I could do something similar. Working with young people is something I have always enjoyed. When I taught English, I always enjoyed teaching young people the most. However, it is probably just happenstance that I have returned to this work now, 15 years later, as far as the collaboration with Monika is concerned. Interestingly, this year we also returend to the "scene of the crime", as it were - at the end of August we held our first meeting of the next generation of students at our favorite recreation center, Doubravka. My dream came true, I am doing what I actually enjoy, what fulfills me having a chance to influence lives of young people.
Q: "Education is important" sometimes sounds like a cliché. However, it actually is important - how do you believe it plays an essential role in the lives of young people and others?
A: Without education, we have fewer chances, there is no doubt about that. When we attend school we must constantly work on ourselves - prepare, do homework, learn the habits that we can later apply at work. However, I believe that people should be reasonable when they choose fields of study with respect to whether they can find work in them. Sometimes it is also difficult to motivate Romani people to study when they are convinced they will not get work anyway, despite their education. Unfortunately, they are frequently right. If two educated applicants try for the same job and one of them is Romani, the employer will very often give priority to the other candidate. That is a fact that most Czech people are not aware of, or do not want to realize. Their perspective is just that Romani people "don't want to work".
Q: You come from Přerov, where many Romani people live, and the relationships between the majority society and the Roma community are not exactly rosy there. Why do you think that is?
A: In my view it is precisely because of segregation: Non-Romani and Romani children do not grow up together, they are not usually friends, and therefore they don't have the chance to get rid of their prejudices. The problem also is that the majority identifies as Roma only those Romani people who are loud, poor, and who fulfill their preconceived notions of who a Rom is. The integrated Romani people, the so-called "respectable" Romani people, are either not seen, or are considered exceptions - or believed to be foreigners. I personally encounter many educated, successful Romani people every day who are proud of their origins, though.
First published in the monthly Romano voďi (July/August 2016). You can order the Czech edition by completing the online form at www.romanovodi.cz.
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