September 6 2012

A family strengthened by a little girl and her ABCs

06/09/2012- "I learned the entire alphabet. I can write,” says the Roma girl who until last year never thought she would go to school. Her achievement was brought about by determination, on every front.

The old computer struggles with Windows 95, livens up the dark damp room. A nine-year-old girl is concentrated on a game. She uses her knee as mouse pad as there is no room on the small table. "I know all the numbers and the letters in this game," Emi says, while playing Solitaire.

50% of Roma women ar illiterate, Emi wants to be different @ K. Ilivesta
Lack of official documentation prevents Roma children from accessing education © K. Ilievska
Her parents, both illiterate, never went to school. They don't have any identification papers. Emi's dad, orphaned at an early age grew up as a street child. He guess he could be around 23. Emi's mom was born elsewhere where her birth went unregistered. The family lives in a nine-square-metre room in an old rusty hangar on the outskirts of Skopje. Their ethnicity is Roma, the most vulnerable group in Macedonia.

Officially, the Roma community account for less than three per cent of the population. Those working with them estimate the population to be three times greater, at around 160,000. Many are not registered as residents and identity papers are hard to come by. Emi, her parents and her little sister are among those who officially do not exist.

"The family first came to our attention in March 2011," says Valentina, whose job at SOS Children's Villages involves the strengthening of such families. "Their living conditions were horrible, they had no income and without identification, they could not claim social benefits. This also prevented them from enrolling Emi in school. Without birth certificates and being illiterate, they could not apply for ID."

Through exhaustive efforts, Valentina persuaded the authorities to provide Emi with her much-needed birth certificate. After some convincing, the child’s embarrassed parents signed the school application form, with an X. By doing so, they gave Emi the start in life that others take for granted – the chance to learn to read and write.

Emi, finally she is allowed to learn @ K. Ilieveska
Emi is in love... with learning © K. Ilievska
"I don't need to know the letters to collect plastic bottles," says Emi's dad with a melancholic tone. He has been rummaging dumpsters in search of plastic bottles for many years now. What he collects he sells to a recycling plant earning about 30 Euros per month. The money is barely enough for food. "If I knew how to read, you think I could be hired at the plant. Ah, let's face it, who would hire me?" he shrugs. He speaks of a sad reality. Stigmatisation and discrimination of Roma people is very common in Macedonia. Official data suggests that one in four men and half of Roma women are illiterate. Over two thirds are unemployed. Regardless of his age, Emi’s father knows that his chances of entering gainful employment are slim.

"I am happy that Emi will have a chance," he smiles. "Ever since she enrolled to school, she can't stop talking about it. She loves her teacher and last month even had a few classmates over to play computer games.” The old unwanted computer is a donation in kind that Emi has fallen in love with. “Solitaire helps me to learn the numbers and some letters. Not all letters are there though and some are just weird," says the girl referring to the letter Q, which does not exist in the Macedonian Cyrillic alphabet.

Romani is not taught in her school due to a lack of teachers fluent in the language, adding to the many challenges facing Emi and thousands of other Roma children like her. She appears undaunted. "I'll stay in school for as long as the school lets me because it's so nice and my teacher is the best in the world!" she says. Her dad is proud. "Her mom and I will do everything we can to keep her in school. She must not have a life like ours. Emi must make it better!"

For reasons of privacy the child's name has been changed.