MTO began working with the local Roma community in 2001 by training 24 Roma adults (most of them illiterate and all of them unemployed) for work as teacher assistants in mixed Polish-Roma classrooms. The project was sponsored by the Polish Ministry of Education and the Regional Labor Offices. As a result 18 participants were employed in schools. Roma kids attendance increased (in some places by 60%). Relations between school authorities and Roma families dramatically improved. Most significantly, a new profession has been opened to Roma. “Our” assistants are not only working with the Polish teacher, but also serve as a model of a decent, hard-working individual for both Polish and Roma children. This certainly helps to break stereotypes and overcome prejudices.
In 2002 we decided to continue and broaden this program. This project was sponsored by Phare Access 1999 Small Grants Program, Mr. Charles Merrill and MTO. MTO gave a scholarship to one of the participants, Mr. Jan Mirga, to enable him to graduate from secondary school.
MTO encouraged and helped establish a local Association for Roma-Polish Integration. This NGO took over the newly created Citizen Legal Advisory Office that during the first year focused only on Roma issues in Nowy Sacz area. We also helped them get grants from Nokia, the American Embassy and the Polish American Freedom Foundation for summer camps (2 groups of 35 kids), a nurse working permanently and exclusively for Roma (she visits each family at home on a regular basis and delivers medicine and other hygienic supplies!) and for extra-curricular music lessons for Roma kids. Unfortunately this organization has ceased to function because the Roma president REFUSED to sign any checks (unless he has a share of this money, which was not going to happen). The Association received a grant from PHARE Access 2000 for almost 50,000 Euro, which could not be accepted, because of the serious problem with its president.
A student volunteer group “Sawore”, organized and led by MTO, worked with Roma children in 2001-2002. There was an art project sponsored and run by Project Guggenheim, which helped at School #9 to work with mixed Roma-Polish groups of kids. There were other initiatives and ideas, but the main impediment were the MALE ROMA BOSSES!
This is why we decided to focus on ROMA WOMEN. The “Roma Women Unite” Project for which we received a PHARE grant of 186,000 Euro (MTO will contribute over an additional 47,000 Euro) was completed in 2003. While the most glamorous part of the project is the international component, a significant portion of the funds goes for training Roma girls from Slovakia. All of these lessons were run by Slovak Roma trainers.
Since there are no real Roma Women leaders in our immediate region and the male Roma bosses are not willing to work with MTO (they have different accounting approaches than MTO can engage in and they fear the “rise of competition” in the form of local Roma Women Leaders!), we have embarked on another strategy. We have invited a group of Roma Women leaders from the Balkans and South East Europe to come to Nowy Sacz.
There is much we can learn from them and they can learn from each other, since many of the problems are common to all irrespective of geography. It is our hope that by having these leaders here, we will be able to gradually entice local Roma women to learn from their example. They may be more willing to follow such an example than one coming from Polish women who are “outsiders”.
As a result of this project the first International Forum for Roma Women “Pale Romnja” was registered in Slovakia in June 2004 (after almost a year of fighting with local bureaucracy). Forum is an umbrella organization that will help its members – local Roma NGOs working for women and children in Czech Republic, Slovakia, Kosova, Macedonia, Moldova, Romania and Poland– to achieve their goals.
We know that there is much work to be done and that the results will be very slow in coming. But it is a significant start and we have committed ourselves to this “cause” for more than the one-year duration of a given project.
First Steps in Poland 2003-2005
Part of the program to assist Roma children, “First Steps” was designed to improve the educational achievements of Roma children by providing those in grades 0-4 with textbooks and school supplies. In the 2003-4 school year MTO reached 539 Roma children in 103 schools and in 2004-5 we were able to help 586 children in 142 schools throughout the country. In 2005-6, the final year of the program, MTO has distributed books and school supplies to 582 kids in 171 schools.
We received many letters from school directors and parents emphasizing the importance and success of the project. The most valuable notes, however, are from the children themselves, describing how happy and surprised they were to have received such nice gifts. It certainly improves their approach and enthusiasm for school and learning.
The project was supported by a 300,000 PLN grant (100,000 per year) for the years 2003-2005 from the Stefan Batory Foundation. Unfortunately, it had to be closed for lack of further funding.
Roma Emergency Fund 2003-2006
Since 2003 MTO has been managing the Roma Self-Help Fund for Roma people in crisis situations. In practice this meant that MTO opened a EURO account for donations, provided free technical support, and covered banking costs associated with the account for three years. Decisions regarding the distribution of funds were made by the fund committee.
In November 2006 the committee decided that all the money should be transferred to the Roma Education Fund in Budapest. We complied immediately and bank account was cancelled. We are proud of the trust that was placed in us.
Do We Know One Another?