Agents of Change - Fight against early school leaving following the model of Real Pearl Foundation

Keynote by Nóra Ritók at the EPA Conference in Bucharest 28/29 November 2014

My foundation works in East Hungary, in one of the poorest regions of the country. We work for integration with families living in extreme poverty. Most of these families are Roma. Among this population early school leaving is a significant problem. There are many causes of this problem. First of all we have to understand the families, the circumstances, the possibilities. These families live in very poor and terrible circumstances. There are five to eight, sometimes ten children in one family. In the second part of the month they have no more money to buy food for their children. This situation is not acceptable in the twenty first century in Europe. These people are expected to do things they are far from being able to.

Often the whole family lives only in one room which is the kitchen, the living room, and the bathroom. There are no bathrooms, and the water facility is on the street. And in some houses there isn’t even electricity. The winter time is the most terrible. The fathers try to collect wood for heating, but it is illegal, so they get fined. These children never do homework at home: too many live together in one room, that’s why they are too loud, and aggressive. They do not have their own bed, table, chair, toys, living space.
A child who lives in this situation can’t pay attention to the teacher in school … If a child is hungry, he or she doesn’t interested mathematics….he or she would like to eat something first. These days many children in Hungary get decent food only in the kindergarten or primary school. In secondary school they have to pay for lunch, that’s why these children never eat there. They haven’t got enough money to travel. But their nutrition isn’t perfect at home neither. In this population the rate of handicapped children is very high, because they do not get enough vitamins and protein at a young age. If they got some special help earlier that would make a difference, but they don’t have money to travel to the hospital.
Many live the same way as their families did 100 years ago. Miserable way in modern times. So the living space is not satisfactory, but what about the skills and abilities? Parents and grandparents don’t have jobs, or any qualification. Many are illiterate. Most of the adults can’t read and write, they have never had a chance to work as an employee, they only get little jobs illegally. The parents never had a proper job. They have no idea what it means to take responsibility at work.  They are not capable of transmitting a work ethos to their children.
The Hungarian government tries to solve this problem by creating jobs (similar to compulsory community service) for starvation wages instead of creating real jobs and workplaces. This is not a solution. Since the salary is not enough to survive on, this does not offer clear goals, a perspective, this is just Potemkin solution.
Most of the families live in a segregated street without a functioning community. They do not have positive role models such as a successful person able to break the poverty cycle. The few learned Roma don’t feel the obligation to come back to the segregated community, and help other families. These people can only think about their daily needs, and of how to possess of things, and never about the future. They would like a better life for their children, but they do not know how to do it.
The Hungarian school system can’t handle these children these days. The teachers do not possess the tools and techniques to address these poor children’s problem. The teachers very often say that these children are unmotivated, they are very aggressive and lazy, they use dirty words, their parents do not cooperate, they haven’t got enough books, pencils, and other tools, and they would like to teach a normal way, but it isn’t possible. The methods they learned at university are applicable to average children but not to problematic, nor to talented children. They have no knowledge about poverty, nor about social problems. During their internship they never meet with Roma or poor children.  In the entire system there is no help for development. Sometimes professionals try to solve the crises, but it is only to perpetuate the status. In most cases they try to enforce a certain behaviour, another lifestyle, but this does not last. The different institutions in education, social welfare, healthcare, the police, the offices work following their own rules, and are only connected administratively. They work parallel with each other, and there are many holes in which many families disappear.
Because of a variety of problems, the teachers don’t want to see these children in the school. The pupils don’t want to go to school neither, because they hate the teachers, the rules, the lessons, everything. And the parents don’t want this, because they get lot of warnings for the children’s behaviour. Finally everybody wants the private student status. But this is not the solution, these children never finish the learning from this status, and they very often lose the possibility of getting any qualification and the possibility of getting a better job, a better life. Often the girls get pregnant very young, in many cases by the age of eighteen they have more than three children. In these young families there is usually only one income: the family allowance by the government. Most likely their children will follow the family model as to communication, motivation, the habits, their entire life. And this experience is the strongest from all.
For a lot of young children the future carrier is through criminalization. Prostitution is the future for a lot of the young girls. They very often travel abroad, and work next to the main roads. What hurts them most is not violence committed by men, but it is the violence of extreme poverty. What they see is that criminalization offers money without school. This is a huge motivation.
This is now the biggest problem in Europe. The European Union has not found a solution to integration. In fact these families escape from country to country, because they believe, that there are better places, but without any qualification or employability skills they don’t get a job anywhere. So, they become undesirable persons everywhere. I personally think that every country has to find its own way and methods, but every country needs to get involved. This photo shows that two sets of knowledge are needed for the solution. The majority knowledge and the minority knowledge have to work together. In order to find a solution we need special Roma with the poverty experience. Since the problem is complex, the solution has to be complex too.
We try to develop the parents’ knowledge. This development has to start at an early age, we work with the mothers and their children under three. We support the talented children and their family with money. They get the money on the last week of the month. At that time tha family doesn’t have any money to buy food. The message is very hard: if the children learn and make an effort, there will be food for all the family. This scholarship program helps the child and the family and is very successful. Since the school can’t develop these children, after school activities are needed. Through this program we develop their abilities and help to do their homework. The after school activities develop the children’s social skills as well. We keep repeating that it is not compulsory to work with us. If somebody needs some help, he or she can ask if they help us for the better community. We would like them to be active and benefit from what we can give them. We can help with clothes, with medicine, with food, but we require some work in their own garden, and support their children’s education for example. Now we try to organize some kind of cooperation among the institutions, for example the school, the social welfare system, the nurse system, the family support system, the police or the major’s office, the church and civil society too. We organize a round table in lot of villages. In these groups there always must sit some Roma people from the village because we never speak about them without them. After a few meetings the people’s attitude changes a little bit and they try to work in a cooperative way. But there is a long way to go because the system is also dysfunctional. As mentioned before, the system suffers from a lot of problems, but the rules of their work are set by the government. Sometimes the law is politically motivated and not professionally. This is a very rigid system and it is hard to influence it. Furthermore, the system tries to communicate success stories and hides the real problems. That’s why the real picture and the communicated picture isn’t the same. This is a big problem in Hungary.  Professionals (teachers, social workers and others) need to acquire specific knowledge, skills and techniques. They should be able to do this at university and in practice too. They should learn about child poverty, early school leaving and about the need for cooperation among the institutions working with poor people.
If the children see the parents who work, and learn, it is the most important help in the fight against early school leaving. But in this work we need a coordinated effort with all the players. I believe that it is the best way.
We started from the art activities with the aim of developing social competencies. Thus the children develop their self-confidence so that they start to believe in their talent and believe that they can become successful. This have an impact on their school achievement. We use a lot of cooperative methods because cooperation is very important in life in general and it has to be taught in school. If we want these children to be integrated into society, they need to experience integration. Our art education is very successful, our children get five hundred awards in various competitions from all the world in one school year.
While we speak about integration, these children live in segregation….But they can experience it only through integrated situations....That's why we have to organize lot of events in integrated circumstances. We organize lot of trips, to the majority places, and invite majority people to the segregated areas. The communication patterns, the cooperation skills can only develop step by step. Throughout the after school activities the young volunteers use innovative methods. The central method is using board games which develop various skills. They know these children, their families, their houses, their problems. Their methods and tasks are personalised. These programs are flexible and place the children in the focus. We live at a big distance from big cities... our volunteers have to travel 5 hours one way if they want to help the children. That's why we introduced a special skype-education program. In the afternoon the children sit next to the computers, and make their homework with the volunteers’ help who sit in Budapest. So, we use technology creatively. It is very popular among the children....
We deal also deal with young people over 16 years of age. Now in Hungary the age limit for compulsory education is 16.....and most of the children finish ir education at this age. They are of course too young for the work, that's why they sit at home...We organize lot of programs, and trips for them, and we speak a lot with them.
We teach the parents who can't write and read....We know that it is not going to fundamentally change their lives, since they can't get a better position on the job market, but we think that at least they will be able to support the education of their children. They will understand that it is very hard and important work. The young mothers’ education is also critical because they spend the most time with their children. They have to tell them stories, poems, sing them songs...they have to make drawings, and play with them but without a minimum knowledge it is not possible.
We help the children with learning skills. Without this they would not survive in the Hungarian school system. But without pencils they can't write the exercises. The cleverest children in the village can get a scholarship, if they do well in school, and the family is cooperative for the children's future.
We provide help, if a child is ill. We can buy the medicines if the families don’t have money to buy them and this is often the case. Earlier, most of the children had to go to hospital....but now this is not necessary any more since they can be treated at home. We help if a child needs eye glasses. Many children do not do well in school because they simply don’t see the blackboard. Glasses are too expensive for them.  We help to (re)install electricity. We support them to take the prepaid electricity meters to the houses. How could they have a normal life without electricity in the 21st century. We help the repair of houses. But they have to be part of it and contribute with at least physical work. We very often organise food distribution. Some big chains give us food close to expire but still edible. We very often distribute second hand toys...it is very important, because in these houses everything break very quickly .There are too many children around in a too small place. We support the children when they graduate from kindergarten and start school, or finish primary school....because theee are very important events in the children's life, and for the ceremony they need normal dresses, flowers, gifts. The community is very important. If these people can organize themselves proactively their life will be better. But they need help. They cannot do it on their own. They need the sense of success, of fulfilment...and many positive influences and feedback. They get too much negativism and denial. They are not  bad intentioned people, only through generations they have been living in poverty...deprived of opportunities. We teach the women how to work in the kitchen...prepare some healthy food for cheaper. We help the families with gardening and teach them basic skills to take care of their own garden together with their children. We have a community garden where we grow herbs and vegetables. We have a biobrikett program whereby in the summer they can prepare their biobrikett from agricultural waste, and paper. In our county we have no forests, no wood for heating.
They need a solid identity...but their miserable life broke it. Now, they don't know wheater they are Hungarian or Roma?
We try to create some jobs which is very hard because in segregated areas there are no companies. The road is very bad, there is no infrastructure, no qualification, and the level of criminalisation is high... We created a furniture joinery for men. And we created an embroidery business for women.
There is a very nice project: the mothers and sisters make the embroiders based on the children’s pictures, and some mothers can sew  pillows, bags and others, and we try to sell all that through a the social webshop, and if it's successful, the families get money for their work. These activities develop the self-confidence of children, and the mothers’ too. If the children see the parents who work, and learn, it is the most important help in the fight against early school leaving. But in this work we need a coordinated effort with all the players. I believe that it is the best way.

Read more about the work of Igazgyöngy Alapítvány at http://igazgyongy-alapitvany.hu/en/foundation/approach/english-the-blogs/

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