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Bulgaria Opens Schools

June 12, 2001

Bulgaria Opens School Doors for Gypsy Children


VIDIN, Bulgaria, June 8 -- Linka Shankova, a Gypsy mother in her 20's, is taking part in an unusual experiment intended to lift the lot of her people in Bulgaria, and indeed across Eastern Europe.

For decades here, Gypsies, known as Roma in this part of the world, have been segregated in their schooling, confined to the poorly run and badly maintained schools like the one across a dusty lot from Ms. Shankova's ramshackle one-story brick home. That education kept them on society's lowest rungs, subject to the poverty and discrimination that has been their lot for centuries.

So this past year, in a curious throwback to American desegregation of past decades, Ms. Shankova has let her 10-year-old son, Bilian Mateev, join some 460 other Gypsy children who are bused from the dusty Nov Put neighborhood each morning to schools in other parts of Vidin to be integrated with other Bulgarian children. "My boy's lively," Mrs. Shankova said, praising a result of one year's integration. "But he's quieter now. He's very wise now." In September, her daughter Silvia, 8, will follow Bilian on the daily bus.

The struggle to integrate Vidin's Gypsy children has not been easy. Similar efforts to integrate the children of Gypsies elsewhere in Bulgaria failed after protests by non-Gypsy parents. Moreover, integration here was the fruit of a local initiative -- unusual in a region accustomed to awaiting governmental remedy -- that raised the hackles of education bureaucrats in the capital of Sofia, a three-hour drive to the south.

If the efforts here succeed, the model could well spread elsewhere in Eastern Europe, where Gypsies form a large part of the population. Vidin's experiment is being imitated in cities in Hungary and Slovakia, and will be repeated in September in four other Bulgarian cities. It has attracted the attention of Western benefactors, including the George Soros Foundation, which is paying salaries and providing books and other aid to Gypsy schoolchildren.

The need for desegregation is in part the paradoxical result of decades of efforts by former Communist governments in Eastern Europe to better integrate Gypsies into society.

After World War II, Communist leaders forced the historically nomadic Gypsies into a sedentary way of life, with fixed places of residence and jobs. To eliminate widespread illiteracy, special schools were established for Gypsy children.

For all the good intentions, the program masked racist undertones. In Bulgaria, for instance, the Gypsy schools were officially dubbed Ā'schools for children with inferior lifestyle and culture."

Overcrowded and underfunded, they often served as penal colonies for uncooperative teachers. The results were abysmal. According to Bulgaria's 1992 census, while 36 percent of Bulgarian children graduate from high school, fewer than 5 percent of Gypsy children do; 9 percent of Bulgarian youths obtain university degrees, compared with one-tenth of 1 percent among Gypsies.

Donka Panayotova, 45, a Gypsy teacher, daughter of a construction worker and the guiding light of the integration here, got to know this situation in 1983, after finishing college and joining the faculty of Vidin's Gypsy school.

"Officially, about 600 kids were registered," she said in a recent interview. "In fact, no more than 280 to 300 were ever attending." The conviction that integration was the sole solution came after she persuaded a Bulgarian colleague to enroll her grandson at the Gypsy school. The boy's presence forced Gypsy classmates to speak Bulgarian, sharply improving their academic performance, she said.

In 1997, Mrs. Panayotova decided to quit teaching and found an organization called Drom -- Bulgarian for "the road" -- to fight for desegregation. Despite the Bulgarian government's acceptance in 1999 of a framework agreement with Gypsy leaders to integrate Gypsies more fully into Bulgarian society, the government had dragged its feet on school desegregation. Seventy percent of Gypsy children remained in Gypsy schools. That same year, after several Gypsy families in Yambol, in southeastern Bulgaria, sought to enroll their children in Bulgarian schools, Bulgarian parents blocked their entrance with protests.

In Vidin, despite scattered resistance, preparations for desegregation began in earnest last spring.

Katya Trifonova, the principal of a desegregated secondary school, said meetings with Bulgarian parents and teachers who feared a drop in educational standards were often heated and emotional. Gypsy parents, for their part, had to be assured for the safety of their children, she said. In scattered instances, teachers at the Gypsy school, apparently fearing for the future of their jobs if children deserted the school en masse, suggested that Gypsy children might face attacks from skinheads if they ventured out of the Gypsy neighborhood.

"I was worried, because my boy is darker than the others," said Aneta Sashova, gesturing toward her son, Goshko Kotsev, 11, a fourth grader.

Mrs. Sashova's situation is typical of many of Vidin's Gypsies, estimated to number roughly one-quarter of the population. Her family lives with the parents of her husband, who has never held a job. Until 1999, she worked in a chemical factory but was laid off when it shut down, and has survived on welfare ever since.

She overcame her worries for her children after learning that Drom would buy them school books, materials like crayons for art lessons, and even shoes. "I had about decided to stop sending them to school altogether," she said of Goshko and his sister, who is in eighth grade.

Ms. Panayotova's experiment in desegregation was particularly risky as a test of tolerance in times of high stress. Slowly and painfully, Bulgaria is weaning itself from a Communist, centrally planned economy to a more open market. Vidin's two biggest factories, once employing tens of thousands to supply rubber tires and water pumps to markets in the old Soviet empire, are closed. Unemployment is so widespread that, by some estimates, as much as half the city's 1989 population of about 60,000 have emigrated in search of work.

The economic battering heightened the isolation of the Gypsies, who once came out of their isolated slum neighborhood to work with other Bulgarians in local factories, but are now unemployed.

Rumyan Russinov, the director of a center in Budapest that is run by the Soros Foundation's Open Society Institute to help Gypsies, called the organizers in Vidin "the sappers that find the mines," to enable similar desegregation to succeed elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

"Every Romany leader feels he's a Martin Luther King," said Mr. Russinov, 34, who was born in Dunavtsi, down the Danube from Vidin. "We don't need that now, we need a movement, not just an individual. We need critical mass." Future initiatives, he said, will include university scholarships for Gypsy graduates of desegregated schools.

In Vidin, he said, despite initial acceptance of desegregation, the struggle is not yet over. Few Gypsy children are in integrated schools, though more are expected as the idea catches on among Gypsy parents. Moreover, the long-term effect of desegregation has yet to be felt.

"This is not a one-act play: it will be a long-term process," said Mariika Vasileva, vice principal of a primary school whose Gypsy pupils jumped last year to 110, from 80. "Only teachers who never had the chance to work with children of different ethnic backgrounds could believe that this would be an easy and quick process."

Lingering differences were evident as the sixth-grade class of Julia Petkova, who teaches Bulgarian language and literature at the school of SS. Cyril and Methodius, had a last lesson recently. In the first row, Borislav Borisov, a boy of 12 who is not a Gypsy, shared a two-seat bench and desk with Alexander Danchev, also 12, a tousled Gypsy boy -- one of 7 in the class of 26. It was the last day of school, exams were over, everyone had passed, and thoughts were on vacation.

Borislav, asked about his summer plans, said he hoped his parents would take him, as in past years, to the Black Sea coast. Alexander, when asked the same question, appeared confused. After a pause, he replied, "I guess I'll play."

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