European Affairs

Gypsies in Hungary Look to Harlem for Tips on “Better Life” and “Social Integration”     Print
By Garret Martin

Roma, a neighborhood in the Hungarian capital of Budapest, may seem a long way from New York’s Harlem, but just as African-Americans in Harlem experienced the effects of discrimination and poverty, “the Roma”– a branch of the Romani people (also known as gypsies) -- who are concentrated in the Budapest area known as Roma suffer from similar long-standing social stigma, discrimination and injustices.

Now, despite the distance and disparities between Roma and Harlem, the two places are hoping to share a better future as Hungary tries to import some elements of social integration pioneered in Harlem and adapt them to the Roma minority in Budapest. In this latest attempt to tackle the longstanding problem of Roma exclusion right in the nation’s capital, the Hungarian government decided to take a page from the U.S. playbook that has worked in Harlem. The move is the latest in several different attempts by governments in eastern and central Europe to respond to criticism about the fate of the Roma and other ethnic minorities in their countries. In its new approach, the Hungarian government was able to draw on the contacts and experience of George Soros’ Open Society Institute and of the Hungarian ambassador in the U.S., Béla Szombati, in identifying the framework used by the Harlem Children’s Zone [HCZ] as a useful model to emulate. Over the past decade, the HCZ, led by Geoffrey Canada, an African-American community organizer in Harlem, has dramatically transformed the social conditions and outlook across 100 city blocks in central Harlem thanks to its special approach involving a comprehensive educational system supporting young people “from cradle to college.” With the help of the US government, Hungary is hoping that it will be able to replicate the HCZ’s success by applying the program as its own aptly-named Rising Kids Zone designed to empower Roma youngsters through a powerful offering of educational opportunities and closely supported follow-up.

The Roma, estimated unofficially to amount to at least seven percent of the Hungarian population, face a precarious situation marked by significant political discrimination. The economic crisis in recent years has created fertile ground for the rise of the far-right party Jobbik, which aggressively sought to scapegoat the Roma for the woes besetting Hungary. The party’s harsh criticism made a noticeable impact: in parliamentary elections in April, Jobbik won 17% of the votes and 42 seats in the 190 seat parliament. The governing majority is the center-right Fidesz party led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

These tensions around the Roma population are not confined to Hungary. Problems of unemployment, unrest tied in with the stereotype (and evidence) of gypsies' involvement in theft and other crime, and even violence have surfaced throughout much of central and eastern Europe as these new democracies grapple with minority issues. Even in western Europe, Italy, for example, has seen clashes boil up in the last two years amid brazen acts of Italian hostility toward gypsies. An openly anti-Roma official discourse enflamed by Rome's right-wing mayor, Gianni Alemanno, has fueled the ethnic escalation to the point where it has become a national flashpoint. Even in France, which has a much smaller gypsy population than neighboring Italy, there has recently been an upsurge in clashes involving Roma and other citizens and the authorities. Ignited by a fatal police shooting of a young gypsy man in July, the turmoil escalated to scattered but widespread violence this summer in several towns in southern France, including one where gypsy protesters ransacked a mayor's office. The eruption of tensions caused President Nicolas Sarkozy to convene a special government meeting on the issue in the context of his avowed “war” on urban violence. Human rights organizations have complained about his controversial comments about the Roma people, but the nation-wide fever demonstrates how deeply neuralgic this issue is across the continent. It is part of the broader questions about the assimilation of minorities in all EU countries, as often analyzed by European Affairs.

Besides having to struggle with these widespread prejudices, the Roma in Hungary suffer from an overall economic and social situation, which is among the most disadvantaged in the country. Unemployment is high (often estimated between 50 and 80 percent), birth rates are high (and handicap parents), and average life expectancy is significantly lower than the national average.

The Roma’s marginalization is particularly striking in education. According to a study in 2006 by George Soros’ Open Society Institute, in Hungary, only 61% of Roma children complete primary education, 13% complete secondary education, and 0.5% complete college. Moreover, Roma children suffer from de facto educational segregation and tend to wind up in special education classes and low-quality vocational schools.

It is his “catch-22” situation, in which lack of education leads to a cycle of poverty and discrimination, that Hungarian authorities realized they needed an innovative approach. Previous Hungarian governments had spent a lot of money trying to remedy the situation; but for the most part, according to Ambassador Szombati, their efforts were neither consistent, comprehensive, nor sustained enough. This realization resulted in the Rising Kids Zone project, which may still hold the key.

Indeed, after being appointed in September 2009, Ambassador Szombati quickly became aware of the HCZ and its innovative approach to education for under-privileged communities. As someone with a long-term interest in the plight of the Roma, he believed that the principles of the HCZ could and should be adopted by Hungary.

After gaining the support of his government and its Ministry of Social Affairs, Szombati went about persuading a host of key actors to support this ambitious project, including: Geoffrey Canada and his team, the US government, Hungarian education experts led by Professor Julia Szalai, and influential philanthropist (and Hungarian-born) George Soros, who has been strongly supportive. A recent American-Hungarian conference in Washington (sponsored by the George Soros’ Open Society Institute) brought all these actors together to discuss the road ahead.

While still in its pilot phase, the Rising Kids Zone has already tackled a number of the important issues that the Roma community faces. Now, exchanges are planned between American and Hungarian leaders, policy-makers, and representatives from local institutions. In September, training is scheduled to start for the local professionals and service providers to prepare for the adaptation of the HCZ program into the Rising Kids Zone.

This program is an example of the trans-Atlantic exchange of "best practices" of the sort that the European Institute works to promote across a broad spectrum of issues -- in this case by reporting on an initiative in which the EI is not involved.

By the end of the year, those in charge of the program hope to select a pilot site where the new Rising Kids Zone can be implemented. If the pilot site delivers results, the project could then be extended to cover a wider net, following the incremental approach that worked so well for the HCZ. Like Harlem, dramatically changing the fate of the Roma and their educational opportunities will take decades, not years. Success will require the active and continued support of both the Hungarian government and local governments, along with community backing within the Roma population. Above all, Ambassador Szombati emphasizes that, “[Hungarians must understand] that this project is not just about the Roma, it is about all of us”.

Rising Kids Zone, the ambitious project to help the Roma, will face a number of obstacles, but it will also certainly benefit from the strong support of American officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. From the US standpoint, this cooperation can be easily understood as an integral part of a hands-on, grassroots outreach diplomacy that strives to build ties with minorities in Western countries. If Hungary is able to reproduce the success that the HCZ has had in Harlem over the past decade, the Roma may become a more assimilated and well-received part of Hungarian society.

Garret Martin is editor-at-large at European Affairs.