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Central Europe: Roma Kindergarten Aims To Break Cycle Of Failure

Rokycany, Czech Republic; 23 June 1997 (RFE/RL) -- In a kindergarten, Gypsy children are singing one of their traditional songs, about a caravan driver who wants to give an apple to his sweetheart to make her more beautiful.

What's unusual here in the Czech Republic -- or anywhere in Central Europe -- is that the Gypsy children, or Roma as activists prefer to call them, are singing in their own language. In a part of the world where Roma are frequently discriminated against and reviled as beggars and criminals, this kindergarten in Rokycany, 80 kilometers southwest of Prague, is something unique.

It offers Roma children ages three to six a pre-school education in both Czech and their own language, and aims to prepare them for success in regular Czech schools and in life in general.

The kindergarten, funded by the Open Society set up by Hungarian-born American philanthropist George Soros, has been operating for two years. The guiding force behind it is Ondrej Gina, a journalist and Roma activist.

He established the kindergarten with one belief in mind.

"The more educated our people will be, the better lives they will have," he says.

Gina argues that Roma children in the Czech Republic are practically doomed to failure in life from the moment they enter the first grade of primary school. Upon entry they are given tests which, Gina says, are skewed to reflect Czech culture. Because Roma children come from a different culture, he says, they often fail these tests, and are then sent to schools for mentally retarded children even though they usually are of normal intelligence. With this type of treatment early in life, university education is out of the question. So too is even a technical school. This, says Gina, is the tragedy of Roma life in Central Europe.

With no education, Roma usually find it hard to get a decent job. In Rokycany, where Roma make up about seven percent of the city's 13,000 residents, unemployment among Roma is estimated at 70 percent.

This in turn leads to further friction between Czechs and Roma. Many Czechs resent the fact that Roma receive welfare payments, while Roma argue that they have no choice since Czechs won't employ them.

Gina admits that some Roma then slide into crime.

"This is a vicious circle (a Roma man) gets into and he can't get out without outside help," he says.

Gina's aim at the kindergarten is to provide that help a generation before the Roma gets into trouble.

The 30 children in the kindergarten are divided into two classes by ages. Each class has two Czech teachers and a Roma assistant. The co-ordinator of the program is also a Roma woman.

"This is something absolutely new in the sphere of education in the Czech Republic," says Gina proudly.

Ilona Ferkova, the Roma co-ordinator, says the presence of Roma women in the classroom is essential to what she says is the kindergarten's "tremendous" success. She says the children "feel more comfortable, more confident, more relaxed" with Roma assistants in the room.

The kindergarten concentrates on teaching children the normal range of knowledge and skills they will need to enter a regular school -- such as differentiating colors, reciting poems, learning to write their alphabet. But education goes beyond this to encompass Roma culture, history, songs, fairy tales and traditions. This, says coordinator Ferkova, is "insurance" against the inevitable racism they will face outside the classroom.

"If they are educated about their own value, about their own cultural traditions, if they are taught to be proud of what they are, it will help them cope with (racism)," she says.

Ferkova, the mother of four daughters, says the kindergarten "is very good preparation for their further life and further education. That is why we believe, and we pray to god, that these children will have a much better future."

(This is one of two stories on the Roma in Central and Eastern Europe.)