Lithuanian Roma children get a helping hand

  • 2001-01-25
  • Darius James Ross
VILNIUS - Lithuania's Roma population may not be as large as those in other countries of Central and Eastern Europe, but it suffers from similar social problems. That was one of the conclusions of an international workshop in Vilnius last week that brought together about 50 people, mostly Lithuanians, to hear experts talk about the Roma.

Eve Poulteau, a social worker from France who works with the Roma, organized the workshop, entitled "Roma: Living Cultures and Social Integration in the Countries of Eastern Europe."

The Roma (previously known by the more pejorative name Gypsies) have lived in Lithuania for centuries. Their nomadic lifestyle was forcibly ended in 1956, when the Soviet Union began compulsory, large-scale assimilation programs for all Roma.

They lived in special settlements and although some managed to integrate with society, most continued to exist on the fringes. Poulteau believes that Lithuania's Roma have been even worse off since independence.

"Language is a huge problem. They haven't learned Lithuanian and because of this have trouble finding work," she said.

Poulteau has been working with a community of 400 Roma living in Kirtimai on the outskirts of Vilnius to adapt and improve education for the children there. She said that many of the problems are cultural.

"Classically trained Lithuanian teachers are used to students who read, write, are quiet and can follow rules," she said. "Roma children grow up in a liberal environment. They learn by watching and their culture is oral, it's not text based."

Poulteau has managed to get over 100,000 euros ($ 94,000) in funding to create an experimental transitional program to get the kids into schools. The two-year program started in March 2000. The French NGO Un Enfant Par La Main and the Lithuanian Children's Fund are running the program, while the Open Society Fund and the European Union's PHARE program are supplying the funding.

Instructors go to Kirtimai to teach and are helped by trained Roma teaching assistants to adapt the curriculum to the Roma's needs. It is hoped that the students will learn enough of the Lithuanian language to attend a regular school.

Some of the money will also go to fostering adult education and improving living conditions in Kirtimai.

"We have a social worker who goes to the community to explain how the health system and other bureaucratic institutions work in Lithuania," Poulteau said.

She's also trying to get two more water pumps built at the settlement, as there is only one right now. The inhabitants live in shacks with no indoor plumbing.

It is well known that the Roma are victims of discrimination in almost every country they live in. "It's a worldwide problem," said Poulteau, "I think we're all a little afraid because they are a people that represent freedom and deep down we all wish to be like them."