And, let me add, not only for Hungary but for the whole region. Unemployment among the Gypsies living mostly in godforsaken villages in northeastern Hungary and in the southern parts of Baranya County is staggering. Perhaps one of the biggest problems is the lack of education. I wrote earlier that although the Kádár regime did a lot for the Roma population, especially in the sense of providing work for them, it did nothing for a good thirty years about raising the educational level. Then came the change of regime; the Gypsies lost their jobs in the huge, unprofitable state companies and governments continued to ignore Roma education.
In fact, with the introduction of school choice in the late eighties the situation of many Roma students deteriorated. Regional schools disappeared and parents could pick and choose a school of their liking. If in a village there was only one school where the children were predominantly Roma, the non-Gypsies immediately packed up their children and moved them to another school. Mind you, even before that there were ways to effect segregation within the same school. Separate classes were created for those who needed "special care" or were labeled "retarded." It was amazing to see how high a percentage of retarded children could be found among the Roma!
All in all, the situation is dreadful. Slowly it is sinking in that something must be done. The only problem is that no one has any idea what to do. When Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai visited the United States a couple of months ago, he asked the American government to help the Hungarians attack the problem. After all, Americans managed in about fifty years to make a real difference in the lives of their black citizens. I understand that American "experts" are going to Hungary. But before the experts get there I have a couple of ideas.
Hungary should not repeat the mistakes that Americans made in the 1960s where the state moves in, razes individual houses, and constructs housing complexes. A dreadful example of that kind of thinking occurred right here in New Haven, Connecticut, hailed at the time as ever so forward looking. After World War II blacks moved into neighborhoods evacuated by Italians, who moved "up" to communities outside of New Haven proper. The city fathers decided that some of the blacks would be better off in brand new apartment complexes, shoddily built, that in no time were dirty, neglected, crime-ridden, and dangerous.
It took local politicians years to wake up. In the last couple of decades they have been rehabilitating old neighborhoods with the help of the people who live in them. Because the residents put in quite a bit of work and because the houses are their own, they take good care of them. I marvel at some of these neighborhoods as I drive by. Freshly painted houses, flowers in the front yard, and stern signs reminding residents about the community enforcement against litter. It is a neighborhood project and is a success.
Well, something similarly noteworthy is going on in Monor, a town of 18,000 in Pest County. Monor has a Gypsy ghetto of 60 families. Altogether about 400 people. Five years ago the Hungarian Maltese Charity Service moved in. They worked with the people and hired a social worker whose full time job was the "reeducation" of the population. Most of them never even finished grade eight. Many of them were illiterate. Thus they paid special attention to education, and not just to the knowledge one can learn in schools. For example, in January when infectious hepatitis ran through the area, the Maltese Charity Service organized a vaccination program. Prior to their activities in Monor hardly any one showed up for vaccinations. This year 270 people came to be vaccinated. Then the Hungarian Maltese Charity Service managed to find some money for adult education for people who hadn't finished eight grades. Within three days more than seventy people showed up and apparently they are hard at work. The Charity Service found a teacher who tested the applicants and divided them into three groups. The first group consisted of people who could read and write reasonably well and even remembered a few things from school. Into the second group went those who more or less understood the texts but remembered absolutely nothing from material they allegedly learned in the lower grades. And finally, there were the ones who barely recognized the letters and the numbers.
Apparently, to everybody's surprise a feverish interest in learning took hold in the community. Women who were supposed to clean the common bathroom were madly writing homework crouching along the floor. One older woman complained that she had a problem with math. There were two sets of numbers and she didn't know what to do with them when her grandson said to her: "Mama, don't you see the period between the two numbers? It means that you have to multiply them!" Another woman left school after grade four because one sibling came after the other and she had to look after them. She is over fifty but apparently she is doing fabulously. She writes charming stories and little essays about unemployment with fewer and fewer spelling errors.
One of the groups just took a test based on the material of grade six. There were people who finished the work in twenty minutes, others were working furiously for forty-five minutes without much to show for their efforts. This week they will find out whether they moved up to grade seven!
Maybe, after all, there is hope.