Language and education – Ukraine

Local Roma initiatives to tackle educational inequalities during the pandemic

Yulian Kondur and Nina Henke

Besides its devastating health impacts, COVID-19 has further marginalized whole communities and is exposing long-standing inequalities. This is especially evident in the area of education. Distance and online learning, adopted in response to the pandemic almost overnight, not only represent a challenge for students, teachers and families but also entail far-reaching social and economic consequences.

According to UNICEF, the crisis has created ‘the largest disruption of education systems in history’ worldwide, affecting nearly 1.6 billion learners.

However, the consequences of closing educational institutions to contain the virus have been especially severe for minority, indigenous and other disadvantaged communities. Not only have learning opportunities been reduced: the lack of social interaction that schools normally provide threatens to undermine any sense of belonging and contribute to their further isolation. While educational institutions should ideally equip learners with effective participation tools, as well as fostering mutual trust and breaking down stereotypes, the crisis has instead isolated minorities further.

One of the largest and most marginalized ethnic minorities in Europe is the Roma community. In Ukraine, as in many countries in Central and Eastern Europe, they face widespread problems, including discrimination, poverty, segregation and under-representation. The pandemic, as well as the official measures put in place to contain it, have hit Roma particularly hard in key areas such as housing and education. As early as April 2020, UNICEF Ukraine had called on the authorities to #LeaveNoOneBehind: even then, it was evident that many Roma children in the country would effectively be left without access to education, particularly given the lack of essential technologies such as personal computers available to them. More than a year later, has anything changed?

While access to education among Roma has long been a concern, a survey by the International Charitable Organization Roma Women’s Fund (Chiricli) of around 450 Roma respondents in six regions of the country highlighted that the basic right to education had been further violated in the wake of the pandemic. Besides a lack of technical equipment (including computers, tablets, phones and access to the internet), the pressures of inadequate housing, overcrowded conditions and stigmatization have made effective remote learning almost impossible for many Roma children, who were generally unprepared for this type of study to begin with. Indeed, the research found that this experience was the norm rather than the exception: only an estimated 8 per cent of those surveyed reported that their children (most of whom were enrolled in higher education) had not experienced any problems attending classes.

73 per cent of Roma people interviewed by Chiricli were not in favour of remote education, pointing in particular to the lack of the necessary technical equipment.

Looking beyond these immediate impacts to other knock-on effects, prolonged remote learning has not only affected those who pursue studies but also their family members. Even when a reliable internet connection and functioning technical equipment are available for students, parents need to assist and guide their children in order for them to perform well in class. These additional obligations often fall to Roma mothers, despite a high level of illiteracy among them and the common necessity to organize children of different age groups simultaneously. Under these circumstances, it does not come as a surprise that negative impressions and attitudes towards distance learning prevail. Amost three quarters (73 per cent) of Roma people interviewed by Chiricli were not in favour of remote education and pointed in particular to their lack of the necessary technical equipment. Troublingly, too, almost one in five (19 per cent) of the respondents reported that they had not received any information on this topic, bringing into question the commitment of Ukrainian social services and other state actors to engage properly with the Roma population. Consequently, Roma non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and mediators have played an important role as one of the main sources of information for communities.

It is readily apparent that distance-learning activities imposed by the state were not successfully implemented for Roma. In particular, the local authorities did not take into consideration how certain measures would disproportionately affect the community’s well-being. When restrictions on movement and other activities were designed, for example, state actors failed to include financial support for those who relied on daily earnings for their survival, and also underestimated the high level of adult illiteracy and the poor living conditions many communities faced. Moreover, until now no other forms of remote education have been developed nor implemented. More than a year on, the national education system still seems unprepared and unable to offer alternative forms of education for Roma children. Yet in response to these pressing challenges, a number of local Roma initiatives have helped bring about positive change. The Romani Early Years Network (REYN) in Ukraine, coordinated by the Roma charitable foundation Blaho, brings together experts in the field of education, social and medical services and parental care. In 2020, a pilot implementation of compensatory educational practices to improve children’s access to education during the pandemic was established in collaboration with local partners. While the state did not introduce any compensation strategies, despite forcing all educational institutions into lockdown from 12 March 2020, various NGOs were able to establish educational practices at local levels to meet the most immediate gaps – ranging from multimedia tools to street schools.

Among these, the NGO Chachimo in Kharkiv conducted digital literacy courses for Roma children and their parents. The training events covered basic computer and smartphone functions, working with distance-learning programmes, text editors, email, search engines and more. The NGO Planet of Kind People in the Odessa region organized a school camp focusing on health and educational programmes for Roma children, including outdoor activities, talks on coronavirus infection prevention, as well as mobile multimedia classes and in-person teaching with a tutor. Likewise, in-person pre-school education was successfully implemented in an interactive and playful way by the NGO Romani Rota in the Cherkasy region. With multicultural activities for young Roma children (4–10 years old) and their parents, the NGO Romano Than in the Kherson region was able to foster the functional development of students’ native language as well as knowledge of Ukrainian, the official state language. Offline classes included the development of writing skills, conversational learning and communication during extra-curricular lessons.

In addition, short-term projects have also demonstrated their ability to add significant value to local communities, as in the case of a 14-day project implemented by the NGO Roma of Ukraine in the Lviv region. Street schools for children living in temporary compact settlements focused on general developmental and educational activities. On top of that, public health information, support to parents and basic literacy development for both children and adults were introduced through a programme that took the living conditions and local needs of the community into account. The same NGO also successfully launched multimedia tools for bilingual education for young Roma children, including five cartoons in four Romani language dialects. The initiative celebrated its success with more than 4,000 views, support from Roma cultural centres in nine regions of Ukraine and official recognition by UNICEF Ukraine.

The NGO Blago, which has kept its centre in Uzhgorod open since June 2020, has also implemented initiatives to support the local Roma population and the youngest students among them. By providing parents with information, offering moral support, facilitating conferences with parents and teachers, and engaging in conversation, the organization has managed to provide guidance to communities through these difficult times. Moreover, the team continues to offer offline learning opportunities for early child development in compliance with all quarantine safety rules and regulations. Their pre-school initiative enables classes of 10 children for 2.5 hours, twice a day, during the week. Before each lesson, every child’s temperature is taken and hands are disinfected. Between the two sessions, the facility is aired out, wet-cleaned and all the desks are disinfected without exception. Additionally, the project also allows outdoor lessons in good weather conditions for up to 10–12 children per class.

Despite initial concerns with regard to children failing to comply with safety rules or experiencing stress due to the new learning conditions, teachers observed careful and responsive behaviour throughout the projects. Moreover, students were grateful for the possibility to learn with their peers and left the classes with smiles on their faces. As Eleanora Kulchar, national coordinator of the REYN-Ukraine network, explains: ‘This period has been especially difficult, and it is even more difficult that we do not know when the quarantine is going to end. However, we understand that our work has become more important in times of a permanent lockdown. Despite all the difficulties, our team does not give up, but finds solutions and continues to work.’

These examples of independent initiatives serve as an inspiration at this time of crisis. However, in order to provide equitable education and learning opportunities for all, the role of the government in funding and implementing meaningful and inclusive policies is more important than ever. While NGOs and community organizations are already delivering invaluable support, they cannot take on the burden of this responsibility indefinitely without adequate assistance from the state.

Special thanks to Halyna Yurchenko, project manager of the NGO Roma of Ukraine ‘TERNIPE’ and project assistant to REYN-Ukraine, who contributed significantly to this case study by sharing best practice examples from the respective regions.


Photo: Children exercising during an informal educational activity linked to the promotion of healthy lifestyles. Berezovka, Odesa region, Ukraine. Credit: Planet of Kind People.