“It is not important who you are, it is important to have that wish in your heart, and every time you go down, to have the power to go up. And you will know you have to rise again… a lot of negative things will happen to you but you overcome it. Everything is possible if you wish it. To rise in your career is important, and to find someone who can support you: your mother, your friends, a teacher. My mom, who has only primary school [education], supported me – she pushed me to learn English, to become an opera singer, and indeed English helped me to go to high school. I went to the academy and people thought I wouldn’t sing Mozart, but I do.”
– Natasha Tasic Knezevic, a Roma opera singer with the National Theater in Belgrade, during a training session for the Reclaiming Roma Adolescence Project on June 22, 2013.
Organized by the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, the Center for Interactive Pedagogy, and Save the Children-Belgrade, the Reclaiming Roma Adolescence Project is a participatory action research initiative with Roma and non-Roma youths aged 15 to 24 in Belgrade, Serbia. The aim of the project is to address the marginalization of the Roma community by creating and empowering the next generation of youth leaders. Earlier this year, 21 adolescents, both Roma and non-Roma, were selected to participate as researchers. They were enrolled in training and educational sessions before beginning their fieldwork.
Margareta Matache and Carrie Bronsther, members of the FXB Roma project team, spoke with the adolescent researchers in Belgrade about their motivations for joining the project, their experiences thus far, and their expectations and hopes for the study. While all the researchers are actively engaged in the project and excited about their involvement, each brings a unique perspective.
Tafilj said, “I like the project because I work with Roma people, my people. Other people helped me and I want to help others too.”
Sofija explained, “I think that we fight for the right of Roma people and Roma children, young people mainly, and that is really important. I look at school, and I look at my school and my class, and I see that Roma kids are very, well, they are not …with the other kids, they are discriminated against, and that’s very sad. I really want to fight it, and I really want them to be treated like the other kids. I think that is not fair because they don’t have the same grades, the same amount of time invested in school, [so] they get lower grades and professors don’t pay attention to them like they do to the kids from the general population.”
Milica also shared her motivations for joining the project. “I didn’t even know that much about [the Roma issue]. I mean I witnessed certain problems the Roma people have, but I was not as informed… It was strange because we did act differently towards them. Roma were set apart and I did not understand it, it was just automatic, you know, and now when I think back to it, I actually see how they sat at the back of the class and how we look differently at them. Back then, it was just you treat that people that way. What is good about me is that my parents had a very healthy attitude about it. They told me that I should not act that way and I actually changed the way I acted.”
Sofija, 15 years old, said: “I am very proud that I have this job at such a young age. The challenges are my lack of experience with young people and social work, but I think I can cope with it… I think that main challenge will be good communication with Roma and the general population when [we] talk to them about education, or ask kids about school and why they left.”
“During the training we got information on what terms to use, how to act in certain situations,” Milica added. “Of course it’s scary for those who get their first time [in the field], but… it works if we communicate properly in strange situations. I think we all get to learn a lot more during the process, and I think it is very positive.”
The researchers, who have been engaged with the project for one month, articulated their expectations and hopes for the long-term outcomes of the study.
“I am glad to meet all the young people in this project. I enjoy very much working with them, and I think each and everyone is trying to do something,” Tafilj said.
Milica said: “We should work to get informed and find ways to help with it [discrimination] when we see it. We will try to achieve as much as we can in this project. I don’t expect something miraculous to happen but I expect some sort of change… [Roma] is a sensitive topic, because people think that if they cannot help themselves, why they should help others… It is very hard to approach the Roma subject.”
Sofija, like Milica, hopes for some type of change, even if it’s small. “I don’t expect any miracle to happen, and of course I want discrimination and racism to come to an end, and of course it does not work like that. I would really want us to leave a mark, little change, something; it does not have to be a lot, just something that pays it off. I would love to see changes mostly in schools because that is where the problem is. The teachers should treat Roma children the same as the general population, that is really what I would like us to impact the most.”
Mirsad, on the other hand, said, “I would like some miracle to happen, some change with discrimination, or racism and other things that make problems in the world because we must understand people who have different cultures and languages, like Roma. We can do good.”
Finally, Mirsad hopes that this research will “give attention and political action to Roma… to give some opportunities to make good in Serbia.”
The researchers are thoughtful, motivated individuals, and the project organizers are excited to see them conduct research, analyze the results, and work for change.