Current situation regarding unemployment and education in segregated Roma communities in Bag, Hungary
The coronavirus and its measures have been affecting the public ever since the start of the pandemic in March. It is no surprise that it took the heaviest toll on people who live in poverty. Same story it is with segregated Roma communities in Bag in Hungary.
BAGázs Public Benefit Association is working in this place and firsthand knows how it is like there.
In interview with Fanni Tujner from BAGázs Public Benefit Association, we undercover the difficult situation Roma communities are facing in Bag in Hungary. Its many projects aim to help Roma people formulate a vision and take the steps necessary to achieve them. BAGázs was created by an enthusiastic, devoted group of young people who started working together in the summer of 2010 sharing the same belief that local and regular involvement is needed in order to ease social differences.
Fanni Agnes Tujner is the Head of Fundraising and Communication for BAGAZS Public Benefit Association. She studied economy and business and volunteered as a human right trainer in Amnesty International.
What is happening in the segregated Roma communities that you are working with in Bag in Hungaria during coronavirus?
They live in deep poverty, so their situation is particularly affected by the coronavirus and the economic consequences of that. Of course, their situation is very difficult, since all the economic and social marginalization and the underdeveloped infrastructure that they live with. Basically, the problem coronavirus has brought are not new, they just became bigger. Problems related to employment, education, health care and housing, they only become more severe because of this crisis.
What are the consequences of rising unemployment for the Roma?
The unemployment has increased among the Roma population, since they have less education and less work experience, they are the ones most affected. They will be the first ones to get laid off in situation like this. Unfortunately, it has happened in our communities as well. Either they were laid off or they can work less hours a week than before. Since many of them work in black economy, if they lose their jobs, they can’t apply to state benefits. And their working conditions are not good, and it increases the risk of spreading the virus.
How are the Roma communities you are working with coping with the changed form of education?
Another difficult thing that the pandemic has brought is the digital distance learning. That was a really big challenge for many Roma families. The children dropped out of school, many of the families don’t have digital tools, laptop or else. Usually the family has one smartphone that belongs to the father or the mater, so the children don’t have their own tools to continue their studies. So we at BAGász decided to provide them with necessary tools, internet access and we asked and trained many volunteers to help them with their studying. We try to help them, but it has been a very difficult situation for them and for us too. We are afraid of what is going to happen in the beginning of the september when the schools will open.
How did manage to continue to work with the Roma families, what did your association had to organize and provide?
As soon as we got to know that the schools are going to close and we will need digital tools, we asked for donations from our supporters for smartphones and all the necessary tools. We bought sim cards with internet so we can provide at least either phone or tablet for each family that we work with. At the same time, we hired and trained volunteers who each helped specifically one child. One child usually had two or three volunteers who studied with them every single day. Another important factor was to keep connection with the local teachers, who we had to work with closely. They sent us all the homework and what the students are supposed to learn and our colleagues tried to teach the children and their parents so they can continue with their studies. It required a lot of energy and management on part of my colleagues, to be able to reach as many children as possible.
How did the Roma children manage to continue their education online, how it was for them?
What was really difficult, is that of course, their living conditions are not like average family in Hungary. So several children live in the same room, sometimes even the parents, so the kids didn’t have a quiet place to study. It’s really difficult to teach someone online. Especially if there are many background noises, when all their siblings and smaller children are around. It required a lot of attention on the part of the children to be able to continue. This was probably the most difficult part of it. Unfortunately, the parents couldn’t really help with their studies, since they have very low educational level, often haven’t finished their primary school.
What do you think will be the impact of this difficult situation for them?
Psychologically, it wasn’t easy for them. I would say that the gap between the Roma children living in these impoverished areas and the average Hungarian children has grown. Not only in their grades and knowledge, but also in their social skills. I think this will leave a huge mark on their personality and behavior, and on all kinds of social and cognitive development. Not only they are not going to be able to go to school and sit in the classes, but also to be around other children from other places.
Did you have to deal with someone infected with coronavirus?
Thankfully, in communities we work at, there hasn’t been any sick person yet. The hygienical level is lower. In those communities they do have running water because we have projects specifically targeting this problem. But in many communities, they don’t have the running water so of course it’s difficult to keep the necessary cleanliness everyday. We didn’t provide any tools like soap or else, we didn’t see that this would be the main problem there. Since most of the families have some earning, they were able to buy basic products like soap. This is not what was missing in our communities.
If the virus somehow gets into these communities, it will spread really fast. As I mention, the living conditions, usually ten people live in the same household, are very dangerous. That’s why immediately we retreated our personal presence. We didn’t allow our volunteers from Budapest to go to the settlements because we didn’t want to risk transferring the virus in to these communities.
What about the projects and programs that you have, how the situation regarding coronavirus affected your work in it?
We tried to maintain our programs that we had before, but most of our volunteers and our efforts went into the digital education. Other than that, we have a mentoring program for adults which also continued online. Usually we used Facebook Messenger, because the adults at the settlements usually don’t have an e-mail address and they don’t use any other application. So using the Messenger and video calls was the easiest tool for this project. Our mentors provided help, we tried to give them everyday necessary information regarding the virus and what they can do and should not do. And we tried to support them and empower them in their parental skills and to pass all the important information from school regarding the lunch, homework and everything else. For the teachers from schools, it was very difficult for them to reach those families, so we tried to be a channel between schools and the families. So that they could really keep receiving the information.
How did your online activity look?
For example, we created a Facebook group where we provided news, basically. Answering all their questions related to coronavirus and hygienic situation, there were some fake news and we had to clarify them. We tried to be there for them as a source of information as well.
Regarding your projects, for example, The Sewing Club of Bagázs, where you teach women how to sew bags from leftover textiles, how do you operate it currently?
We had to suspend the program in March and now during the summer, since all the children are at home and the mothers have to take care of them and the households more than in the school year. So they aren’t available or motivated to work, they don’t have as much time. But we are planning to continue this project in September and we hope we can do so. And we are selling these bags that they are sewing in our charity shop in Budapest, and the charity shop had to close as well during the quarantine. Now we are open once a week, but we have fewer customers and less income than usual, so we are able to sell less bags than before.
Now in the summer we are functioning as normal, but of course taking care of the hygiene. Our volunteers are now organizing summer camps and free time activities for the children. And we provide extra skill development and tutoring sessions before the school starts again so we can close this gap that grew past months.
What are you planning to do in the future?
We already acquired more phones and tablets, so we have them ready. If we can be present and not under lockdown, we will continue with personal skills development and the tutoring projects and also incorporating some digital elements so the children will be more familiar with usage of these tools. But at the same time, we are preparing ourselves to the option that it’s coming back. Specifically about the sewing project, I really hope that it can work, even if the second wave is coming, since the women had already been trained on how to sow these bags that they might be able to continue them alone in their household. So, we don’t have to start the program again and the coordinator doesn’t have to go there as often, so I hope this program can continue.