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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move - Supp. N° 93,  December 2003, pp. 248-250

Education of Gypsies in Postarka and Bardejov

Ms. Maria Jevčáková  

Teacher, Slovak Republic

 My name is Maria Jevčáková (pronounced Yevchacova) and originally I taught music to children and young people at art school.It is still a secondary profession, but at the same time I’m organist and director of the “schola cantorum” in my town’s church.

Through singing and music I got to know Roma young people and started working regularly in that community.

In 1990, via a mutual friend, the Don Bosco Salesians asked me to take charge of the Roma children’s choir in the village of Postarka in Bardejov, where they carry out pastoral, missionary and evangelising work.This work was begun by the Salesian, Fr Peter Bešenyei, the current national director, thanks to the Roma sister, Sr Atanasia.It was my secret wish to be able to set up a children’s choir, although the totalitarian regime at the time did not favour such an idea. To tell the truth, I never imagined that it would consist of Roma children.When in 1990 I was offered the opportunity to do so, I didn’t hesitate for a moment, as I had the feeling it wasn’t pure chance, but a call from God, which is why I wanted to follow it up. However, I wouldn’t have been able to take on this responsibility without the agreement and understanding of my family - my husband and three children.

Forming and running the choir, which we called:"Devleschere cschave"-Children of God,was my most important and almost exclusive activity among Roma children until 2001.This choir also took part in international competitions and television programmes.In addition, it enhanced celebrations of Holy Mass in the village and the annual Roma pilgrimages to the Sanctuary of the Madonna of Gaboltov in eastern Slovakia.The most important event, however, was when we sang, as representatives of Roma from the whole of Europe at the Beatification Mass of the first Roma martyr in the history of the Church, the Blessed Zeffirino Giménez Malla, whom Pope John Paul II declared blessed in Rome on 4 May 1997.

After several years working in the Roma village in Postarka, the Don Bosco Salesians and their collaborators became aware of the importance - together with pastoral work among the community – of systematically taking care of their Christian education from a pre-school age, using staff who have an understanding and positive relations with Roma people.For this purpose, they set up a religious nursery school specifically for Roma children in the village.

In 2001, the Blessed Zeffirino religious nursery school of which I am headmistress, which was founded by the Don Bosco Salesians, was incorporated within the official school system by the Slovakian Ministry of Education.This greatly changed my life. After starting as a volunteer I had become a professional teacher.This entails considerable responsibility, but it is also fascinating and I regard it as a genuine vocation. 

The nursery school is currently attended by 46 Roma children from the village of Postarka, divided into two classes.A class of 23 children is very tiring.Unfortunately, the educational funding system does not allow us to reduce this number. In our experience, groups of 12 to 14 children would be ideal to achieve the best results in this context.

Roma people have a curious attitude towards their children and their education.Children are not considered to need specific attention. They learn by imitating adults, with no particular explanations, children’s games or the need to show affection as is customary in European and Christian culture. This is borne out by the fact that Roma culture has no lullabies, fairy tales or games for children.Roma are not interested in tomorrow or future prospects and live only in the present.Their language has no clear terms for expressing either the past (yesterday) or the future (tomorrow).Their songs do not allude to an annual cycle of festivals.This determines their behaviour, way of life and attitudes to the outside world.They are not interested in inner reflection and do not have inner discipline.However, these characteristics are not found among those who are well-educated and have left the closed circle of ignorance and apathy.Such people are becoming aware of the right to their own language and the other prerogatives of evolving peoples in Europe.They become full members of civil society and no longer represent the position of their original community, which is still beset with problems.

This is the starting point of our mission.As a member of the Church, I am aware of my responsibility, and of the whole Church, to ensure that these brothers and sisters should find their identity as Roma people, as well as their Christian identity.

Roma people constantly need help and guidance.Anyone capable of offering this will succeed in building them up.They are instinctive believers.They know and feel that there is “Someone” above them.Therefore, also in working amongst them, we need to build on the three pillars that Don Bosco mentions:reason, religion and love.

The main problem for the children attending our school is the language barrier.At home they only speak Romany, so they are unable to speak Slovak, the official language of the country.I was aware of this problem from the outset so I hired a Roma lady as a teaching assistant to help overcome the language problem.As the presence of this teaching assistant proved to be useful, with the help of a sponsored project we were able to offer employment to four Roma assistant teachers.

Parents that don’t look after their children don’t make life easy for them as they are deprived of the basic necessary elements for getting on and going to primary school.This is why most of the children attending our nursery school are five years old and being given pre-school education.The curriculum alternates play, learning and prayer.There is even a dining hall where they also learn good eating habits, as, at home, sound nutritional practices are largely unknown.Even poor families must contribute to their children’s meals.This may seem excessive, but given that parents spend four times the cost of their children’s school meals on smoking, it would be disheartening not to raise awareness of their responsibility towards their own children and to the fact that they should indulge in creature comforts only after the needs of the whole family have been met. 

We also try to involve parents in our activities, but unfortunately they are not interested in participating in the educational process.However, parents do willingly take their children on trips that we organise for them.

 Our great ambition is to be able to teach the first grade of primary school (1-4) as a continuation of nursery school.This would be very useful for these children because their learning pace during the first grade of primary school is very different from other children.In mixed schools, they fall behind in their learning, teachers grow weary, the children have to repeat school years and, in the end they lose the opportunity to be graded.At a village school, no travelling is required and the teacher could adapt their learning pace in collaboration with a Roma assistant to adequately prepare them for incorporation in mixed classes at other schools. 

In all our activities we take into account that they are children of God, and that He has entrusted them to us. Our task is to educate them, give to them what has been given to us and help them to stand on their own feet. This means having a share in their future, through loving and spiritually creative effort, and, together with their parents, helping them prepare for their lives ahead.