Struggling for Education

In 2017 ATD Fourth World invited people around the world to document real-life “Stories of Change” starting from situations of injustice and exclusion caused by extreme poverty. These stories, from activists, community leaders, and others, show that when people work together, real change can happen. For more about the “Stories of Change” blog, click here.

Cati, an educational assistant in one of the Alternative Education Clubs of the Policy Centre for Roma and Minorities in Bucharest, explains how her struggle for education for all is rooted in her own history.

By Cati Vatala (Romania)

Life is giving me strength. I grew up in a ghetto in Bucharest and had to take care of many kids, and of my people. Whenever I feel exhausted or at the end of my tether, I call to mind those past experiences because I want to bring change to my community.

I grew up in the Rahova ghetto, in Bucharest. It was a happy time for me because nobody cared if you were Romanian, Roma, or poor. We shared everything between us and even if we were poor, we didn’t feel the effects as much because we were helping each other.

When I was in 5th grade, I put pressure on my mother to come to my school. My mother didn’t want to, but I persuaded her and she came. Then, the other kids started to bully me and to laugh at me. They discriminated against us because my mother has dark skin. So from that moment on, I didn’t go to school any more.

Despite this, I liked school and enjoyed education. I tried to return to school, but I didn’t manage to. I became an adult, an uneducated adult.

When I left the Rahova ghetto, I saw the other parts of the town and their better living conditions. I moved from job to job. I was a cleaner, a seamstress, and a hygienist. Then I managed to work with cosmetics. But the pay wasn’t very good with these jobs because I didn’t have the certificates or diplomas to say that I was an educated individual.

From that moment on, and also in my present job, I always explain to the kids and the adults how important education is. It’s the key to a better life.

I was 26 years old when I managed to re-enroll myself in the education system. I finished another two classes, 7th and 8th grades. As a mother, I try to support my kids to the best of my ability. I am proud that my older boy has just graduated from high school. He wants to go to university. And my daughter has also finished 8th grade. Right now she is enrolled in high school. I have another child, a little one who has autism. It was very hard to find any help for him. Fortunately, I met an NGO that supports us. I learnt so much from my son while helping his development.

Then I met the Policy Centre for Roma and Minorities and they offered me work as an educational assistant in an Alternative Education Club. The club is a safe and creative space within the school, which is open six days a week, even during summer holidays. The children interact with educational assistants and volunteers who offer them support and mentoring. The educational assistants encourage parents to play a part in their children’s education and in the life of their neighbourhood. Their role is very important as they help to make bridges between teachers, children, and parents.

It is very important that the educational assistants come from the local community. Otherwise the Alternative Education Club will not bring about change for the school and the children. The children won’t come to this space if they don’t find people there they can trust.

It has been four years now since I became involved with the club. I like to help the kids as an educational assistant and I can do so because of the skills I have learnt with my younger son.

Sometimes it’s very hard to make others aware that they need to study. I talk a lot with the kids and I visit their parents too. Often, I feel frustrated because kids leave school or skip classes and go to work. Parents tell me, “Now he is a man. He has to go to work”. On the other hand, it’s very hard for the families as they are only given 84 lei (18 euros) per month for each child by the National Government program to buy the materials and clothes needed for school. It’s not enough.

To be effective, the role of the educational assistant has to be accepted by everybody. The teachers in the school and the neighbourhood parents have to recognize the assistants’ educational expertise and their bridge-building potential. These skills and know-how are not something achieved easily or quickly. They are rooted in a personal history and long experience.

My latest challenge is to get a diploma to prove to my community that I am a good educator. I managed to start high school when I was 36 years old. I also want to show my older son that studying for a diploma is a good thing, however old you are. Somehow studying has helped me to realize that I am worth something as an individual.

Things can change for the better when you improve your education, but you have to put a lot of effort and a lot of hard work into it.

Read the e-book Stories of Change from Southeast Europe, where this story was first published. This e-book is also available in BulgarianHungarianRomanian and French.