A New Momentum

Volunteers in Ostrava Tutor Roma Children.

All different kinds of projects and election platforms make the same assertion: Without education, the life of the Roma minority will not improve. Nonetheless, there are still Roma children who do not even have a table at home on which to do their homework. Five years ago, university students and other volunteers in Ostrava stopped merely talking about the problem of education and set out to work in the field. They were led by the activist Kumar Vishwanathan and the Ostrava Roma advisor Lýdia Polácková.

"It was a desire to help out after the floods that brought the students from Ostrava and Brno to work with the Roma. It was a kind of idealism, or as one Dutch philosopher put it, a new momentum, an interest in doing something good," says Kumar.

It Started in Na Lišcine Street

"It's tutoring time." A group of school kids ranging from first to sixth grade shove one another as they rush into a small room in the community center in Na Lišcine Street in Ostrava. A petite brunette distributes notebooks and explains that, to begin with, the first- and second-graders will practice letters. One of the Roma mothers who visits the center each day puts a halt to a small scuffle occasioned by the distribution of writing materials.

"You're causing trouble? Well, get out then!" she thunders at the most boisterous little boy, who was about to fight over a pencil. The threat of exclusion works: after that, he doesn't dare open his mouth.
While the little ones write out the alphabet, with the aid of pictures, the older ones wait more or less patiently for the tutor, Jana Tancošová (19) to attend to them. The girls, who are about ten years old, admit that in the last semester they failed Czech language and math, and apparently they weren't very good at history or geography either. So for a while now they have been taking an extra hour of lessons at least every other day. According to the girls, it makes a big difference at school.

Jana Tancošová is a volunteer who is herself completing high school. She has been working with Roma children for about three months and she is soon to take a ten-day training course, where she will learn about the basic pedagogical methods.

"It's fun, even though it's rather tough going. There are a lot of children and it doesn't always go the way I expect it to," she smiles. There are three other volunteers teaching with Jana at the Na Lišcine center.

"Thanks to the tutoring, we've managed to get some of the children out of remedial school," Elena Mirgová says with satisfaction. She is head of the Na Lišcine community center, a portable unit with several rooms.

The center was founded after the floods in 1997 by Kumar Vishwanathan, a volunteer heart and soul, who studied physics and speaks six languages. When it became evident that the Roma who had been flooded out needed not only apartments and clothing, but also an advocate and an organizer, Kumar stayed on. Today the slender, cheerful Indian enjoys enormous authority among the Roma communities and social workers from other cities travel to Ostrava to learn from him.

“Sometimes the
children really
do not even
have a table
where they can
do their

The tutoring of young Roma children also takes place in two other community centers, in some elementary schools and in the family homes. The family project was started three years ago by the Roma advisor Polácková. During a lecture at the Pedagogical Faculty of Ostrava University, she asked the students: "Wouldn't you like to help the school kids yourselves?" The challenge was effective and this year, for example, fourteen university students helped young Roma with their schoolwork.
"Sometimes the children really do not even have a table where they can do their homework. Their parents hardly ever supervise them, although many now recognize the important of school," says Lýdia Polácková, describing the situation in which the volunteers find themselves.

I Don't Want to Go to Remedial School

Eleven-year-old Filip Fer has been threatened with the prospect of having to attend remedial school. Last semester, he failed three subjects. His mother therefore requested extra lessons. Like most Roma children, Filip's biggest problem is with the Czech language, but he also needs to make rapid progress in math, history and geography. Filip cheerfully greets his tutor, Jana Budová, in front of his home in Ostrava in the Kuncicky District. Jana, who is twenty years old, is studying at the Pedagogical Faculty. Without a murmur of protest, he picks up the textbook and starts the spelling exercise, reading: "Languages are the gateway to the world."

Romany is not an obstacle for him because, like his mother and three siblings, he does not speak Romany. According to the volunteer teacher, what he lacks is reading practice and patience. "Sometimes I forget to do my homework, but I can write perfectly when I want to. Only I don't want to very often," Filip confesses guilelessly. Jana Budová thinks that Filip needs more than two hours of tutoring a week.
"I really enjoy it and in addition it's going to be my job when I finish school. It's too bad that there aren't more tutors. One could cover math and the other languages," Budová reflects.

Filip's mother, Maryla Ferová, is employed as a social worker for the Association of Roma in Moravia, and she knows that her son needs help with his studies. In her opinion, the volunteers' assistance is a guarantee that her son will not have to go to remedial school. "I don't want to go there," Filip also declares resolutely. He plans to become a car mechanic.

Two years ago, it became possible for the future teachers of Ostrava to complete their mandatory training through volunteer work. But others are already volunteering from other faculties of Ostrava University and the technical college. Next semester, the extra lessons are scheduled to continue even during the university exam period, when the school kids in elementary school are finishing their year. The volunteer work is organized by Tomáš Jaluvka, who studies at the Health and Social Welfare Faculty.
"The Roma children are clever and perceptive," Jaluvka says. "Our goal is to get them out of the remedial schools and into normal schools, on the one hand, and to prevent them from being transferred from normal to remedial schools, on the other. At some point the vicious circle has to be broken. Without education, they won't get anywhere. Those children are worth it.'

The ranks of the volunteers are growing and in the next school year there should be at least twenty of them.

-Translated by Kathleen Hayes

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