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Respite for the Romanies

In European folklore they are known as child-snatchers and thieves, as consorts of the devil and agents of anarchy. The president of Slovakia, Vladimir Meciar, has described them as "anti-social, mentally backward and socially unacceptable". While leaders of other European nations may not speak quite as plainly, the sentiment everywhere is the same: nobody likes Gypsies.

The recent arrival of 500 Czech and Slovak Romanies seeking asylum in this country - including 140 children, 50 of whom have been placed in Kent schools - has once again focused attention on the fear and loathing that Gypsies everywhere seem to arouse. Most Romanies in this country are from Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and most of the children will not have attended school before arriving here. Some will have been sent to special schools simply because they are Gypsies.

Once you get past the shrieks of "bogus" and the hate campaigns instigated by certain newspapers, what you find are people in extremis, confused and desperate to find a better life for themselves - and their children. And at the forefront of their journey towards that goal are teachers, who themselves can feel at a loss as to how to deal with non-English-speaking Gypsy children; we know so little about Romanies and their way of life.

The first myth to lay to rest is that the Romanies of central and eastern Europe are nomadic. The Russian empire put an end to traditional Roma lifestyle in the 1960s, and they have remained in fixed communities ever since. But they have not become part of the wider communities. Valdemar Kalinin, a Romany who works for traveller education services at the London boroughs of Camden and Hammersmith and Fulham, says: "Teachers must not mix up Roma people with the indigenous population of the countries they come from. They aren't Czechs or Slovaks - they're Gypsies, with their own language and culture who only learn Czech or Slovak if they go to school. Their first language is the Romany language, which has very marked regional variations.''

A common mistake schools make, with the best intentions, is to bring in Polish, Czech or other eastern European teachers or assistants to help Gypsy children. "Children will often say 'we're not Polish' and resist help from Poles or the other national groups because of difficult relations between the two groups. They prefer help from other Romanies, or from English teachers," says Valdemar.

Most of all, they respond to learning aids in Romany languages. Until recently, there were few if any. Now, an organisation called Stepping Stones has begun publishing resource materials for Romany children and running teacher training courses and seminars for teachers. Its sister organisation, the Romany Institute, provides information to the public on Romany culture and history.

While language is a major issue, it is not the only one. Schools could have a significant impact on educating the children of Gypsy asylum seeker by setting up clubs for parents to explain how to help their children. "Parents want to help but don't know how." says Valdemar.

Teachers should approach parents with the understanding that the majority will be illiterate in their own languages, and that the Romany culture has not had a long tradition of literacy. But, like so many other refugee groups from around the world, they have aspirations for their children.

Whether their aspirations will be realised is another matter. It's not easy to settle into a school when you don't know if your family's application for asylum will be granted. And education cannot seem much of a priority when your father and the other men you know are put into detention centres to prevent them from absconding. As Valdemar Kalinin says: "The most frustrating thing is when you see a Romany child making so many advances in his schoolwork, surpassing all expectation, and then suddenly he and his family are sent back.'' To what sort of a future, we can only guess.

Stepping Stones Advice Bureau, 61 Blenheim Crescent, London W11 2EG. Tel: 0171 727 2916Fax: 0171 229 4387

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