Update from Serbia - April 2011
“I wish I had your hair,” she says while combing her labored hands through it.
She is Ajša, an eleven-year-old girl and a regular in my middle-level English class. Ajša has a face full of smiles but devoid of nutrition. She somersaults barefoot as filth seeps into her calloused heels. Her clothes are soiled, her hair, matted. She hasn’t gone to school for two years.
Ajša has these eyes that mesmerize me each time I look her way. It’s not their striking brown quality which elicits this reaction but rather their appearance of understanding. Understanding of the world’s sometimes harsh and brutal nature. Understanding emanating from first-hand experience. Understanding that should not be realized by age eleven.
Many of my students possess this understanding. Many of my students have been deported around Europe. Most of my students have been beaten or sexually abused. Most of my students have grown up knowing no future. All of my students know need, segregation, hatred, discrimination, and prejudice. All of my students live in poverty. All of my students have experienced more of the world’s ills in their short lives than anyone should in a lifetime. My students are the underprivileged, downtrodden outcasts, the butt of society’s jokes, the most marginalized minority. They are Roma.
In Niš my work and that of my classmates is focused on the Roma population. For me this means daily trips to a Roma settlement to teach English. During our first week in Niš, Osman Balić, a Roma politician who advocates for their rights, presented facts and fiction of the culture and their philosophies. This lecture, numerous conversations with co-workers about the Roma, our trip to Šutka (the largest Roma settlement in the Balkans situated in Macedonia), a session discussing their rights in Belgrade’s Parliament on International Roma Day, seven months of accumulated observations of locals interacting with and talking about the Roma, and three months of working with and teaching them have helped me begin to understand this oppressed people.
Let me start by admitting that before coming to Serbia I hadn’t known much about the Roma other than what Esmeralda implored in “God Help the Outcasts” from the candied Disney feature of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Many people still think of them in crude stereotypes, as thieving vagabonds.
The Roma are an ethnic group often referred to as “gypsies”, a term which is both erroneous and offensive to many. Precise numbers are difficult to ascertain because roughly 45% of the Roma do not have official documents. However, there are at least eight million in Eastern Europe alone and it's estimated that they constitute 8% of the entire population of Serbia. The Roma are Europe’s largest minority without a state of their own. They migrated from India about ten centuries ago, and, until the 19th century, they worked for aristocrats and in monasteries as unacknowledged slaves. In Hitler’s Holocaust the Roma were one of the principal targets. Historians estimate that the Germans and its allies killed around 25 percent of all European Roma during the Second World War.
Today the Roma are frequently denied their rights to housing, employment, healthcare and education, and are often victims of racist attacks. They live together in settlements in ghetto compounds, generally in unheated, decrepit shacks, of which approximately one third have no electricity and two thirds have no sewage system. De facto segregation is practiced at most schools, and those that “accept” Roma students contain enduring discrimination. The single-classroom schoolhouse I teach in is located adjacent to the largest settlement in Niš, and though its original intent was to provide supplemental classes for the children in that settlement, it’s become the only place the kids go to learn. In Serbia only 29% complete eight grade, 8% complete high school, and 0.3% go onto college.
According to Osman, the Roma believe it’s better “to be” than “to have” – for instance it’s better to be happy than to have material items. They also practice većna sadasnost (the eternal present): living for today without looking to the past or future. Osman told us that both entrenched philosophies are coping mechanisms as well as psychologies of poverty which, unfortunately, are preventing them from moving forward and are provoking societal prejudices of being a lazy and incapable people.
I’ve observed these mentalities in the behavior of all my students but especially in my oldest class of fourteen to seventeen-year-olds. I believe I had the most difficulties reaching these students because they understand, more so than the younger ones, that my role is to teach them, which carries the implication that they need help, an awfully hard admission to swallow. For the first month these students and some from my middle class would rarely smile or show an interest in what I said, they would hit each other forcefully which twice turned into actual fights, they would often refuse to fill out worksheets or participate in games or activities I organized, they would mock me, my handouts, and my Serbian, and they would regularly cuss in Serbian and English at me or other members in the class. This is how I’ve seen many of the adults in the settlement act, this is the example they’re often given, and it seems to be all they know. Over the course of a few months not all of the cussing, fighting, and mocking has dissipated, but they have changed a great deal by showing more interest in learning, asking questions, smiling, treating me like a friend instead of an outsider, and introducing me to their friends and family.
Each time I walk through the settlement I can’t help but realize the differences between our realities. I grew up in a structured, stable, and secure environment never worrying about food or shelter. From my limited understanding of child psychology, children thrive on structure, stability, and security, and my students have never known them. Getting to know these children and witnessing their circumstances has given me a more nuanced understanding of the difficulty of their lives outside the classroom.
Teaching has taught me to appreciate teachers like never before. It is frustrating, overwhelming, exhausting, and gratifying in the same minute. In spite of the fact that my students have been forced to grow up earlier and in a more brutal fashion than anyone should have to, making them at times difficult to manage, they have shown they still want to learn.
Recently I had one of those glorious teaching moments when the majority of my students brought back optional worksheets I had given to my middle and oldest classes for the week our group went to Macedonia. I made review worksheets to account for our week without class and while handing them out I remember two boys ostentatiously folding them into paper airplanes. After returning from Macedonia, some students who saw me walking to the settlement ran up to meet me, completed worksheets in hand. Both of the boys were in this mass energetically waving their papers, flattened to their original shape and entirely filled in. Proud doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Despite this feeling of accomplishment, I still must come to grips with the fact that my impact on these students won’t solve the problems of their people. I came into this position as their teacher with a slightly grandiose idea of the change I could make, but I’ve come to the realization that in merely four months there is only so much that can be done. This is a semester for me but a lifetime for them and there are so many ways I’d like to better that lifetime.
Ajša comes to every class. She twirls a battered baton and exhibits natural gymnastic ability walking on her hands, baton between her teeth. To cross the road between the schoolhouse and her settlement she springs into one-handed cartwheels, the other, of course, reserved for that beloved baton. This only occupies about a third of her time, however. Most of her day is spent setting up shop along the pedestrian zone, begging to those sipping coffee in the outside seating of main street cafés, a plastic baby doll in one hand, a sign in the other, no baton in sight. This baby doll isn’t her toy, it’s her prop. Scampering through the main street she seeks charity cradling this fake babe wrapped in a blanket and clutching the pleading sign. Though this baby is fake, I know she has three younger brothers and that her fifteen-year-old sister is due next month. After all, 23% of fifteen to nineteen-year-old Roma women have at least one baby. She treats this street as her gym, her sign as uneven bars, the baby as chalk. Putting on the most piteous face and complementing it with a rehearsed chanting plea, she reaches out those labored hands to any and all. She rarely seems successful; her mesmerizing eyes can’t work on people who don’t even bother to look at them.
Ajša lives on the beam, balancing her role of working this street upon her mother’s demand and her carefree desire to twirl her baton. I haven’t asked how long she’s played the former, how many days and hours she’s spent out of the classroom begging and feeling society’s abhorrence to her people. I’m not sure I want to know the answer.
Ajša likes playing with my hair. She reaches up at every opportunity to brush her fingers through it. She’s fixated by it, she wishes to have it. Ajša, I wish for your innocence, your childhood. I wish you didn’t have to beg. I wish you didn’t know how. I wish your eyes contained less understanding and more childlike wonder. I wish you were in school. I wish your only responsibility was that baton and your only care twirling it. I wish your labored hands were coated with gymnastics chalk. Ajša, your story has opened my eyes and changed me. I promise to try to use every opportunity at Princeton and beyond to tell your story and to open the eyes of others to the plight of your people.