Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com.
They are called the decret generation. During the Communist era in Romania, Nicolae Ceausescu issued Decree 770 in 1967 making abortion and contraception illegal except under certain circumstances. The Communist leader wanted to radically increase the population of the country. People with money or political influence found a way around the regulations. But those who did not expect or could not support their new babies often dropped them off at the nearest orphanage.
That was the fate of Vasile Mathe, a soft-spoken man who works as a school mediator in a small Transylvanian town outside of Campia Turzii.
“Until I was three years old, I was raised by a lady working in the maternity ward,” he told me in an interview in Cluj where we sat in a café with his friend and translator Dan Iepure. “She wanted to adopt me. But it was impossible because my mother wouldn’t agree to the adoption. We had to wait until I was 10 years old. So, I was sent to an orphanage because of this disagreement with my mother. I ended up staying there until I was 19 years old.”
This experience has made him more philosophical than bitter. It has also engendered a lifelong commitment to children. He has worked as an educator at an orphanage. He attained a degree in psychology and worked in NGOs devoted to education and Roma rights. He has used his artistic skills to inspire children in hard-luck situations. And he works as a mediator in a school attended largely by Roma, trying to stand up for the rights of children and of teachers. Given the power dynamic, however, he finds himself more frequently siding with the children and their parents.
“My goal was to persuade the parents to keep their children at school,” he told me. “For that, I needed to stay there and to listen to them. I never blamed them for not sending their children to school. Together with them, I tried to find a better solution to help them to send their children to school. So, even though people sometimes took advantage of my kindness, I said to myself that in the end they will stop that and tell me the truth. Working with the Roma children who were already going to school, I managed to convince the others also to send their children because of the good results at school. It didn’t happen all the time. But I did manage to bring some of the other children back to school, and I was satisfied. It was a beginning.”
It’s not easy work, however, largely because many of the teachers are not on the same page. “For me, the big problem isn’t Roma people,” he continued. “It’s the teachers. The teachers are not prepared to invest more effort to give Roma children an education. The children are a bit more difficult because of that. The children have a lower competence. They feel inferior. So, they already are psychologically ready to quit school. The teachers have developed different methods to use their authority complexes to make the children quit school. I started to talk to the teachers to stop those methods. They should stop telling the children that ‘next time, I’ll fail you.’ The teachers said that the reason for scaring the children is to make them start to learn. But, in fact, the mediators were telling them that this is not a good technique to mobilize children to start learning. These are children who are repeating classes many years in a row. They didn’t manage to gain academic knowledge, and they’re behind. And they are disturbing the class. Another factor behind the community children quitting their school is that the teachers use all kinds of physical and emotional abuse. The children might not even realize that they are being abused, but they all react in some way.”
The teachers at the school responded to the monitoring program Mathe tried to put into place by effectively kicking him out of his office. He ended up conducting his parent-teacher meetings and after-school programs outside, in the school courtyard,
“But all of these children’s activities were supported by the mayor and the local council,” he concluded. “I told the mayor that all these problems threaten to break out into a social plague. If the town didn’t come up with an action plan for the future, the Roma people population would start developing increasingly criminal behavior. Finally the mayor agreed and offered to provide support for the actions I wanted to do. I don’t want the Roma population to sink into a worse position. I want to improve the school situation and involve real people in this work.”
Tell me a little bit about just yourself: how old you are, where do you live…
I work as a mediator in a school, and I also work for the National Democratic Institute (NDI), focusing on democracy, politics, and Roma people. I also work directly with Roma people. At NDI I’ve done some of the training to prepare the Roma people for their political interactions. I’ve also monitored the campaign activity during the elections and afterwards. I graduated with a master’s in psychology from university. I’m also getting a master’s in social work. My thesis is based on surveying people.
The school is here in Cluj?
Yes. I never had parents. I’m part of the decret generation. The decret was basically a decree during the Ceausescu era forbidding abortion. Until I was three years old, I was raised by a lady working in the maternity ward. She wanted to adopt me. But it was impossible because my mother wouldn’t agree to the adoption. We had to wait until I was 10 years old. So, I was sent to an orphanage because of this disagreement with my mother. I ended up staying there until I was 19 years old. It was a big orphanage in Gherla. I graduated from high school there.
Then came the revolution of 1989. Right after that there were new academic opportunities. They started up colleges that had been closed during the Ceausescu regime. I chose to pursue a psychology degree. I also wanted to graduate from the arts college. But I couldn’t because I lacked the financial means. The psychology course was a bit easier – you just needed to attend the classes, the seminars.
For two years I worked in a metallurgical factory in Campia Turzii in order to earn a living. After the revolution, I could change my job and do something I liked. So, I took a job as an educator in the center at the orphanage. And then I worked in a glass factory as a painter on glass. I really enjoyed that. It’s still a hobby, though I stopped doing it a year ago. I’d like to start up again, though.
When I started at psychology college, I thought I’d do this kind of work for the rest of my life. This is the work that I’m best suited for. I like to speak and interact with people. I’m not married. It’s because of social discrimination, because of my past, because I was raised in an orphanage. That has been a challenge at every step. Especially during the Ceausescu regime, the orphanage was not a good place for children. Because of that, families in the area were very protective of their children. They kept their distance from the orphanage, from both the staff and the children there. In time, I managed to acquire knowledge and gain the respect of others because of my behavior. Even so, people have stereotypes and prejudices about me. That’s why I’m not married. Instead, I occupy my time with research on psychology and ethnology. During the development of NGOs in Romania, I started to get involved in NGOs as a counselor and an educator. In the other NGOs I got involved in activities such as art. I’ve also spent a lot of free time with children. So, that’s my professional and personal history up to now.
I want to make sure I understand the chronology. You spent two years in the metallurgical factory, and that was before the revolution?
One year before and one year after. Then I left. That kind of work wasn’t in line with what the future was about to bring. The factory was going to be closed because of the changes in the regime.
And when were you painting on glass?
That was between 2002-2005. I’ve also continued to do this in training workshops with children in the orphanage. The children were then able to sell their work at an exhibition to earn some money. Most of the money they earned they could keep, but some of it went into the materials. It was also a way of teaching responsibility, because they were responsible for their materials. I spent a couple of years working like that. Many children in the orphanage were interested, and there were hundreds of children in the orphanage. I also worked for a while in a children’s institution, where I did a similar workshop. For a few years, I collaborated with the art teacher from this club, and we put together our own personal exhibition. I gave three interviews on this topic.
Now I want to make sure I understand the geography. Do you currently live where you grew up? Or was the orphanage in a different place from where you live now?
It’s the same city. I currently live in a small apartment. Campia Turzii is about 40 kilometers south of here. There’s a population of about 20,000 people.
And is there a large Roma population in the town?
Yes, and it’s rising from year to another. It has become more and more populated by Roma people and their children. I work next to Campia Turzii in a small village where Roma children represent 70%, and the percentage is still rising. There’s a discrimination problem because the teachers cannot adapt to the Roma culture.
The teachers are not Roma?
No. Most of the children are repeating classes or dropping out of school. They’re dropping out very early. Most of them finish only four grades. I wasn’t there for very long before I discovered this problem. The teachers somehow arrange the exclusion of the Roma children. Roma children are a bit more difficult to be educated. And the teachers don’t have the professional and personal competences to interact with the Roma children. They have competence only to teach their specialty. I get involved from both sides, as an impartial mediator. I’m interested in protecting the rights of the children and the rights of the teachers.
But there are consequences to this decision not to take sides. I have to bear a lot of professional stress. I even submitted my resignation. But because of the mayor’s request, I finally changed my mind, and I’m still there. The Roma people and the people in the village asked me to go back in the village and also continue working with them. I agreed to go back. The mayor said that he would support me. The mayor finally heard from intermediaries about this problem at the school. So I was accepted back at the school, but the teachers in the administration council cut my salary.
That’s crazy. How did the teachers do this?
In the council administration they have some power of decision. It’s a sort of intimidation to make my work more difficult. But I won’t quit. I’ll continue working for them as long as the local council and the mayor support me and provide their help.
How many people are there like you who are doing this kind of mediation in Roma communities?
In Cluj County there are about 30 or 40 people. Some are hired because of their political orientation. But others are just hired normally. Still, most of them don’t have any professional competence. Most Roma people have managed to finish only eight years of school. Because of that, the mediators can only do the easy classes. They’re not capable of doing a very competent evaluation. For most of them, being a mediator is only a paycheck. They’re not focused on doing their job. Because of that, they just accept the teachers’ whining and so on. They’d rather save their jobs than solve the Roma people’s problems. And they don’t really have the option of doing something different. So, most of the mayor’s school mediators are easily manipulated.
In this small village where you said about 70% of the children are Roma in the school system, are Roma represented politically in the town council?
They have only one Roma councilperson. That person is independent, doesn’t belong to a party, not even a Roma party. He doesn’t know how to negotiate, how to get resources to support the Roma community.
You said that the number of Roma children is growing. Is that because the birthrate for Roma families is larger, or that non-Roma are moving away? Or both?
People are leaving because they don’t have jobs. And Roma people have a higher birthrate because they haven’t received any education in family planning and stuff like that. There’s also a family culture in which there’s a pride in having children. It’s a tradition to have a large family. It doesn’t matter how you raise your children. The Roma no longer work, and most of them get child support, so the government helps them. Because they don’t have an education and they don’t have a way to get a job, the support comes from their children through child support. There is a difference between Roma people in urban areas and rural areas. In the rural area, Roma people are a bit more “settled.” They don’t engage in so much anti-social behaviors, like crime. They are more law-abiding. It’s a bit easier to work with them. You can focus their attention on good purposes.
The challenge is to pay attention to how you approach them. You need a very clear plan on how to work with them, how to relate to them. You can’t just lecture. They want a strong man, someone they can trust. If you are a two-faced person, even if you are an educated person, you will lose them. They won’t trust you. They have to see that you know what you want and what you want is also for them. I don’t discriminate against people because of how their house smells or because they use bad language. I just stay and listen, and they eventually calm down themselves. Then I explain my situation, why I’m there, and what my interests are. Because I listened to them, even for an hour or two, I can get their sympathy and their collaboration.
My goal was to persuade the parents to keep their children at school. For that, I needed to stay there and to listen to them. I never blamed them for not sending their children to school. Together with them, I tried to find a better solution to help them to send their children to school. So, even though people sometimes took advantage of my kindness, I said to myself that in the end they will stop that and tell me the truth. Working with the Roma children who were already going to school, I managed to convince the others also to send their children because of the good results at school. It didn’t happen all the time. But I did manage to bring some of the other children back to school, and I was satisfied. It was a beginning. You can’t make changes overnight. You need a lot of patience. It can be frustrating. Because they don’t have a job, the first goal of these Roma is getting money. When they can get money, they leave their children at school.
But for me, the big problem isn’t Roma people. It’s the teachers. The teachers are not prepared to invest more effort to give Roma children an education. The children are a bit more difficult because of that. The children have a lower competence. They feel inferior. So, they already are psychologically ready to quit school. The teachers have developed different methods to use their authority complexes to make the children quit school. I started to talk to the teachers to stop those methods. They should stop telling the children that “next time, I’ll fail you.” The teachers said that the reason for scaring the children is to make them start to learn. But, in fact, the mediators were telling them that this is not a good technique to mobilize children to start learning. These are children who are repeating classes many years in a row. They didn’t manage to gain academic knowledge, and they’re behind. And they are disturbing the class. Another factor behind the community children quitting their school is that the teachers use all kinds of physical and emotional abuse. The children might not even realize that they are being abused, but they all react in some way.
I created a program to improve the monitoring activities for both parents and teachers. The teachers would not agree to this. They started to get even more upset because of this program. They said that it’s not my job to tell the teachers what to do. The inspection council of the teachers forced me leave my office, the space the school had given to me. I had to remove all my belongings. I had all these materials to work with children’s learning difficulties, and I had to take everything out of the class. My office became the school courtyard. I had to do all my work with the parents outside. In the end, the teachers also started attacking me personally. They started to exclude me from the teacher council meetings. There was no longer any transparency. They were sabotaging my activities. They were telling children that it’s better to go home and spend their time at home than waste their time with the mediators in after-school activities.
But all of these children’s activities were supported by the mayor and the local council. I told the mayor that all these problems threaten to break out into a social plague. If the town didn’t come up with an action plan for the future, the Roma people population would start developing increasingly criminal behavior. Finally the mayor agreed and offered to provide support for the actions I wanted to do. I don’t want the Roma population to sink into a worse position. I want to improve the school situation and involve real people in this work. A local NGO is supporting me, working with me as a mediator. They have a strategic plan to stop school dropouts. They go with me into the Roma community, and they secure most of the support materials.
Is it a Roma NGO or mostly non-Roma?
No, it’s not a Roma NGO. But most of their programs and services are focused on Roma people, and almost all of the beneficiaries are Roma people. This NGO has been involved in Roma communities for many years. They are honest people, and what they are pursuing is for the good of the Roma community. I know other NGOs, Roma NGOs, that don’t do anything for Roma people. They just take money. They just extort money using the Roma’s social-economical problems. These NGOs create many more problems than the NGOs led by non-Roma people. These Roma NGOs also have a political aspect. The Roma parties are leading these Roma NGOs. So, most of them just want to get votes, nothing more.
There’s a debate in the Roma community about Roma education. Should it be separate? In other words, Roma have an opportunity to learn together, learn the culture, to feel proud in a separate environment. Or should they learn together with non-Roma?
It depends on the situation. If there’s an isolated area, it would be better to make a separate school there. If it’s in a crowded area, it’s better to school the children together. You can’t have a separate school in an ethnically mixed environment. Even if they have classes in Romani language, the others are learning in different languages. It’s better to have common classes where they can interact and discover more about each other. In Transylvania, the Hungarian people have had an experience of being separated from the others in school, and they’ve experienced some difficulties with the majority. They are also asking for greater autonomy at the local level in public administration. They don’t care about the other cultures. This can become a problem. Transylvania is marked by history. It was under Austro-Hungarian and also German occupation. Romanians in this area are shaped by this history. But it is very difficult to move forward, to support reconstruction efforts, if there is too much emphasis on the past. Yes, there are intercultural universities where you can study in Hungarian, German, and Romanian. The people manage to live together and study in their mother tongue. Romania has shown that it’s capable of making such a step. But where there is historic trauma, it is difficult.
Did the situation between Roma and non-Roma change significantly after 1989 in the community where you grew up and where you live today?
There are not many differences when it comes to prejudices and stereotypes. And our institutional reforms were a mess. For instance, if there’s a job competition, the Roma have lower chances. They’ll make sure everything is legal, but they’ll still hire a Romanian and not a Roma person. There have been institutional changes but not mentality changes. Before 1989 there were no Roma teachers in the schools. Roma people were not qualified and had to take the most difficult jobs: collecting garbage, cleaning streets, cleaning houses. The only exception was the traditional Roma because they passed on their knowledge of jobs like handcrafts, being goldsmiths or silversmiths. Because of the new technology, however, these crafts are slowly fading. So in the end, the Roma became very poor. Even though they have organized themselves in political parties, they don’t have real representation. They’re not really supported.
In Hungary and in Slovakia, the communities, Roma and non-Roma, have grown further apart because they’re not working together, because the schools are becoming more segregated. Is that the situation here as well?
Roma people don’t want to live away from the others. They don’t want to become isolated. They know that they’re not well prepared for school. Most of them are illiterate, don’t know how to read or write.
You mentioned an NGO that you worked with…
The Association for Initiative and Civic Communitarian Action. This NGO helps with the children who have left the orphanage. I was involved in their initiatives. I also was working on projects connected to the memory of the past. I do a lot of work with children from very different social-economical categories. It’s not such a good idea to have this social stratification. We have had this experience of discrimination connected to stratification. This NGO has opened the same door for all the children, no matter their socio-economical status.
Dan and I are also working together on a project on Roma children. We applied for a one-year project to the Ratiu Family Foundation in London. They have approved this project for a very small amount of money. But the money is not important. What’s important is that we can do a lot of things with not much money. We have a lot of pictures of the activities of this project, and I like to see the joy on the Roma children’s faces. I want to preserve the smiles on their faces. It’s all about developing the emotional intelligence of Roma children through their interactions with others.
There are various modules in this project. And each module is like a puzzle. One such puzzle is an art project, but it’s really a social-art project. It brings children from difficult environments together with those from richer environments. They work together in the workshop, those already with skills and those without skills, and they learn skills together. Beyond this, it’s all about socializing and going beyond prejudices and stereotypes. The project finishes with an exhibition of their pictures. And they receive evaluations. The pictures don’t have any names attached to them, so the evaluators don’t know who is Roma or non-Roma, who is from a richer or poorer background. They know only that they are children, nothing more. And then after the evaluations, they can see who did what. And this is a way to get beyond their prejudices.
And is it all for the same population of children? In other words, or do you do it in different communities?
It’s a small project. We work only in small villages and towns. In Turda, one of the members of the Ratiu Family Foundation established an office. The foundation is built on very strong democratic foundations. Ion Ratiu was a senator here in Romania. He liked to say that “I will fight to the last drop of my blood for you to have the right to contradict me.” He was a fighter for pure democracy. The Ratiu family has been interested in Roma communities and also has financed activities focused on Roma people. But they were not focused only on Roma people. They basically were for them, but it didn’t matter if they were Roma or non-Roma people. They involved both Roma and non-Roma volunteers. We also have some contacts with the Ratiu Democracy Center. This is another NGO I’ve been working with.
It’s hard for me to keep track of all the things that you do.
I’m not married, so I have plenty of time to get involved in this.
I talked with Mihai Florin Rosca this afternoon. He was very pessimistic about NGO work because the European Union money is not really coming through. There’s been a lot of cuts in employment, and many projects have stopped.
That’s why I don’t work with corrupted NGOs. I worked with this one NGO, a Roma NGO. They were not paying me. In fact, they were even stealing from me. It’s a long story. They were not really involved in the education of the children. They said that they were promoting social inclusion, and they got a lot of money for the educational project from the Roma Fund for Education. But I never saw any real results from that. My colleagues and I informed the NGO in Budapest. But they didn’t really care. It was like a cover-up. They wanted to pay me money, a bribe, to write a report on how the funds were spent here. I refused to do that. So, that’s the reason why I was excluded. I don’t make any compromises. As long as it’s possible to work honestly for the Roma people, I will do so. If it’s not possible, I quit.
What do you think is the most positive development that you see right now for better relations between Roma and non-Roma in Romania?
There are many, many activities in the political field. Lately there are many activities informing and involving Roma people. For instance, NDI invited me to Bucharest to participate in a forum of Roma people participating in elections as candidates for mayor and so on. I was also invited as a monitor to talk about my experience. Perhaps the reason was that these candidates have to know there is someone there keeping an eye on their activity, measuring their performances and so on. These observers are important to make public work really happen and to change behavior in a good direction. I gave examples concerning Roma and non-Roma parties at this meeting in Bucharest. I told them that it’s very important to know how to choose people, people who are not corrupt. And they should have a strategy.
In Bucharest I also learned what other people were doing. I met a Roma mayor who has done a lot of things in his community – supporting education, professional development. He set up a training program for people to achieve qualifications. He managed to get a lot of money for the Roma community. They are the majority in this particular community, and they were able to build up the schools. Because these are isolated communities, the schools will basically be just for Roma. The people are very poor, and they cannot afford to travel for school. The mayor brought in a lot of non-Roma teachers to prepare these Roma.
There are many other examples from the Roma communities. For instance, there’s a community here in Transylvania not far from Cluj where most of inhabitants are Roma though the mayor is non-Roma. The mayor, in collaboration with the Roma people, managed to build a new place where children can do their homework. They set up hygiene programs so that the teachers started to accept the children because they were no longer dirty.
The NDI meeting in Bucharest was an opportunity to exchange ideas and collaborate with each other. It wasn’t just to cry together about what has happened but to see what we can all do together to improve things.
You mentioned earlier what Mihai Florin Rosca said about the EU funds. It’s true that European funds cannot be absorbed very well in Romania. Of course, there are a lot of Romanians with great ideas. But the government in Bucharest won’t give the projects the okay unless they get their cut. They even create laws along this principle: for instance, the public acquisition law. I’ll give you an example. The public acquisition law says there should be at least three bids, which include price and other technical details. But they don’t say, in this law, which price represents the lowest price. If something costs 10 lei in the market, the bid might say 50 lei. Then they just take the 40 lei and put it in their pocket as their cut. The European Union knows about this and doesn’t do anything about it.
Cluj, May 16, 2013
Translator: Dan Iepure