Andrzej Mirga, Roma Education Fund's new chair, on the European Roma Institute and more
Andrzej Mirga, previously Senior Adviser on Roma and Sinti Issues at the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the OSCE, has recently been appointed chair of the Roma Education Fund. Mr Mirga has a long record as a civic and human rights activist, having co-founded Poland's first Romani association after the fall of communism.
He has organized historic commemorations of the Romani Holocaust at Auschwitz-Birkeanu and represented the Roma in the United States at commemorations of the Romani Holocaust there. He is a long-term associate of the US-based Project on Ethnic Relations, has served as an expert to the Council of Europe, including as chair of its Committee of Experts on Roma and Travellers, on a Polish Governmental commission on Roma issues, and in the High-Level Group on Labour Market and Disadvantaged Ethnic Minorities at the European Commission.
Earlier this year Mr Mirga issued a statement in support of the establishment of a European Roma Institute (reprinted in full below). News server Romea.cz contacted Mr Mirga to ask about his transition into the role of chair of the Roma Education Fund:
Q: You have recently been nominated chair of the Roma Education Fund. What is your vision for its future direction?
A: REF is a unique organization; it is not intergovernmental, but was founded by an international organization (the World Bank) and a private foundation (the Open Society Foundations of George Soros). Its funding, apart from OSF, is also coming from governments or governmental agencies, private funds and individuals. Its mission has been echoed by those governments’ National Roma Strategies, in which closing the gap in education between the majority population and Roma is a key priority. Here my vision is not different: REF should continue doing the stuff that can bring us closer to reaching that objective. REF is mandated to come up with activities, projects or solutions that could be models and can be transferred to ministries of education and other institutions responsible for education because they work, bringing about the intended outcomes and being worthy of scaling up or being introduced into the education system. During the last 10 years REF has supported over 400 projects, whether at kindergarten level, primary or secondary; offered scholarships to Roma students at various level of education; and supported the engagement of Roma mothers, Roma assistants or school teachers to ensure better school achievements and outcomes. REF has supported over 7 000 Roma students at universities throughout this period. The situation has differed year by year, but overall, half of the beneficiaries have also received tuition fee support.
REF is a specialized organization that gathers expertise, tests model solutions, and shares lessons learned in the area of Romani children's education, especially in the area of discriminatory practices of segregation of Romani children in school environments or their over-representation in special education institutions. REF welcomes the increased attention drawn to this issue through numerous efforts by various actors to eradicate these practices and by the recent decision of the European Commission to use infringement proceedings against a few countries due to their continuation of discriminatory policies and practices.
REF has always been against these policies and practices. De-segregation is one of the key objectives inscribed in the REF Statutes, and REF is in favor of inclusive and integrated schooling systems in which Roma children have equal access to early and quality education. I do not see any other option here. Obviously, more needs to be done here and REF is pushing for that. At the same time, REF encourages governments, for example, to institutionalize scholarship schemes at all levels as a tool to overcome various barriers in education and provide good incentives to Roma children and parents to seek and continue quality education.
Moreover, I strongly believe that REF should try to increase the number of Roma in formal education structures, especially at pre-school and primary school levels; major change can and should happen with engagement of an enlarged Roma professional teaching staff, dedicated to and familiar with Roma communities and families. REF should aim to increase their number; presently REF is running a program in three countries, supported by the Velux Foundation, that provides incentives for Roma students to study pedagogy at secondary and tertiary education levels. We should advocate with governments to adopt and pay for this solution, offering working and effective pilot models for it. There are already Roma school assistants, this position is institutionalized in some countries, so it would be part of existing practice. I believe this is the right time to invest in and insist on having more Roma professionals working in education institutions as teaching staff, especially at preschool and primary school levels.
Last but not least, we should take more care of the Roma who have benefited from or are now receiving REF scholarships, both at the secondary and higher education level. Investment in their education should be considered an investment in the future of Roma communities; they should, therefore, not only be somehow visible and engaged in improving the image of Roma, but also Roma communities should benefit from having them educated. We should follow the principle that those who benefit from scholarships because they are Roma should, in return, contribute a certain amount of time and their new skills to the Roma communities, whether in marginalized or ghetto schools, community centers, or local grassroots organizations. This can be done not only through engaging students during their studies in Roma communities’ projects or programs (e.g., as an independent study project or during their vacation), but also through making the REF alumni association stronger and more visible, keeping the alumni committed to the Roma cause after their studies when they enter professional work.
REF has demonstrated, through financial support and direct program implementation, several models that work to achieve inclusive, quality education for Roma at all levels of the education system. However, the scale of these interventions must be increased in order to have the needed impact. Funds for this scale-up are available from the European Union if Member States and accession countries are willing to use them. REF should, therefore, be looking for new ways to put EU funds to work and to convince governments of the need for significant, long-term interventions along the lines of those already proven by REF to work.
Q: What is your view, in general, of how long compulsory education should last and how early in life it should start?
A: REF may have some views regarding the length of compulsory education, but legal provisions differ from country to country. How early in life should education start? This is a different issue. Here REF has its own experiences and model solutions that it has been advocating for a long time. Given the prevailing circumstances of the living and housing conditions typical for many Roma households, providing access to early education institutions as early as possible is a must! There is an obvious need to work with the mother and child, also as early as possible, even before the age of three in the respective early care institutions, whether kindergartens or preschools, outside and inside the Roma communities - this is also a must! On the other hand, education authorities, including local authorities, should invest more in encouraging Roma on professional staffs or Roma teachers to work in their communities since they know them the best, often including knowing the Romani language.
To date, we see still too little change in the education of Romani children as the disadvantages and barriers to accessing quality education in non-segregated school environments continue. Too many children still have no such opportunities, as there are no such institutions available to them. That’s why REF’s mission is so important. REF is fully aware that there is a need for more investment at the early education and primary education levels to build up a solid base for continuation of education at next level. REF is trying to do this and to show that this is feasible, worthwhile and promising: 72 % of REF grants and 50 % of overall REF spending targets students at this level, including financing kindergarten enrollment projects in all of its focus countries (i.e., the Roma Decade countries). REF is also demonstrating positive outcomes, both in the area of children’s school achievements as well as the engagement of Roma parents or mothers in schooling.
REF’s advocacy and expertise has helped some countries to make the right decisions, such as ensuring nine months of universal, free-of-charge preschool to all children in Serbia. This has had a positive impact on Roma children’s enrollment. Similarly, REF projects and campaigns in Hungary worked to adopt the proper legislation to enhance the access and enrollment of Roma children into kindergartens, starting from age three. REF supports the early and pre-school education of Romani children in Romania and works towards implementing the existing desegregation decree there, as well as towards getting government support for expanding its scholarship schemes for Roma children.
Q: Before you were chair of REF you were the Senior Adviser in charge of the Contact Point on Roma and Sinti Issues at ODIHR. In your experience, are the countries of Europe failing their Roma citizens to the same degree in various sectoral areas, or is the experience of Roma across Europe varied when it comes to protecting their rights to education, etc.?
A: In my previous position I was more focused on issues of human rights and discrimination or even violence against the Roma in the OSCE area. I did, however, pay attention to education issues. The Action Plan on Improving the Situation of Roma and Sinti in the OSCE Area from 2003, a basic document adopted by the Ministerial Council at Maastricht, sets out the Roma agenda for this organization and includes specific references to education. These provisions are not different from the objectives of the REF. The Contact Point undertook a field visit to Czech Republic in 2012 to address concerns regarding discriminatory practices in Roma children’s education there and, by the way, you [Gwendolyn Albert] were part of this mission. The ODIHR office published a comprehensive report from this assessment visit in the same year with a set of recommendations directed to the government and its ministry of education. I believe the OSCE-ODIHR report has also contributed to the recent decision of the EC to start the infringement procedure against the Czech Republic, and this is a welcome decision.
Is Europe failing with regard to protecting their rights? If we take as an example the area of education, I think that not resolving the issue of segregation, attaining a rather insignificant rise in the number of Roma who enter tertiary education, seeing the slow pace of change to ensure more access for Roma children to equal, quality and integrated early education and pre-school – these are signs of failure. However, there is also a step ahead in this area: Efforts at the EU and Commission levels to push Member States to adopt National Roma Integration Strategies, in which education is being prioritized and offered funding, are significant.
The question is how these unprecedented opportunities to solve Roma issues will be utilized by governments, Roma communities and civil society. Earlier experiences in this regard are not always positive or encouraging. Here I also see the role for such an organization as REF: To offer well-tested models of engagement in a key area, that is, in education, which is a foundational one. Educated Roma will manage their affairs much better than uneducated ones.
Q: How do you believe the image of Romani people in Europe, as well as their general experience, has been transformed compared to 40 years ago?
A: I am afraid I do see here negative trends on the rise rather than a correction or improvement of the Roma public image in this period. Many things have contributed to this rise: Rather unsuccessful integration policies implemented by various governments up to now, crisis and austerity policies that exposed Roma disadvantage even more, the perception that Roma migration is a matter of security, the rise of populist and extreme-right groups that make use of this dislike of Roma in their political campaigns and voter outreach, etc. I would add here the role of new social media and the Internet, where Roma are especially targeted for hate campaigns. It is a challenging question how to oppose these trends or find adequate tools to deal with them. No doubt, better outcomes from numerous strategies and programs or even projects are much needed now; these should be demonstrated and visible. Again, REF and others' efforts in the area of education especially have proved that systemic challenges can be successfully overcome; these examples of good practice should be taken up by national governments. Roma need more educated people who become professionals and active, and we see this happening. Roma themselves also need to contribute to changing their own public image, and this is also taking shape. REF is working towards these aims, too.
Statement by Andrzej Mirga on the European Roma Institute
ERI is a noble idea and much needed now when we are all challenged by the rising intolerance and sometimes violence against various minorities and immigrants. Roma are among those most visible targets of these sentiments and subject to anti-Gypsyism, which has continued for centuries and flourishes in many parts of Europe right now. ERI originates with Roma and is supported by Roma gathered in the so-called Alliance. It consists of respected organizations and individuals with a history and record of engagement and accomplishments. Through membership, the future ERI will have the potential to gather around it far more qualified Roma who are respected and able to drive a change in the way Roma are presented and represented in public discourse.
ERI is envisioned as an institution that has no ambition to become a representational or academic institution, therefore, it should not be seen as aiming to replace or undermine already-existing structures. The future ERI would have its own specific area of competence and action, an area not yet well explored, but of importance to Roma and to non-Roma alike. Furthermore, ERI wants to engage in collaboration and dialogue with other already-existing structures (representational or academic) in order to search for synergies and complementarities, defining common avenues for joint actions.
ERI is about changing the way in which the image of Roma is constructed and presented. It is about being in charge of what is promoted about Roma and how, in whatever field: Art, knowledge, media or education. It is about a change in the discourse and narrative, about changing the majority’s discourse on Roma. No one thinks, however, that this field will substitute for action to combat anti-Gypsyism such as human rights organizations do, but it can complement it.
How? Many of those Roma who are known in various fields (for example, famous artists and musicians) rarely get involved in the Roma struggle for equality and non-discrimination or undertake efforts to challenge anti-Gypsyism. ERI aims to engage them, connect them to this cause or re-connect them to Roma communities, and activate them and their art or performance in pursuing this noble cause.
Examples tell more than lengthy explanations, sometimes. It is no accident that the future ERI is building on the experiences of the Barvalipe Academy and including it into the envisioned structure of this body. The Barvalipe Academy used to serve educated Roma youth to develop a positive self-image and to value their own culture, tradition and history or ultimately to let them feel proud of being Roma. The same kind of work has been led by the Ternype International Roma Youth Network, gathering over 1 000 Roma youth from around Europe to commemorate the Roma Genocide on the 2nd of August at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi concentration camp last year. Therefore, ERI is about Roma youth, education and integration.
There is a growing number of Roma youth who are now studying. Actually, the Roma Education Fund provides scholarships to over 1 500 Roma students in the Balkans and Central and Eastern Europe. The Roma youth need self-assurance, they need to know that there is a secure space for them, that they can be both Roma and educated. ERI is also about offering something to Roma youth that offsets the negative actions and imagery against Roma which are a Europe-wide phenomena. ERI is as much about those educated Roma youth as about their sense of identity, pride and security.
The imagination of what and how the ERI can function and operate seems to be very limited, especially among those who have criticized this idea from the beginning. At least for those of us who are forming the Alliance, we can easily imagine the ERI function as that of connecting people, efforts, and innovative actions, mobilizing them for a common cause. We can easily imagine ERI as a hub that is creative, open and multi-dimensional.
We believe there is a potential and power in all of what ERI can represent and engage in, both for the non-Roma majority and for Roma themselves, especially Roma youth. ERI has the potential to transform the public discourse and contribute to changing perceptions and attitudes towards Roma among majority societies. In the same way, ERI can work to transform the Roma community itself, especially Roma youth, helping them to be proud, active and assertive with regard to who they are in our present-day world.
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