In Serbia, young Roma often don’t end up in a university. That appears from a recent report of Harvard FXB and the CIP Center. But that doesn’t mean the will to study isn’t there.

Stevica Nikolic’s (25) successfully made his way to the university in Vršac, a city in the northeast of Serbia, which wouldn’t have happened without the gentle push of this high school mentor. “She went to my dad, and she told him I had some potential, and that I had to go, so they could work on that potential.”

“It was a very important moment in my life. I’m one of the first in my family who goes to university.”

Stevica is part of the “one in one hundred”. The ones who fought against the odds. However not everyone is that lucky.

The report ‘One in One Hundred: Drivers of Success and Resilience among College-Educated Romani Adolescents in Serbia’ of the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University (Harvard FXB) and Centre for Interactive Pedagogy (the CIP Center) points out the low number of young Roma in higher education while the number of young Serbs in university increased over the previous years. Reasons are diverse, often connected, directly or indirectly, to their own identity.

Jelena Tadzic, Programme Officer at United National Development Programme: “It is linked to several aspects of the social exclusion that Roma community faces: low access to basic rights, health, education, housing, employment and standard of living.”

The report highlights three factors to increase the changes on a positive higher education outcome: the importance of a mentor or teacher, earlier education, the education level of the family.

Basic needs first

Stevan Gligorin, Roma Education Fund. Photo by Suzanna Demey

In Europe, Roma are one of the largest ethnic minorities. Within Serbia the exact number of Roma is difficult to determine with estimates going from 250.000 to 600.000.

Over 60% of those households with children live below the poverty line according to UNICEF in 2006. “The level of poverty is so high that they cannot prioritise school above food, heating, clothes,” says Scholarship Programme Country Coordinator of Roma Education Fund (REF), Stevan Gligorin while stirring in his dragon tea.

REF is an organisation, founded in 2005, which gives scholarships to Roma students. It is thanks to them that Stevica had the chance to start his college degree two years ago. “For me it was very important to get the money to pay for my housing. Otherwise I don’t think I would have been able to go studying.”

That’s why Stevica’s dad initially had other plans in mind for his son’s future. “He wanted me to become a butcher. I would have finished school earlier, it could bring money to my family and me, and it would have been easy to find a job.”

Stevan Gligorin carries on: “That situation tells a lot about the Roma community in Serbia. Where our parents see our limit. It goes so deep that we ourselves don’t even see above that. We don’t see any higher things for ourselves.”

The concept of university, or even high school, is undiscovered ground for most Roma families. “Many Roma parents don’t have any jobs. They are musicians, in best-case scenario. The majority of them didn’t even finish high school, because when you’re a musician, you don’t need high school.”

Tackling stereotypes

In March 2016 the government of Serbia adopted The Strategy of Social Inclusion of Roma for the Period from 2016 to 2025 to improve the status and inclusion of Roma men and women, including their education.

Because being Roma comes with certain assumptions while most people are unaware of what the Romani identity really entails. This lack of knowledge feeds the present stigmatization and discrimination their identity carries with them. A factor which can influence their daily life, including their education.

“From the start of high school, the teacher already had lower expectations of me, because I was Roma. I had to prove myself ten times more than others.”

“When I got the highest grade, they were questioning me how I could achieve that. They were telling me that because I’m Roma, it was impossible for me to get the highest grade. And then, I was asked to go back to my table, and to show them how I did it.”

Once he is graduated Stevica knows what he’ll use his diploma for. “Maybe I’ll have the opportunity to work with Roma kids in a preschool. I know how important it is to have a role model in that period of your life. That’s why it’s my main motivation to share my knowledge with them.”