On the role of childhood and on our role in it. Are there impossible things for young people from the Roma community in Bulgaria? Yordanka Yordanova, Vidin

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As I’m starting my third year as a Psychology student in the Plovdiv University, my parents are finishing their secondary education via distant learning. This fact alone stands as testimony for the shift in the attitudes of Roma people in Bulgaria in the last few decades. While during my parents’ childhood school might have not been regarded as an important part of their lifepath, today education is a number one priority for people from our ethnicity.

My parents have always encouraged me and my sister, who is about to begin her final year of high school, to stay in education and they have expressed their regret for not finishing school themselves. Even though now they have a small business in our hometown, Vidin – a grocery store in our neighbourhood – they have faced multiple challenges in their personal and professional lives due to their relative lack of education.

As a child, I often heard adults say that the years you spend at university are the best ones in your life. I’m halfway through my bachelor’s degree but I still haven’t come to this conclusion. However, I was definitely happy as a school student. Even in our final year, my classmates and I never missed a class. We were aware that these days would never come back – we wanted to collect all the positive experiences from school that we could. There is no other place where you can gain so much useful knowledge, at the same time as making new friendships and creating memories which will still be making you smile years later. And when I think about it, I don’t have a single negative memory of the time spent in the classroom. There weren’t many Roma kids in my school, but I didn’t feel different or the target of discrimination which is often Roma children’s experience. This is probably due to the fact that I had a lot of long-lasting friendships with children who weren’t Roma.

After finishing high school, I was faced with many questions: “Where to now?”, “Will I be able to handle the changes ahead of me?” and “What profession should I choose?”. But despite the anxieties and all the question marks I was excited about this new beginning and my parents supported my decisions unconditionally. As I child, I dreamed of becoming a designer because I loved drawing and I even chose a design track in high school. I ended up not following this path but drawing remained a hobby of mine.

I chose psychology because this degree will give me the opportunity to help people tackle the challenges they face in life. Fortunately, everything went well with my application and I was offered a place at the University of Plovdiv in the first round of admissions. With the degree I’ve chosen I can also work as a children’s educator. I find communicating with children to be very gratifying as it means that I can teach them something new and act as a role model for them. This is of great importance to me because the Roma community which I come from needs people who understand the difficulties specific to their experience; who can offer them guidance and support and show them that they can make their dreams come true.

As I was far away from my friends and family, beginning my studies wasn’t easy at all. All by myself and in an unfamiliar environment, I was out of my comfort zone and there were moments when even I considered quitting. But with time, I got used to the city, the new people and the new responsibilities. Here, like in school, I’m the only Roma student in my program and even though I’ve never hidden my background, I’ve never been treated differently for it. I had faith that I could make it and eventually the desire to succeed proved to be more powerful than the challenges of adapting to the new environment.

Becoming a member of the Arete Youth Foundation in my first year helped – their aim being to support and encourage young Roma people to continue with their education by helping them overcome the existing stereotypes about minorities in Bulgaria. There, I met other university and school students from Roma backgrounds. I made a lot of new friends and contacts and became part of the volunteer network of Arete in the country. I took part in their different activities, participated in the summer camps and acted as a group leader. It is exactly there that I learned about the Role Models at an Early Age apprenticeship program of the Trust for Social Achievement. I applied immediately – this was an amazing opportunity to gain knowledge in the field of children’s psychology, to closely observe the work process and put to practice what I’d learned at university so far.

The aim of the program is to provide apprenticeship opportunities to Roma university students of pre-school education, speech therapy, psychology and other degree programs related to early development in kindergartens working with vulnerable communities. I had my 30-day apprenticeship in a pre-school establishment attended predominantly by Roma children who were 5-6 years old in the town of Peshtera. The kindergarten’s team and the children gave me a very warm welcome.

My mentor and I worked on a plan which we then implemented over the course of the month. The goals which we set ourselves for these thirty days were related to evaluating the psychological and cognitive development of the children; problematic behaviours and anger management; social and learning skills, etc. We organised talks concerning psychological help for family environments, the state of which largely determines how successful a teacher or a counsellor’s work can be. During these talks I became acquainted with the everyday lives of the families and we discussed the challenges of raising children, parents’ roles in children’s personal development, as well as their visions and hopes for their children’s future. We engaged the kids with drawing, music, reading children’s books and different games, so that we could achieve a smooth transition between the home and the school environments. Already after a few meetings a positive change was apparent in the kids’ attitude and they all participated in the activities in a lively and interested manner.

Working with Roma children requires a lot of patience and love which they need to be able to sense in order to do their best. The language barrier is the main reason children feel down and don’t completely trust the person working with them. What we did was to slowly repeat what we were saying so that they would understand and then work toward a two-way process of communication. Another big barrier to successful education is the widespread phenomenon of economic migration which interrupts children’s education unless the parents enrol them in a school abroad. This is one of the topics we discussed individually with parents in the kindergarten.

At the end of my apprenticeship I was a little bit sad that I wouldn’t be seeing the children anymore. However, I was still happy that I got to spend this time with them, to play together and learn from each other. This experience was very valuable in my subsequent job in a pre-school in Sofia and has also prepared me for my future work with children from the Roma community. I intend to devote myself to helping children develop their capacities and shape their worldviews in early childhood because the possibility for change arises exactly in the first years of one’s life. I’ve always believed that nothing is impossible. Everything can be achieved with hard work, perseverance and a lot of passion. The challenges we face every day are the life lessons that we need. If we are to acknowledge acceptance, we need to have experienced rejection, and if we are to learn tolerance, we must directly confront prejudices. Be brave and make the most of life. Together we can prove that we’re all equal!