How to reach the hard to reach – Young Roma

A fascinating article by Theresa Harris, Advicenow Information Manager who attended a Young Roma Awareness Day in July 2009

At the Plenet Legal Empowerment Conference in February 2009 one of the questions that was considered was how can PLE reach the hard to reach, or indeed can PLE reach the hard to reach at all? Plenet staff recently attended a Young Roma Awareness Day organised by the Roma Support Group. Its work shows that it can be done, and suggests some techniques for doing it.

Although the Roma Support Group does not deal with legal issues explicitly the idea of rights is fundamental to its work and its clients struggle with civil and criminal law issues routinely. Much of its activity is done on a one to one basis but it works so well because it addresses the issues of the wider community. I was struck by the number of fronts on which the Roma Support Group operates:

  • Problem solving with individuals.
  • Addressing the needs of family or community – this not only makes it easier for the individual to resolve their problem (for example, if they have secure housing it is easier for them to attend training) it improves the project’s standing with the rest of the community so that they are supportive of their friends and relations using it.
  • Working with professionals and agencies that come into contact with Roma people to improve their understanding of Roma issues and the services they provide.
  • Working with the wider public to promote an understanding of Roma culture.

The other key factor which emerged was the emphasis placed on addressing the emotions and attitudes of Roma clients, in particular confidence, self-esteem and alienation.

Roma facts

All the evidence shows that Roma are one of the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in Europe after centuries of discrimination and rejection.

The EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency found that ‘racially motivated crime is an everyday experience’ for Roma people, with one in four Roma survey respondents reporting that they had been assaulted, threatened, or harassed four times on average in a 12 month period. But most incidences of violence or discrimination are not reported. A lack of confidence in law enforcement and justice structures was reported by 65-100% of the Roma respondents .

Roma people experience high levels of unemployment across Europe, reported at between 70 to 100 per cent . In its report ‘Economic and employment problems faced by Roma/Gypsies in Europe’, the Council of Europe identified general discrimination against Roma seeking employment and the loss of traditional Roma occupations. The report points out that a large proportion of Roma live in poverty and are heavily dependant on the welfare state. Yet many do not identify with mainstream institutions, are unaware of their social rights and do not know how to access social services. A report by the Department for Education and Skills shows that Gypsy and Traveller pupils in England are the group most at risk of failure in the education system. One survey found that only five per cent of Roma and Traveller children attend school in their final year.

Roma Support Group

Roma Support Group is a community organisation working with East European Roma refugees and migrants. It aims to offer a variety of services, mobilising the community through volunteering schemes and promoting an understanding of Roma culture in the UK. It works directly with over 850 families, the majority of whom are illiterate or semi-literate.

One of its projects is the young Roma mentoring project. The long-term aim of the three-year project was to transform the lives of some 100 Roma children and young people, (age 12- 25) by giving them encouragement and motivation so that they could take control of their future and enjoy their lives.

Case study – The problems of every day life

As can be imagined from the statistics above Roma people experience the problems of every day life in spades. Many were mentioned during the day but one example was particularly indicative of the pernicious nature of vulnerable people’s interconnected problems:

The case of a Roma child who was not attending school was referred to the Roma Support Group. Whilst trying to support the child back into education the mentor found that the child was one of seven. Their mother was single, unemployed and illiterate. She was accused of a crime that she hadn’t committed. All the authorities including social services connected with her and her children were convinced of her guilt, despite the fact that no detailed investigation had taken place. The Roma Support Group was asked to use the trust they had built up with the woman to convince her to hand herself into the police.

Instead they secured legal advice for the woman. Her solicitor pushed for evidence to be found. When photographs and finger prints were produced it was proved that the woman was not guilty. Whilst this was going on a child protection case had been launched with social services starting proceedings to take the children away. The family was evicted three times, on one occasion the landlord destroying all their documents (passports etc) and locking them out.

It was only after the Roma Support Group had managed to stop criminal and child protection proceedings against the mother and find the family reasonable and secure accommodation that they could start working with the child to improve their school attendance.

The Roma Support Group used this example to illustrate the importance of a holistic approach to a situation, the need to consider issues of the wider family or community, to build trust and to be seen to be on the side of the client. It also stressed the importance of robustly challenging ingrained stereotypes and what they considered to be institutional racism in the professionals and agencies that come into contact with their clients.

PLE themes

Roma Support Group does not generally use the language of PLE (see 60 second interview with Dragica Felja) and do not limit their activities to law related issues. Instead they talk about improving quality of life, advancing education, raising awareness of discrimination and overcoming prejudice and isolation: all very familiar PLE themes.

Young Roma Awareness Day

The purpose of the day was to celebrate the end of the Roma Support Group’s mentoring project with young people, to explore positive approaches to supporting young Roma, raise awareness of the impact of cultural issues and provide a forum for professionals to engage with young people.

‘Would you ask a person in a wheel chair to get to the third floor in the same amount of time as everybody else?’

This was the parting shot of Anthea Wormington, President of the National Association of Teachers of Travellers and Other Professionals (NATT+). In her presentation she gave an overview of Travellers Education Services’ work with Roma people. She made a number of points that have resonance for PLE activities trying to reach hard to reach groups:

  • It’s all about partnership work and building trust.
  • Professionals should empower the community: role models are a good way of doing this.
  • Commissioners of services and people at a senior level need educating on the issues, not just practitioners.

‘New thinking is what a baby does. We need to work with what we know and constantly refine our ignorance’

So said Professor Thomas Acton, professor of Romany Studies, University of Greenwich, during his whistle-stop historical overview of Roma migration. The professor talked about our ‘structural ignorance’ of Roma issues and our preference to forget our history of brutality to Roma people in order to renew and perpetuate the nation state. He stressed the importance of:

  • Coalition building and deconstructing stereotypes.
  • Culture, history and identity in forming the experiences of Roma and others’ interactions with them.
  • Our responsibility to tell clear stories.

This obviously has relevance for PLE projects with marginalised groups in particular, and puts responsibility on us as providers and policy makers to do more than just help people resolve problems and educate them to prevent future ones. But also to consider the historical and social context which has brought those problems about.

‘Mentoring works!’

This was the firm conclusion from Clare Eustace, the project evaluator of the Roma Mentoring Project. Her presentation gave an overview of the project and talked through some of the lessons learned.

Clare Eustace identified some of the critical success factors for the project, many of which it seems to me would also be the hallmark of successful PLE projects:

  • Taking a holistic approach and working in the context of the wider family or community.
  • Adopting an attitude of unconditional positive regard towards beneficiaries.
  • Availability of and access to specialist advice and structured support.
  • Added capacity through the use of volunteers.
  • Promotion of greater awareness and understanding of (Roma) culture, codes and practices.
  • Effective multi-agency collaboration.

‘Once we got leave to remain under article 8 of the Human Rights Act I started taking my education seriously’

This lovely example of the practical application and positive effects of dry legislation on an individual’s everyday life was expressed wryly by a young Roma man, Sylwester Huczko. Sylwester was chair of the youth panel, and is now employed by the Roma Support Group as an Education Support Worker. He took questions from the floor and directed them to the youth panel.

Young Roma Awareness Day Youth Panel The most interesting questions from a PLE point of view were from professionals who wanted advice on how they could provide better services for Roma young people. For example, the panel were asked questions such as how can we help young Roma people to believe in their future, how can we convey that they have choices, what could we have done to have kept you in school?

The panel were eloquent and engaging speakers who often gave simple and practical answers. I think that the key themes from a PLE perspective include:

  • Start from the place where the child/young person (or even community) is. Take an interest in that child, find out what they like or are good at. Understand what is happening at home. As one panel member pointed out a child with no shoes isn’t going to go to school. Understand the cultural context – lots of older Roma people will have had negative experiences of mainstream institutions and will not encourage their young people to integrate in a world that they see as hostile.
  • Inspire and encourage. Sylwester said that Roma young people need extra encouragement, and this is not surprising in the context of their experiences of discrimination and the complexity of their every day problems. The use of role models was advocated by the panel several times. Young people suggested that services use community members to help them reach and engage with other young Roma people, and to show that they have options.
  • Use other activities such as music, drama, art and sport to engage young people and raise their confidence. Obviously, culture is very important to Roma people, but this approach could work well with other groups on other projects.

No doubt this kind of work is slow, delicate and expensive. It needs to be carried out by a trusted organisation, ideally community led. But for communities that are so disadvantaged and marginalised even small successes can be huge achievements: the resolving of ‘knock-on’ problems have knock-on benefits.

More about Roma Support Group

Published: 24 July 2009

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