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Roma and Non-Roma Youth Build Tolerance

Tova Pertman, Senior Program Officer in IREX’s Education Programs Division, recently returned from the Community Schools Academy in Vadu lui Voda, Moldova, of the Youth Civic Engagement and Dialogue (YCED) program. The program, implemented in partnership with Romani CRISS, brings together Roma and non-Roma youth in Romania and Moldova to work together in and out of schools to improve their communities. Nearly 40 youth and adult participants from both countries participated in the Community Schools Academy, where they learned strategies for planning and implementing community action projects and promoting tolerance in their communities. For more information about YCED, click here.

Tova shared her insight on how YCED is helping youth address their own challenges by engaging them in civic action across ethnic lines.

What are some of the challenges for Roma youth?

The divide between the Roma and non-Roma in this region runs deep, and children from both sides are taught to be suspicious of each other. Roma youth are less likely to complete even basic education and do not typically achieve as highly in education as compared to their non-Roma peers. During my intensive travels in Romania and Moldova over the past few months, I met with a variety of school leadership, youth, and NGOs. They all told me that basically this demographic goes missing after the 8th grade. Everyone was talking about this problem. Very few adolescents who officially declare themselves as Roma continue to high school, which leads to further isolation in the community. This isolation contributes to continued misunderstanding and stereotypes between these groups.

How will the YCED program address these challenges?

The YCED program is unique because it targets Roma and non-Roma youth at a critical age in their development, ages 14-18. Giving youth the chance to work together in their communities is vital for their future and the futures of their community and countries.

One important part of the process is helping adults fully understand the power of youth. At the beginning of the Academy, when the youth and adults were together, the adults did most of the talking. But as time went on, the youth participated more and more. One adult mentor from Moldova made it a point to tell me she had gone through a transformation. She learned to listen to youth and see the value of their contributions. This represents an important attitudinal shift that needs to happen in adults for youth to be effective in their community work.

What surprised you about what you saw during the Academy?

What struck me most was how quickly the participants formed friendships and relationships. I think one of the truest successes of the camp was that it provided them an atmosphere to get to know each other. In just five days, Romanians, Moldovans, Roma, non-Roma, youth, and adults all formed intense bonds. They started out sitting in separate groups, and by the end, they described themselves as a big family. It’s clear that the participants built a foundation for a really strong network, so I’m excited to see how they use their new friendships to share ideas and solve problems together for their community projects.

Why do you think this program will be effective?

The community schools model empowers youth as they work together across ethnic lines and practice civic engagement. Students identify community problems that are of interest to all, both Roma and non-Roma, and they develop key competencies for citizenship such as awareness of community needs, problem-solving, consensus building, and the belief in their own abilities to succeed.

Now that I’ve seen the close network the youth and adults have formed, I’m excited to see how they go back and inspire others in their community. They’ll be role models for their peers and pass on the tolerance that they’ve learned.

In the opening training for both adult mentors and youth leaders, we already started to see participants shift away from prejudices and toward an attitude of more openness. One youth participant said the camp taught her about mutual respect. She said, “We learned to respect each other and ourselves. We felt like a family and learned how to respect others’ needs.”

The Youth Civic Engagement Program in Romania and Moldova is a program of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor of the U.S. Department of State, and is implemented by IREX in partnership with Romani CRISS.