“Building back better” to even the odds for Roma childrenJan 25, 2018
Sead is a five-year-old boy from Suto Orizari, a settlement on the outskirts of Skopje that is populated predominantly by Roma.
Like most children in his neighbourhood, Sead is growing up without many of the opportunities that others can take for granted.
His best chance of achieving a fulfilling future and a decent job is to gain an early education in a safe, supportive and stimulating environment.
In a municipality with a population of over 17,000, there is only one place where Sead can get the educational input he needs: the sole kindergarten in Suto Orizari – a building that also serves as a daycare centre for street children.
Despite the poor conditions of the building and the overcrowding, Sead attended the kindergarten every day and loved the time he spent there – especially playing with his friends and listening to the great stories told by his favourite teacher, Aisha.
Until 28 February 2017, when disaster struck.
A fire broke out in the kindergarten and Sead could only watch through tears as flames engulfed the building before the fire service arrived. The firefighters tried desperately to put out the blaze but the school was completely destroyed.
Since the fire, the 200 children who attended the kindergarten have had to make due with improvised classrooms in a local high school. The street children are temporarily housed in a nearby healthcare clinic. But these are at best temporary solutions.
"This event has left deep wounds in our local community,” says the director of the kindergarten, Songjul Shaban Ahmed. “The kindergarten offered hope for so many children and now there’s no safe place for them to learn. We desperately need a more appropriate and permanent building – and one that also has adequate facilities for the homeless children who attend the day centre.”
This need for a permanent solution is particularly urgent given the widespread discrimination and multiple forms of social exclusion faced by Roma – a community with poorer access to education, healthcare and social services and higher rates of joblessness and poverty than the rest of the population.
According to 2011 data, 41% of Roma suffer from income poverty, compared to 14% for non-Roma. 53% of Roma are jobless, against 27% of non-Roma. And only 7% of Roma women are employed.
Significantly, only 4% of Roma children participate in any form of early childhood education against 39.5% for the population as a whole. An estimated 2,500 children of preschool age live in Suto Orizari, yet fewer than 8% had places in the kindergarten. The waiting list before the fire numbered 500 children. This deficiency at the very starting point contributes to low lifetime educational achievements for Roma, undermining their prospects for future employment and prosperity.
Fortunately for Sead and for the other children at his school, a solution has now been found. Thanks to generous funding from the Kingdom of Norway, a project worth USD 700,000 has been launched, to be implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
“We are more than grateful for this generous support from the people of Norway, which will ensure better social inclusion of all Roma people living in this municipality,” stated Kurto Dudush, Mayor of Suto Orizari.
These funds will enable UNDP to apply a “build back better” approach in reconstructing the kindergarten. The original facility as constructed in 1986 was contaminated by asbestos, requiring a costly sanitation effort, and even before the fire it was the site of constant repairs and upgrades. The new facility, by contrast, will incorporate the highest standards for energy efficiency and accessibility, ensuring that children with disabilities enjoy equal access with their peers.