Let’s stay with the topic of the Roma minority but this time from an entirely different, more upbeat perspective. Today I’m profiling a remarkable young man who comes from a village called Hencida in Hajdú-Bihar County, population 1,200, who will graduate this year from the famous Benedictine gymnasium in Pannonhalma. After graduation he will spend a year at a French university to perfect his knowledge of the language.
This is a remarkable achievement in and of itself for at least two reasons. One is that the percentage of Roma high school graduates is still very small, although the numbers have improved since 1990 when only 1.5% of Gypsies had a high school diploma. Today it is 3.4%. The other reason is that a fourteen-year-old boy, coming from unimaginable poverty, managed to adjust to and succeed in a world that had to be utterly alien to him. That is quite a feat. I have met young men and women who, encountering similar challenges, were unable to face the difficulties and turned their backs on the great opportunities that were being offered to them.
Yes, the difficulties. First of all, this particular gymnasium is a fairly tough one. It is an all-male boarding school where students can visit their parents only once a month. And there is not much time for such travel because Saturdays are still school days in Pannonhalma. Second, although children of modest means are eligible for financial assistance, most of the parents must pay about 590,000 forints ($2,000) a year for room and board. Third, in the last 15 years the gymnasium has accepted only four Roma students, of whom only two finished the four-year program of study in Pannonhalma. At the moment, the young man from Hencida, whose name is István Ötvös and whom everybody calls Pisti, is the sole representative of the Roma minority in the school.
I encountered Pisti’s story in Abcúg, an internet site specializing in the Hungarian countryside and paying a lot of attention to the problems of the Roma minority. From the story it becomes clear that the school administration is not itself engaged in trying to attract talented minority children but relies on the very few people who are active in assisting the Roma population. One of these people is Nóra L. Ritók, the director of the Igazgyöngy Alapítvány (Real Pearl Foundation). Pisti can thank Nóra Ritók, who got in touch with Father Titusz Hardi, the principal at Pannonhalma, for his good fortune.
According to the census, 7% of Hencida’s population is Roma, but I suspect that their number is much higher than this official figure would indicate because relatively few Hungarian Roma register themselves as such. The school Pisti went to was a segregated school. He was an excellent student there, but once he got to Pannonhalma the shortcomings of his education became apparent. He had serious academic difficulties in his first year and just barely passed math. By now, however, he has a solid B average.
Here is Pisti’s story. His parents divorced when he was eight. He and two of his younger siblings remained with his mother, who subsequently remarried and had another child. Three years later his mother died and his stepfather’s illiterate parents took the orphans in. Pisti, who is quite artistic, ended up attending the Real Pearl Foundation’s art school, where he impressed Nóra Ritók. As the reporter says, “with the help of the Foundation a new world opened” for the boy. He even had the opportunity to travel to Portugal for an artistic tour while he was still in elementary school.
This is how Pisti describes his life in Hencida. “I didn’t really like home. I yearned to get away. I wanted something new. I wanted to study. I didn’t want the fate of my former classmates. By now most of them are on public work and some of them already have children. A couple of my elementary school classmates are in prison. I didn’t want this kind of life. I wanted to learn and to live a better life than the rest of us at home.” His “parents” were at first reluctant to let him go “because, on the one hand, they were worried about me and, on the other, they didn’t really understand what an opportunity it was to attend such a good gymnasium and get a matriculation certificate. In fact, they still don’t understand.”
Pisti’s new classmates came from a world he knew nothing about. A large majority of the boys at Pannonhalma are the sons of doctors, lawyers, university professors, and high government officials. Yet his social adjustment was apparently quite swift. As he proudly says, after one or two weeks he was already feeling comfortable: “I knew how to behave, politely, like the others.” But this assimilation comes with a price. He no longer feels at home in Hencida. In fact, he rarely visits his “parents” and not just because the village is very far from Pannonhalma and the students don’t have both Saturdays and Sundays off. He often spends even holidays in the school or visits the family of one of his friends. “When I get home, I can’t find my place. I don’t know what to do. I became alienated from my family. I don’t know what to talk with them about.”
This alienation from his family is understandable. The opportunities at Pannonhalma are impressive, and during his stay there he has been immersed in a culture he cannot share with his family at home. On the other hand, he seems to have a close relationship with the principal of the school, who was keeping an eye on him even when he was living in Hencida. It is on the principal’s advice that he will study at a French university for a year.
Pisti gets free room and board. In addition, a foundation that works with disadvantaged Roma communities and individuals gives him 10,000 forints a month. He also has a private benefactor who sends him 20,000 forints every month. This is the money he can use to buy clothes. And, he says, he even manages to put some money aside for his move to Paris.
István Ötvös’s story is unfortunately all too rare in Hungary. It cannot be otherwise as long as the Roma community’s lot is so miserable and, for most, hopeless.