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The Unlucky Ones

Is there a minority in the Netherlands that is more disadvantaged and ignored than the Roma and Sinti people?  Known previously as “gypsies,” the two groups have separate ethnic origins but face similar challenges of discrimination and under-recognition. Despite their marginalized positions in society, they are not officially recognized by the Dutch government as minorities. The bizarre reasoning behind this is that the Roma and Sinti people are too few in number and too geographically diffuse to be officially deemed a “minority.”
With a lack of reliable population statistics and no official national policy related to these groups, issues of discrimination are under-recognized and under-addressed. Around 250 Roma and Sinti were murdered during World War II, but only in 2000 did the Dutch government formally apologize and provide compensation to families affected by the war. Left with the searing memories of WWII, successive generations of Roma and Sinti have passed on a fear of revealing their backgrounds. This history has led to difficulties in counting the total population of Roma and Sinti, and recording cases of discrimination¬¬. Few Roma or Sinti file complaints with the Equal Treatment Commission or Public Prosecutor’s Office, even though anecdotal evidence suggests that blatant discrimination against Roma and Sinti people is common. 
 Peter Jorna, who covers Roma and Sinti groups at FORUM (a sprawling Dutch organization in Utrecht charged with the task of mediating between ethnic organizations and the government), gave several examples of discrimination. He stated that particularly in smaller communities such as Nieuwegein, it is possible for businesses and law enforcement to determine a person's background by their last name. As a result, people with Roma or Sinti-sounding names face blatantly discriminatory treatment, such as being automatically rejected if they apply for a house mortgage.
 This ongoing discrimination has led to a wary attitude towards society—even among those who are connected to mainstream Dutch life. Almir Abdula is a 25-year-old Roma who fled from Macedonia with his family in the 1990s. His father heads the Roma Emancipation Organization, and Almir himself owns a thriving dance school. By his own description, he is a hip-hop dancer who eats Dutch pancakes. In spite of this, he has experienced on a personal level the strong presence of discrimination in hiring practices. As Abdula said of Dutch employers: ‘Gypsies’ equals criminality to them.” He told us in a pensive voice that, “We were just done with the Second World War, and now we have this. More recently, I feel less comfortable in this country. I always have to defend my people.”
This complaint was echoed ¬¬by Mila Burik, who by all accounts is one of the success stories among the Dutch Roma. She is trained as an anthropologist and acts as a volunteer spokeswoman for an organization called Triana Roma Foundation Utrecht. This organization’s members are mostly Roma who arrived in the 1970s—a subgroup that is often considered to be the most disadvantaged relative to other Roma or Sinti. In an open discussion, she related several examples of belittling treatment that she had witnessed. When people had wanted to start businesses, a Roma-sounding family name would cause a bank representative to immediately shove the paper application away. In stores, just the way that one looked could prompt an owner to call security. After several minutes discussing instances of discrimination, Burik posed this question directly to us: “If a group has not been accepted in the Netherlands for more than 30 years, then is it not logical to assume that culture and family is all that it has?”
Years with this type of negative treatment has led many Roma and Sinti families to take a protective stance against outside intervention. Schools are the clearest example of such safeguarding. In many ways, the Roma or Sinti classroom is a special place, and educators treat it accordingly. In one abbreviated phone conversation, a teacher of a Roma class of students refused to comment or to provide information about any of his students. A few years ago, he explained, a newspaper’s negative coverage of the class had caused parents to pull their children from his class for four weeks.
A similar objection arose during a conversation with Marijke Kaatee, an independent educational consultant for classes of Roma and Sinti children. She immediately and firmly stated that she would not give out contact information for the students that she knew. These students range from 4 to 15 years old, and she did not expect that the parents would let us speak to their children. This type of “closed behavior,” as Kaatee termed it, requires special consideration.
Indeed, in a 2008 television documentary on Roma and Sinti people, Nadine Rosenberg explained how her background as a Sinti allowed her to identify with the primary school students that she assisted: “Safety comes before everything else in our families. My dad wanted me to go to school too but he didn’t want me to go by myself, neither by bike nor by bus. So he would bring me every single day by car, anywhere I would have to go.” She continued: “As a class assistant, I have had many mothers who wanted to stay in the class so that they would be able to protect their children when needed. Of course, parents in class would be too distracting, so eventually we agreed that they would stay in a separate room of the school to be close to their children at least.” 
Those who have worked in those communities without being Roma or Sinti themselves confirmed these stories. Ad van den Breekel is a consultant who works with Roma and Sinti for WSD, a Dutch integration agency. In a phone conversation, he recounted how one man's son had to take a special taxi-bus to school. Out of fear that his son would be hurt, the father would follow it in his own car until the boy arrived on school grounds.
Such highly worried parents reflect deep-rooted concerns among the community. For several reasons, the classroom captures and magnifies the historical and cultural concerns of Roma or Sinti parents. One recent Anne Frank Foundation report wrote that parents’ reactions are often colored by their own WWII experiences or by memories of being bullied as children.
Beyond this, there is a fear of what school will do to the Roma or Sinti culture. Kaatee, the educational consultant, explained that the school system is the main location, and indeed the only place, where children are confronted with Dutch society. If students attend school often enough, they will start to make friends with the other students and integrate into a different world than that of their families.
In van den Breekel’s experience, protectiveness is to be expected. After almost a decade of working with Sinti and Roma on employment, education, and finance issues, he was adamant about one fact: “You have to build trust. Don’t promise more than you can do.” In his opinion, the strong protectiveness of parents reflects the fact that the community has retained a distrust of everything outside of it. Similarly, the Anne Frank Foundation commented that some parents were afraid that the classroom would rob children of their own cultural identity. Academics who have worked within this field, such as Professor Lucassen from Leiden University, verified: “Some Sinti distrust schools for fear that they will assimilate children and diminish the Sinti culture. This attitude can then manifest itself in an intense form of protectiveness against the educational process.”
Roma and Sinti girls are often the ones most affected by this cautious relationship.  Kaatee expressed her regret that absence and travel caused students to lose contact with their friends and lose the achievement that they had felt in their studies. If parents supported their children in education, she asserted, it would be a different story. This problem was most notable for girls, since for them, school represented a gateway to achievement. For boys, there were other ways of making a living. Kaatee explained that some girls would clash with their parents over wanting to stay in school. Occasionally the parents’ fears would backfire, as the girls would run away from their families and end up on the street.
Laura Punt of KPC, an educational consultancy, spoke to us about the unique circumstances for girls who are Roma or Sinti. KPC is one of three educational consultancy companies working in the Netherlands to provide advice to schools and teachers, in the absence of any government- sponsored organization related to Roma or Sinti education. Punt advises teachers and schools that have Roma or Sinti children. From her point of view, because these girls live in a patriarchal society, their desire to pursue an education is counteracted by the higher degree of protectiveness exercised by fathers over their daughters. After a certain point, some families discourage contact with “Dutch” boys, while other 14 to 15 year old girls will already be (illegally) married to a boy in the community. Though Roma and Sinti parents are protective of both boys and girls, it does appear that the general lack of support for children’s schooling unequally affects the females.
Despite all of these persistent obstacles to trust, some positive small-scale innovations have appeared in the educational system. Programs specifically addressing Roma and Sinti children signify that deserved attention is being given to the needs of the community. These efforts are mainly focused on the goal of improving educational achievement among this group. As is typically the case for the two groups, national figures are hard to determine. However, the studies that do exist suggest that on average, Roma and Sinti children have lagged behind in educational advancement. A 2005 report by FORUM, the Dutch multicultural institute that works with ethnic organizations, noted that if Roma and Sinti do attend school, most eventually pursue a lower-track technical education. Perhaps more alarmingly, the rate of special education (19%) among those enrolled was four times higher than national average. The national newspaper, Het Algemeen Dagblad, reported in February 2009 that one-third of the Roma children in Nieuwegein did not go to primary school, and that almost no Roma students went to secondary school. Other challenges to receiving a high-quality education include knowledge of the Dutch language, lower socio-economic status, and seasonal migration for those who adhere to the traveling lifestyle.
As a response to these issues, Roma and Sinti organizations and experts point to the recent accomplishments of specifically tailored education programs.  One commonly cited success story is in Veldhoven, where schools have created separate classes to acknowledge and address students’ language capabilities. Some of the teachers are Roma, so the students can ask questions in Romanes (the Roma language) and receive responses in Dutch. Laura Punt of KPC noted with pride that the first three pupils from this new Veldhoven system are now ready to move on to secondary school. Other schools have taken a similar approach by including special Roma or Sinti class assistants such as Nadine Rosenberg, while others have separated Roma boys and girls to take their parents’ concerns into account. Punt sees the resulting improvements to education as a success, especially given the recent immigration of some Roma and the lower status of Dutch-style education in Roma and Sinti traditions. A 2002 KPC study confirmed the helpfulness of the consultants who implement these changes, demonstrating that nearly all children who live in a region with an active project consultant attend primary school. Because the Netherlands is so reliant upon these consultancies for any educational improvements with Roma and Sinti children, these numbers are cause for optimism.
Such cases can provide other regions with models for educational improvement. The Veldhoven schools used a needs-based approach, particularly with respect to separated classes for Roma and Sinti. This decision is not always beneficial. As Burik and Punt attest, segregation can sometimes lead to inadequate and unchallenging classes, and occasionally it only reinforces other parents' aversion to having their children mix with Roma and Sinti. Only when language or other factors make fully integrated classes impossible, are separate classes the best option. This choice, in turn, can depend on whether classes are comprised mainly of Roma or Sinti. Because Sinti do not have their own language, they tend to have better Dutch language skills. Other considerations might include a group’s tendency to travel and the clustering of families, which often varies by group and according to the time of immigration to the Netherlands. These kinds of divergences suggest that policies on Roma and Sinti education should not simply copy the substance of Veldhoven, but rather adopt its targeted approach.
It is unclear whether these newer developments suggest an actively changing relationship between Roma, Sinti, and the Dutch mainstream. The programs implemented by consultants and schools have taken fairly small steps, and are not yet pushing the boundaries of full integration within the school system. Parents also have not yet been forced to make the larger leap to secondary school. The drop-off in enrollment between primary school and secondary school still occurs, and improvements have mostly addressed children in the 4-10 age group. However, the changes in Veldhoven point convincingly to the successes that are possible if trust can be established and maintained with Roma and Sinti communities. 
When asked for policy recommendations, Laura Punt cited such a building of trust as essential. To begin with, relationships must exist between the school, local government, and Roma and Sinti people. But beyond that framework, she emphasized that teachers must take their roles seriously as educators and mediators: “You really need to have some teachers who have good contact with the parents, who go to their living spaces, who they can talk to. It takes time and energy, but it is very, very important.” At the conclusion of the interview, she slipped in one final comment that spoke to the larger issue of Roma and Sinti inclusion: “People need to trust you. There needs to be more trust.”  



Ad van den Breekel, WSD group consultant, phone interview, June 27, 2009. 
Almir Abdulah, Roma, dance school owner, phone interview, June 23, 2009.  
Amet Yassar, Roma, former Roma Youth Coordinator, phone interview, June 27, 2009. 
Anonymous Dutch schoolteacher, phone interview, June 26, 2009.
Lalla Weiss, Sinti, former head of the National Sinti Organisation, phone interview, June 25, 2009. 
Laura Punt, advisor on Roma and Sinti education for KPC, phone interview, June 25, 2009. 
Leo Lucassen, Professor at Leiden University, phone interview, June 23, 2009.
Marijke Kaatee, individual consultant on education, phone interview, June 28, 2009.
Mila Burik, Roma, anthropologist, spokesperson of local Roma organization Triana and administrator at FORUM, in-person interview, June 24, 2009.  
Peter Jorna, expert on Roma, Sinti, and travelers at FORUM, in-person interview, June 24, 2009. 

Web Sites

Education and training for Roma and Sinti in the Netherlands, conference and site visit, November 5-7, 2008, FORUM.
Factsheet Roma and Sinti in the Netherlands, November 2008, FORUM.


"Monitor Racism and the Extreme Right: Roma and Sinti," Peter Rodrigues and Maaike Matelski, Anne Frank Foundation report, 2004.
"Roma hebben geen talent voor integratie" and "Roma hebben lak aan school," Het Algemeen Dagblad, February 11, 2009. 


Nadine Rosenberg, Sinti, documentary Roma & Sinti in Beeld, directed by Bob Entrop, June 3, 2008. "Onderwijsdeelname van woonwagen- en zigeunerkinderen in de 20e eeuw: een trendstudie," Ria Timmermans, KPC group, 2002.
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HIA Program:

Netherlands Netherlands 2009


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