Pilsen school program introduces Roma kids to greater opportunities

Internationally recognized musicians, community leaders, teachers and politicians. This is the image of the Roma minority that a European Commission-funded program is bringing to children in the Pilsen region. The Roma are one of the largest minorities in the Czech Republic, and in many people's minds they are associated with negative Gypsy stereotypes of poverty and petty crime. The target audience: Roma pupils and their non-Roma classmates in elementary and technical schools.

Students at a technical school in the industrial sector of Pilsen clapped along under the direction of Pedro Aguilera, who was teaching them Flamenco rhythm. The Spanish Roma community leader was highlighting one of the key points of his presentation, that Flamenco is a traditional form of Roma song and dance that became integrated into Spanish culture, as did other aspects of Roma culture.

"Flamenco is a part of the Gypsy culture that is universal. The best dancers are Gypsy, from the great Carmena Maya to Joaquin Cortez. ... But you have to realize that it's so universal that it is not thought of as something that belongs to the Gypsies, but part of the Spanish community."

Mr. Aguilera is director of the Barcelona branch of the Gypsy General Secretariat Foundation, a community group that helps Roma in Spain.

He was in Pilsen Wednesday as part of "Czech Roma in a Europe of Peoples." The program's goal is to help Roma kids believe that they can broaden their horizons.

He told the children that to confront racism, you have to confront the ignorance behind it.

"Racism has no better ally than ignorance. If you don't get to know other cultures, if you don't know how one is raised in that community, you are more likely to think that they're all alike, and based on the action of one person, you judge the whole minority group."

Brady Clough, who is the director Center for Political Analysis, organized the program.

"The picture that Roma receive of themselves is not limited to a Roma stole from someone today, as written in the newspaper, or Roma are thieves or Roma abuse the social system."

"In this case, what we're trying to show is that in Spain they had the first Roma MEP, or member of the European Parliament. In France you have Roma who are teachers or professors. In Germany you have Roma who are lawyers and such, and our aim is to show young Roma that they too are not limited to the social situation that they might currently find themselves in."

Roma teacher Iveta Pape also had a lesson about music for the children. She told the children that as in the Roma's many home countries, there is a Roma national anthem, "Dzelem Dzelem." Then she broke into a different song, one sung by Czech Roma who were held in concentration camps during World War II.

As she sang, a look around the room revealed that most of the students were not Roma. Mr. Clough said what message the program had for them.

"For the non-Roma it's an opportunity to break a cycle of sort of traditional prejudice that may exist among these students' parents and previous generations because if you look at the institutionalized segregation that existed under the communist times, then there is not a positive view historically of Roma."