At the close of October and beginning of November the ROMEA organization disbursed 94 scholarships to Romani students attending Czech higher vocational schools, high schools, and for the first time, universities. The students are in diverse fields of study all over the Czech Republic and do well academically, but their socioeconomic situations are such that they risk being unable to complete secondary school or university – or even to begin such study.
The first half of the scholarship has just been sent to the 94 new beneficiaries. They will receive the second half after submitting their mid-semester report cards or transcripts in March 2021.
This program for students was launched by ROMEA in 2016 and has awarded a total of 365 scholarships to 213 Romani students so far. Several beneficiaries have been awarded the scholarship repeatedly for their academic achievements and active involvement in the program.
The annual scholarship amounts are CZK 14 000 [EUR 535] for high school students, CZK 21 000 [EUR 800] for higher vocational students and CZK 25 000 [EUR 950] for university students, which means ROMEA disburses scholarships during each academic year to the tune of CZK 1 731 000 [EUR 66 000]. The funding for the scholarships is provided by private foundations such as the Albatros Foundation of the Czech Republic and the VELUX Foundation of Denmark, as well as through aid donated by individuals.
“This year ROMEA is implementing the fifth year of this scholarship program, which is a brilliant opportunity to take stock and look back at everything we have experienced with the students. In August we held our 11th student meeting, BARUVAS, which in Romanes means ‘We are growing’. We actually see a great deal of symbolism in that name today, because not only is the number of Romani people who are becoming students growing, but the students themselves are also growing personally and professionally,” explained scholarship program manager Jitka Votavová.
The scholarship program is not just about financial aid during one’s studies. The regular BARUVAS meetings are a component of the program, as are mentoring and tutoring services.
The students also take full advantage of the opportunity to attend educational courses above and beyond their school duties, to participate in the annual literary competition, to do volunteer work with different local aid organizations, to tutor their fellow pupils, and to train younger children in football or judo. “During the year we are intensively in contact with the students and they are likewise in contact with each other. Thanks to social media, they stay in touch no matter where they live and take an interest in each other. They encourage each other if one of them has an important exam coming up, or they help each other find materials for school, etc.,” Votavová described.
It turns out that while the initial motivation for students to join the scholarship program is the financial aid they receive during their studies, the other components of the program gradually become more important to them. This is most true of the regular BARUVAS meetings where several dozen Romani college and high school students from all over the Czech Republic come together.
Thanks to experiential workshops, those attending BARUVAS learn a great deal of information about Romani history and literature, content that is rarely taught in the Czech schools, and they speak about their Romani identity and what it means to them, sharing what are frequently very sensitive experiences from their own studies, from their lives in excluded localities, and their experiences with the discrimination and racism they encounter when, for example, their families are looking for housing, their parents are looking for jobs, or when they themselves seek part-time work while they study. During BARUVAS the students also familiarize themselve with the stories of eminent figures in the Romani community who become inspiring for them and thanks to whom they acquire faith in their own abilities.
Most of the instructors during BARUVAS are also Romani men and women who convey their own experiences and knowledge of different professions to the students – we have long collaborated, for example, with the poet and Romani Studies scholar Renata Berkyová; with Romani Studies scholar Michal Mižigár; with the journalists Patrik Banga and Richard Samko; with the fashion designer who is also conquering the culinary world, Pavel Berky; with the experienced artist, instructor and LGBT activist David Tišer; with the painter Laďa Gažiová; with the psychologist Monika Mihaličková; with authors Dana Hrušková and Iveta Kokyová; with the musician Jan Dužda and many others. “During the group gatherings, the students find the motivation to keep studying and the need to share the information they have acquired with others – for that reason, two years ago, a group of these students came up with the brilliant idea of holding a talk for Romani children attending primary school in one of the excluded localities of the Ústecký Region where they speak with them about what studying can bring them, about how they can believe in themselves despite their difficult living conditions, and about the fact that support programs do exist that can aid them with the transition from primary to secondary school and further during their studies,” Votavová explains.
With financial support from Bader Philanthropies and based on the Romani students’ own initiative, a project has been developed during which they visit primary schools attended by large numbers of Romani pupils and do their best to convey to them what they themselves have learned during BARUVAS and thanks to the ROMEA organization’s scholarship program. “Because the schools have been closed, we have only managed to hold four talks so far, but even so the project is having an enormous impact. Four pupils at the Chanov Primary School this year were accepted into secondary school and they say it was meeting with our students during the talk that ultimately encouraged them to apply. Two of the Chanov pupils are even now scholarship recipients in our program. I believe that once the situation with the novel coronavirus calms down, we will be able to go into the field again to motivate young pupils to study,” said Štefan Balog, coordinator of the educational activities and fundraiser at ROMEA.
The scholarship program could not exist without the support of private foundations. The main donors to the program are the Albatros foundation in the Czech Republic, Bader Philanthropies of Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the USA, and the VELUX Foundation of Denmark.
However, significant aid is also contributed by many individual donors, a substantial portion of whom are themselves Romani. These individual donors contribute through the online campaigns implemented annually by ROMEA, and while they may contribute smaller amounts of money, we appreciate their long-term support even more.
Thanks to regular giving, it is possible to better plan the activities of the program for the years to come. Thanks to the aid of individual donors, it was also possible to respond to the situation this year whereby primary school pupils and students had no computers or Internet access through which to access distance learning during the pandemic.
“Through social media and an online campaign we disseminated a challenge to support students from disposessed families who cannot, because of their low incoomes, afford to buy a new computer, or who could only do so at the cost of endangering their ability to pay rent for one month. People began sending us their laptops, desktop computers, printers and tablets, which we then sent to students from impoverished families from all possible regions. As of today we have managed to choose and distribute more than 80 units of technology worth more than half a million crowns. One of our long-term supporters donated enough money to purchase 18 new laptops. We greatly appreciate this,” Balog said.