Watching Arbasana Amzaj help young students with their homework, her head bent over their books with a warm smile on her face, it’s hard to imagine she faced obstacles getting her own education.
She works with confidence on the second floor of a small wooden house, keeping students interested in their work. This MCC-supported “Little School,” as it’s affectionately called, is where Roma children come for homework help in the community of Surčin, a municipality of Belgrade, Serbia.
When Amzaj was a student, the Little School didn’t exist. There weren’t any tutoring sessions, and there wasn’t anyone to help her understand Serbian, the language used in school.
“It was very difficult for me really at the beginning,” she says. “I did not have good grades because I simply did not know the language and I did not understand . . . . I had some neighbors who are Serbs and I tried to find help from them.” Amzaj was the only Roma student in her class of 33.
Roma people, often referred to by the derogatory term “gypsy,” are from an ethnic group originally from northern India but found throughout Europe today.
Roma children in Serbia have a harder time getting an education than other students. They grow up speaking languages like Romani or Albanian, not Serbian, the only language used in school.
Furthermore, 80 percent of the Roma population in Serbia is illiterate, unable to help with homework and fill out the paperwork needed for enrollment, or they simply don’t place much value on school.
Unemployment rates are also higher for Roma, and while school itself is free, the associated costs for books and supplies can be too high.
In Amzaj’s case, her parents wanted her to stay in school, but weren’t always able to help with homework and didn’t have enough money for books and supplies. She was able to finish elementary school with help from friends, neighbors and a local principal who helped cover some costs. But she stopped after eighth grade because her family needed her to start working.
“Of course I knew that elementary education was not enough, but the financial situation of my family was difficult and I simply could not afford it,” Amzaj says.
These days she works as a teaching assistant with MCC partner Bread of Life Belgrade, helping young Roma students get the help she didn’t have.
The Roma education program, offered in the Belgrade municipalities of Surčin and Zemun, approaches the challenge with intervention from all sides.
It includes a kindergarten to help children learn Serbian before entering public school; tutoring sessions to provide individual help; one-on-one meetings with parents; and help with the extensive paperwork to get children registered.
In addition to seven teachers, including the kindergarten teacher, the program has five Roma teaching assistants who are from the community and know firsthand the challenges students face.
Students in first and second grades go to tutoring sessions in a dedicated classroom at the public school. Students in third grade and up go to the Little School for lessons before or after school. MCC support goes toward salaries for teachers and teaching assistants and to cover workshops for young Roma leaders.
Bread of Life Belgrade (BOLB) was founded in 1992 as a Christian humanitarian relief organization supporting refugees from wars in the region. BOLB started the Roma education project in 2005 when local community leaders and public schools asked for help, knowing that education was the way out of poverty.
“Roma leaders themselves were telling us, ‘encourage our children to go to school, find a way to finish the school,’” says Slavicia Stanković, general secretary of BOLB. “There was a high percentage of dropouts from school. More than 60 percent of kids in the Roma communities did not finish school.”
Šaban Dramaku and his wife Safeijè Šabani have seen how the program makes a difference. Their youngest son Edvin started the tutoring in first grade, getting help with questions his parents couldn’t answer. “There are a lot of things that we don’t know how to help him with,” Šabani says of her son.
Edvin stopped attending the program in third grade because the Little School was too far away, but when his marks started to suffer his father made sure to bring him back. And his grades have improved.
Their older son has also started coming to the Little School because he’s been struggling in sixth grade. “If he was able to get some help also like [Edvin] from the beginning I’m sure he would have much better success,” says Dramaku.
In addition to tutoring for both of the children, one of the program’s teachers encouraged Šabani, who had a grade-four education, to attend adult education classes, organized by BOLB and the local school district. “Because of the war in Kosovo and everything, I was not able to finish elementary school,” she says. “Here I have the opportunity to finish . . . it’s never too late.”
That support for the whole family is common. Amzaj’s sister Eljmaz attended the program’s preschool to learn Serbian and came back for tutoring in seventh grade when she needed extra help. She is now in a secondary school nursing program and continues attending BOLB classes.
Their two younger siblings, Vanessa and Valjon, also go to the Little School, while their mother Besa started the adult classes and participates in an evening women’s group teaching income generation skills.
Besa has noticed a positive shift in community attitudes toward education.
“Ten years ago the atmosphere around education was different,” she says. “Children have really started to see that they can do it as much as the others. The atmosphere changed because of the support.”
To be able to give that support, though, BOLB had to earn the trust of the community.
At the beginning, that meant BOLB staff were simply going into Roma families’ homes, counting how many children they had and urging parents to send their children to school. Today, teachers still visit each student’s home at least once a year.
When the project started, only 17 percent of Roma children enrolled in school in Surčin were actually attending. Today that figure has increased to more than 90 percent. In 2005 there was not one Roma child in the fifth grade there. Now, a decade later, 20 Roma students in the BOLB program are already in secondary school and two are in university.
Staff are dedicated to making sure the changes are long-term. Four years ago BOLB started a program to help young adults in the community learn leadership skills. Today, 10 young Roma leaders are in the program. Five, including Amzaj, are employed as Roma teaching assistants.
The leaders being trained and students being tutored today will keep improving the community for years to come, says Stanković, BOLB general secretary.
“We are completely sure that they as parents are not going to allow their children not to finish elementary school . . . the change starts with the second generation.”