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Education Still Pipedream for Gypsies in Greece
By Wes Jonasson
Inter Press Service

    ATHENS, Mar 24 (IPS) - Two women sit on a bench outside an Orthodox Church, their children running around them, in the Agi Varvara neighbourhood of Piraeus, close to the Greek capital.
  The women are Greek Gypsy, or Roma. They are in all likelihood illiterate and likely to remain that way for the rest of their lives.
  What this means is that should their children beat the odds and enter the school system, the mothers will be unable to help with the homework. Agia Varvara is the most affluent Gypsy community in Greece, yet not one Gypsy woman here is on record as having completed secondary school.
  Paula Karadana, who instructs volunteers on how to teach the Greek language to Gypsies, is critical of the failure of the government to make education more accessible to the community. She says that while there has been some talk of this issue, nothing has materialised.
  In the early 1980's Karadana worked with volunteers to establish a social centre for minorities including Gypsies in the inner-city slum of Metaxoyrgeio. A new building replaced the old only last year.
  Karadana says there were never enough volunteers and those that came had no training and were not familiar with Gypsies or their way of life. ''We made mistakes. Wounds were made. It took time to overcome this and to be accepted as a person who really wanted to help,'' she said.
  In the beginning the children were difficult to control in the classroom. They were not used to discipline and routine and were easily swayed and distracted by older unemployed teenagers bent on disruption. In time, however, they settled down and some even managed to get into the school system, says Karadana.
  She says the centre recently held a seminar for public school teachers in an effort to try and change the negative attitudes towards Gypsies. The problem, says Karadana, is that the teachers simply do not want Gypsies in their classrooms.
  However, Stella Stassinopoulou, a fourth year education major at Athens University who plans to teach primary school children, does not agree that there should be a special programme established to educate the Gypsies.
  She says the problem is basically that Gypsy children are impossible to teach as they generally refuse to sit still and want to be free to run around outside. Many teachers would agree with this assessment.
  However Panagiotis Dragatis and Christina Chronopoulou, who work at the youth centre in the suburb of Ano Liosia, disagree.
  The centre is located in a poor community of Gypsies, migrant Albanians, Russians and others seeking work in Greece. It offers a pre-school programme aimed at preparing young children to enter the school system.
  Dragatis and Chronopoulou admit that there were initial problems and they feared for their safety in the seemingly uncompromising neighbourhood where the children were ''wild beyond belief''. However, they said they had learnt to handle the situation by the trial and error method.
  The teachers said their greatest achievement has been winning the trust of Romas who have been sending their children to the centre in steady numbers.
  Last year, Ano Liosia, and all of western Athens, was hit by an earthquake which brought down apartments, shops, and hundreds of makeshift dwellings which had served as homes for the Romas.
  Consequently, this already economically depressed community was hard hit and many were forced to pack-up and move elsewhere. Many of those who remained also preferred to send their children into the streets to earn money rather than back to school.
  Dragatis and Chronopoulou said the best results are obtained if they combine the Greek language classes with sports, plays, crafts, and other ''fun'' activities.
  However there are other issues facing those who do manage to make it to public school. Keeping them in school can become a major problem, especially as from the age of 11 both Roma boys and girls are eligible for marriage and most do get married.
  Dragatis and Chronopoulou say they often visit their ''lost'' pupils at home to try and get them to return to class but without much success.
  According to Christina Rougheri, the Roma coordinator of the Greek Helsinki Monitor there are two schools of thought with regard to Gypsies. There are those who believe that Greek Gypsies, also called Tsiganes, are gradually being assimilated into the mainstream, a process, however, that may take years.
  Then there are others, Rougheri says, who are of the opinion that Gypsies are a distinct race with a culture and a language and should be treated as such.
  The reality is that education is still not visible in the crystal ball of the lives of most Gypsies and probably will not be for some time yet.
  This article is free of copyright restrictions and can be reproduced provided that Inter Press Service is credited.
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