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A First in History

In Serbia, an eighth-grade Roma student upends expectations and beats long odds to become a nationwide history whiz.

by Uffe Andersen 5 July 2013

KONAK, Serbia | Stefan Radu is no longer a student at the Vuk Karadzic primary school in the tiny village of Konak in northeastern Serbia. Unlike so many other Roma, however, he has not dropped out – he’s merely moved on. On 26 June, Stefan received his primary school diploma, and in September he will attend high school in a town 25 miles away.

 

But at the small ceremony in a classroom in Konak, Stefan was given not one but a handful of certificates, making him so special that national media in Serbia have told his story.

 

On graduation day, Stefan Radu displays his diploma and a handful of honors certificates. Standing next to him is teacher Anica Bacic.

 

It began in May 2012, when Stefan placed fifth in a nationwide contest of students’ knowledge of history. That showing wasn’t bad, he acknowledged, sitting in the small but cozy and colorful home in Konak that he shares with his mother and two siblings, “but I set myself the goal that I had to be No. 1 this year.”

 

And he did just that, advancing from the local competition through the regionals and into the nationals, where he emerged victorious from a field a 300 eighth-graders. At each step, he scored the maximum number of points.

 

Of course, someone wins the competition every year, but never has it generated so much media coverage.

 

“It wouldn’t be so strange if we didn’t know in what conditions Stefan has been studying, and living,” said Sanvila Ivovic Radojkovic, his English teacher.

 

Just as Stefan was preparing for the national contest, the family’s electricity was cut over an unpaid bill, and he had to study by candlelight. But not for long: teachers, pupils, and strangers on Facebook stepped in, making sure the Radus had not only electricity, but a bathroom and many other things they had never been able to afford.

 

More than his poverty, however, it is Stefan’s ethnicity that has drawn the spotlight.

 

“The pupil who demolishes prejudices through knowledge,” one headline read about the Roma boy with all A’s on his diploma.

 

“I wanted to show that a Roma kid can win the contest, too” said Stefan, who recently turned 16 (students in Serbia sometimes do not enter first grade until age 7). “Because whenever people hear about people of Roma ethnicity, they mostly associate Roma with not attending school, stealing, etc.”

 

About 20 percent of Serbia’s Roma cannot read or write, according to UN statistics cited by Praxis, a Roma rights group in Belgrade. Further, only about 28 percent of Roma adults in Serbia graduated from primary school, compared with more than 94 percent in the overall population, Praxis found in a 2011 study.

 

Numbers like that bolster a widespread prejudice that Roma do not value education, a sentiment that partially underlies the surprise at Stefan’s achievement.

 

But Ana Martinovic, a lawyer with Praxis, said it’s not a question of valuing education, which is technically free and universal through high school in Serbia.

 

Rather, she wrote in an email, it’s a matter of setting priorities under extremely difficult circumstances. Many Roma families lack water, electricity, and other household basics, so that even feeding and bathing their children is a challenge. Add to that the long hours it takes to earn a meager living through a common occupation among Roma – collecting scrap metal – and such conditions “make it impossible for the parents to take the children to school, and make sure that they do their homework,” Martinovic said.

 

That is true for most Roma, but Stefan said he wanted to show that regardless of living conditions, or ethnicity, “it’s possible to reach the goal that you’ve set for yourself.”

 

Radojkovic, the English teacher, said Stefan’s “very strong will made him able to somehow shake off the very bad conditions under which he, like many Roma, lived and clear the way to a better life.”

 

Praise for Stefan’s drive and determination are obviously earned, but they can be laced with what some call the bigotry of low expectations – the flip side of which is the common practice of placing Roma children in special education classes regardless of their demonstrated abilities or test scores.

 

In Konak, around 75 pupils attend the village school, and the only Roma are Stefan and his sister, 14-year-old Kasandra, who is also an A student. Principal Julkica Kozina Ruza said 10 percent of the school’s enrolled students are Roma, but most never show up.

 

Located in the Vojvodina province, Konak is a multiethnic village of Serbs, Hungarians, and Bulgarians, with some Roma and Romanians sprinkled in, Ruza said. “We’ve been mixed up so much that no one thinks about who’s of which ethnicity, especially not the pupils.”

 

Stefan echoed that rosy account. He and his classmates “share good and bad, joy and sorrows,” he said. “We’re very close outside school, as well, and constantly together.”

 

Likewise, Stefan’s mother, Biljana, said she’s never experienced abuse for being Roma.

 

Not that they are naïve about anti-Roma prejudice elsewhere. As for the scrap pickers, Stefan said, “They’re often mocked, but what are they supposed to do? If they haven’t gone to school, they can’t find work, and they have to put bread on the table.”

 

Which is where Stefan’s strong will and love of learning come in. He said he has a vision of his life that does not involve traveling for low-paid work or not being able to give his family what they need.

 

“Stefan could be a guiding star for his people and make them see that they’re able to change their lives through education,” Radojkovic said.

 

David,-Biljana,-Stefan,-KasStefan with, left to right, brother David, 4, mother Biljana, and sister Kasandra, 14.

 

PIONEERS

 

That torchbearer effect remains a hope for many who work to promote education among Roma. For his part, Stefan is trying.

 

“I’ve told some of them that they ought to go to school,” he said of the truant Roma kids he knows. Occasionally, the nudging works, ”but very soon, they just stop coming,” he said, shrugging.

 

Stefan and his mother, who left school after the fourth grade, said ultimately the decision to pursue education must be the student’s.

 

“I didn’t finish school, and see how I live. I don’t have a job and survive thanks to social handouts – I wouldn’t like my children to live like that,” she said. Stefan’s father does not live with the family, although the teenager said he sees him and they get along.

 

Biljana Radu’s hope for her son’s future is key to the success of an effort to improve the lives of Roma in Vojvodina. The province has adopted an incremental approach, enrolling “a few dozen students a year” in school, the provincial employment secretary, Miroslav Vasin, told local media last year. The goal, he said, would be for “the Roma themselves, and the Roma intellectual elite, to start taking care of their people.”

 

Vojvodina has also awarded scholarships to about 700 Roma high-schoolers since 2007, according to another provincial employment official. 

 

Statistics from the University of Novi Sad, Serbia’s second-largest city and Vojvodina’s capital, show a huge increase over the past decade in the number of Roma students entering the university – from four in the 2003-2004 school year to 117 in the year just ended. Vice Rector Zita Bosnjak estimates that 300 Roma study at Novi Sad now.

 

Martinovic, of Roma rights group Praxis, said the conditions for Roma education are generally better in Vojvodina than in the rest of Serbia. The province has integration strategies, and civil society groups and local government work together to shepherd children into school and monitor their progress, she said.

 

Significantly, Roma language and culture has been taught in some Vojvodina schools since 1997, 16 years before its roll-out elsewhere in Serbia in the upcoming school year.

 

CHEERING HIM ON

 

To outsiders, just as fascinating as seeing a Rom turning prejudices around is the eagerness with which many people have helped him do so.

 

Stefan’s English teacher has given him a laptop, a camera, a television, and a bicycle. Principal Ruza’s daughter started a Facebook campaign to collect money for the Radus’ electric bill. Another teacher arranged for the family to get free Internet, and a stranger traveled 25 miles to build them a bathroom.

 

And the assistance has been more than material and financial.

 

Stefan said his history teacher, Borivoje Jerkovic, “has helped me a lot, giving me advice not only about school, but about life.”

 

He said Jerkovic has helped prepare him for September, when he will leave his family to live in student housing at his distant high school. “He has prepared me psychologically, urging me not to give up even when it seems to me that I’ve failed,” Stefan said.

 

After high school, Stefan plans to enter the Serbian Military Academy in Belgrade or go to college to study history. “But in four years, I’ll be older and maybe have a clearer idea about what I want,” he said.

 

Asked if there’s any particular historical episode that fires his imagination, he has one at the ready: the Battle of Kolubara in December 1914, during the Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia in World War I.

 

“The Austro-Hungarian army was far larger than the Serbian but [Serbian army commander] Zivojin Misic managed to raise his troops’ spirit,” Stefan said. The Serbs triumphed, he continued, ”because they set themselves a clear goal, which was to defend their country at any price.”

 

It’s hard not to recognize his own philosophy embedded in the story.

 

”Exactly!” he said, smiling.

Story and photos by Uffe Andersen, a freelance journalist in Smederevo, Serbia.
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