“I work with children because they need equal treatment”

By • on March 18, 2011

Four years ago, Marcel Petru (47 years) decided to try his luck with a new job. He attended a training program for school mediators for Roma communities and after only one year he successfully completed the courses. Until then, he had worked as a zootechnician, and then in the early 1990s, he was hired by a factory in Timisoara, which was closed after a few years. He was again unemployed, but he didn’t lose his hope. He tried his luck at a company specialized in pest control where he worked for more than eight years. However, after finishing the training program in late 2006, Marcel Petru faced a new challenge – the job of school mediator at School Number 1 in Timisoara, for the Roma community in the Kuncz neighborhood.

The Roma neighborhood is situated on the outskirts of Timisoara, away from the eyes of the tourists who walk leisurely on the alleys of the city center. Here, on the outskirts, the unpaved roads fill with water after every rain and turn into small lakes. The drinking water is not potable anymore, because the manures from a nearby farm were poured into the wells of the residents’ gardens. Approximately 380 families live among the mountains of trash discarded through the years by the people of Timisoara. The local authorities finally decided last summer that it would be appropriate to repair the shaky sewerage. Until some time ago, the children who wanted to go to school had to walk three kilometers.

Marcel Peter wasn’t deterred by the living conditions of the people from Kunz. In 2007, after rapidly reviewing the situation of the local children, he found a first solution to reduce school drop-outs. He got hold of a bus that he could use regularly, taking the children to school and back home. “I went to the school’s principal and I proposed a partnership for a bus that would go between the school and town hall. The town hall did a partnership with the Public Transportation Company from Timisoara. This way we obtained a bus that takes the little ones to school in the morning, while at 12 the small children are brought back home while the older ones are brought to school”, Petru tells us.

About 200 Roma children go to school at present, while in 2007 only 50 children attended it.

Marcel Petru is one of the 800 Roma school mediators trained between 2003-2010 by the Ministry of Education and Research in partnership with several Roma non-governmental organizations. According to the official data, out of all the Roma mediators trained so far, only 440-460 are still working for the Roma communities. The mediators’ training was included in the PHARE project “Access to education for disadvantaged groups, with a focus on Roma”, one of the two components dedicated to the qualification and certification of members of the Roma communities such that they could acquire the skills to work in the Romanian education system. This project was initiated by the Ministry of Education and funded by the European Union.

The drop-out rate continues to be one of the biggest problems facing the European Union. According to the report on the status of the Romanian education, the Romanian drop-out rate reaches 20 percent. Marcel Petru explained that the school mediator’s role is to both connect the local Roma communities and the educational institutions and to prevent the school absenteeism and abandonment among Roma children. “I don’t only work with Roma children. I take care of all because they are children and they should be treated equally. I work with children with behavioral problems. Besides, working as a mediator also means that we have to do field work in Roma communities”.

One of the most difficult tasks Petru has to accomplish is to convince each parent to send his children to school, even if they have serious socio-economical problems. “Many families no longer allow their children to go to school because they do not have clothes and shoes for them. They don’t have where to wash them. But I like working with the stubborn people, so to speak. I like talking to parents who don’t understand why they must let their children go to school. I argue with them about the benefits of going to school until they change their mind and let the children continue school”, says Marcel Petru, with a roguish smile.

Professor Gheorghe Sarau, the Romani language advisor from the General Directorate for Education in Minority Languages and Relations with the Parliament, a department of the Ministry of Education, Research and Innovation, said that the school and health mediators represent genuine institutions within a community: “They are the managers of all the troubles happening within Roma communities and also their main sources of information. The Roma learn about their rights from the mediators and not from the local leaders who keep the information hidden”. Petru also argues that in order to prevent early school abandonment a lot of teamwork is required in order to help the school mediator. “This team should collaborate with health mediators, but unfortunately we don’t have health mediators in Timisoara anymore. They have been sacked due to lack of funds”, said Petru, saddened by the situation. He also explained that there is a need for local experts in Roma issues and for meetings with each of the local councils. He is upset about the current situation, and says that “nobody cares about school and health mediators because they are considered mere pawns. Everyone knows that we don’t have health mediators anymore, but no one says anything. They prefer to take credit for our work”.

In addition to the problems facing Roma communities, the mediators have been profoundly affected by the economic crisis, and the programs that funded the activity of the health mediators collapsed. David Mark, the director of the Roma Civic Alliance in Romania says that Romania has been praised in the European Union for its achievements from the school and health mediation programs.

According to French daily “Le Soir”, among those who praised the training of the school mediators is Jean-Pierre Liégeois, the founder of the Center for Research on Gypsies of the University of Paris V – Sorbonne, who declared: “Romania developed numerous actions in support of Roma and took innovative measures in several areas. These include establishing a network of inspectors in the education field and of Roma school mediators”. However, these projects were forsaken after the mediators fell under the supervision of the municipalities, as a result of decentralization. “The mayors aren’t interested in funding the programs with money from the budget of the municipality. Moreover, some of them forced the programs to close by not giving them any money, while others replaced the experienced mediators with politically- affiliated people who haven’t been accepted by the Roma community”, says David Mark.

However, Marcel Petru has the personal satisfaction of seeing how the children became found of him. “I’m happy when I see a child  finishing school. I would not give up this job because I like it. I love this job that gives me the chance to do what I like”.

School mediators included in the labor code

With the introduction of mediators in the Romanian Occupational Code, a new profession was created, that of school mediator. It is designed to facilitate the relationship between school and Roma communities so as to be prevented the illiteracy and school abandonment. The first generation of school mediators was composed of 70 persons. According to the website of the Ministry of Education, Research and Innovation, the training of school mediators is a component of the PHARE project “Access to education for disadvantaged groups, with a focus on Roma”. The European funds invested in the project during 2003 – 2010 totalize seven million Euros, plus a contribution of the Romanian Government worth 1.33 million Euros, according to the same sources.