Bulgaria's 'Roma Cambridge' village pushes education

Blaise GAUQUELIN
·3-min read

Roma student Printsessa Ivanova is cramming hard at her village in Bulgaria's poor northwest, preparing for college entrance exams.

The teenager, whose name means "princess", wants to become a psychologist, following in the steps of many other Roma from the village of Dolni Tsibar who have university degrees unlike most of their community members across the country.

"My father always said that he will give the last shirt off his back to send me and my twin brother to school and give us better chances in life," the 18-year-old with shiny black hair and carefully manicured nails tells AFP.

Ivanova's father, Rosen, confirms that in Dolni Tsibar -- dubbed the "Roma Cambridge" in a 2015 documentary after the university in England -- education has been "a priority for many, many years" despite the region being the EU's poorest.

"I hope that my children will have university degrees," says the 50-year-old high school graduate, who has worked as a driver and now handles maintenance at the local kindergarten.

The village's long-time Roma mayor Kamen Dimitrov says he initiated a movement in the early 2000s, "convincing people to educate their children from an early age at any price".

Dimitrov's administration is almost fully Roma, and the village school on the banks of the Danube has 1,590 pupils -- again mostly Roma. From next year, it will offer 12 full years of schooling, two more than currently.

- 'Breaking cliches' -

Across Bulgaria, even if more young Roma are pursuing university studies, the percentage still remains meagre.

Just 3.6 percent of 21- to 25-year-olds who took part in Trust for Social Initiative study in 2019 said they had a university degree.

Among their parents aged 51 or older, the percentage was just 0.8 percent.

Bulgaria's Roma minority of between nine and 12 percent also still largely faces discrimination.

The latest study of the Alpha Research institute from mid-2020 shows that only 0.8 percent of the non-Roma Bulgarians would marry a Roma.

In Lom city, some 24 kilometres (15 miles) away from Dolni Tsibar, Roma headmaster Georgy Georgiev welcomes Ivanova and the other students every morning, admiring their "thirst to learn".

Georgiev says he is happy to be "a role model" for his students. There were no Roma teachers when he was in school, he recalls.

"Here we break the cliches," says Nikolay Kirilov, chief of the Roma Lom non-governmental organisation.

"Why not have Roma people... everywhere, even in parliament?" another Roma hairdresser Sashka Milanova, 47, exclaims in her small salon in Lom.

Milanova is firmly set on helping her 17-year-old daughter Estir live her dream to study information technology.

She herself got accepted to study medicine in her teens, but her divorced mother -- who had to drop out after primary school to take care of her little siblings -- didn't earn enough from cleaning and other low-paid jobs to support her.

"I want to show that not all Roma are the same... that we are more than 'stupid people who can't write down their names' as they say about us," Estir says in between the complex calculations she does in an online maths class.

- Virus setback -

Kirilov of the Roma Lom group fears that the coronavirus pandemic, which shut schools for months, is setting back the most disadvantaged in the community.

In one of the poorest Roma neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Lom, 11-year-old Galina Lukanova lives with her grandparents in a ramshackle house without running water.

She can attend online classes thanks to her mother, who works in Italy as a carer for elderly people and sent her a tablet and money for an internet connection.

"We are very strict, so she does not miss the online lessons," her grandfather Nayden Lukanov, 63, says.

Then he points to a group of children playing outside his neighbour's house. Their parents, he says, "are too poor to get connected".

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