In Barcelona, a group of Roma people is fighting against poor representation in universities

16/05/2022

Journalist:

Elena Ledda

Photographer:

Gianluca Battista

Although Spain is home to a significant number of Roma people, only a handful make it to higher education. As in many other European countries, numerous obstacles prevent these individuals from having greater representation in universities. Discrimination is one of the biggest challenges they face. To counter this trend, the Spanish Roma university network CampusRom is providing support to Roma people who wish to study.

“When I was a teenager I was one of the best students in my class; I loved maths and yet my plan was to become a hairdresser, because in the talks the school gave about baccalaureate there were no Roma people represented, and nobody around me had ever finished high school. So I didn’t think that was something for me.” Seated around the gray rectangular kitchen table, lit by the warm light of an April evening in her hometown Gavà (Barcelona), Andrea Fernández – a 21-year-old with long, dark, straight hair, tied in a ponytail and wearing golden earrings – talks fast as she recalls those times. “Then one day I turned the TV on and I saw a beautiful gitana girl explaining she was studying primary education. I shared a glance with my mum, who was close by, and said “why not?” 

Andrea is one of the about eleven million Roma people living in Europe, the continent’s biggest minority population. Spain has the third biggest community, with approximately 700,000 Roma people (almost 2% of its population). Up to 86% of Roma families (known pejoratively as ‘gypsies’ in English, and more acceptingly as gitano, or gitana, in Spanish), live below the poverty line, according to the Secretariado Gitano foundation, the most important organization for the promotion of the Roma community in Spain. The unemployment rate of this group is more than triple that of the overall Spanish population. The situation is even more alarming in the case of women, who face a 60% unemployment rate compared to 16% among the rest of women. 

As she serves a coffee, Ana María, an energetic 43-year-old woman with dark curls, proudly explains that her daughter Andrea is the only one of her totally gitano native neighborhood of approximately five hundred people, La Masía, to have finished high school and got to university. Ana Mari, as she is better known, worked hard to make sure this could happen: “I’ve always wanted for my children what I would have wanted for myself; to actively participate in their education.” Andrea confirms that her mother’s presence helped her get through school, along with her own passion for studying and her non-typical gitano features (her father is payo, that is non-gitano, and she has light skin). Nevertheless, Andrea has experienced discrimination on accout of her origins. She recalls how, over the years, teachers have suggested on multiple occasions that she be moved to special classes, exclusively for gitano or migrant students, where she knew the level of the activities taught is lower, “only because I came from La Masía.” She also recalls how she and her cousins were never selected for group work and how, later on, when it became clear to all that she was a good student, she was selected, but her cousins were not. By the time she reached junior high, she was the only cousin left in school.

  • Andrea, her mother Ana María and her brother Yuri stand on their terrace at home © Gianluca Battista

  • Andrea Fernández and her mother Ana María at their house in Gavà. © Gianluca Battista

  • Andrea often studies with her mother, Ana María. © Gianluca Battista

Although 99% of Roma children attend school in Spain (one of the highest rates in the European Union), only around 15% graduate, compared to about 74% of the overall population. Worse still, just 3% or so finish university, whereas the figure for the overall population is around 35%. Data regarding Roma people in Spain is approximate because the census cannot legally collect data on ethnicity. Nevertheless, these figures give an idea of the extent of the problem. 

“Normally this is explained through our culture, that is that gitano people don’t want to study,” says Fernando Macías, associate professor at the Faculty of Education at the University of Barcelona. “What no one says is, long before a gitano family removes a child from school, the educational system has already thrown him or her away by constant segregation: we are put in separate schools or in special classes where we receive different activities than the rest; the teachers’ low expectations toward gitano students result in adapted curricula, which we know lead to failure.”

Ensuring greater access

Fernando Macías, now 37, is an eloquent man, who enjoys talking about his mission. He was raised in the working-class area of Santa Coloma, in the outskirts of Barcelona, by a mother of four, who worked as a house cleaner, and a father who was employed as a builder. He is now a researcher at the Roma Studies Center of the Community of Research on Excellence for All (CREA) at the University of Barcelona, and also a team member of the Catalan government’s Integrated Plan for the Roma. This program, created in 2005, aims at improving education, work, health and housing conditions of the Roma people in Catalonia, as well as fighting against stereotypes and prejudices. 

In 2016 Fernando was already working as a professor, helping Roma students through the Plan. He was worried that, despite the initiative, very few people were making it to university. During a period as a visiting scholar at the University of Wisconsin Madison in the United States, he got to know the members of a project called The Posse foundation which provided a support network to help African Americans and other minorities remain in education. This was the inspiration he had been searching for. 

Back in Barcelona, Fernando, together with a small group of his Roma students from the Plan, created CampusRom, the first Spanish Roma university network. “It was pretty easy to set it up because we, the gitano people, tend to be organized as a posse,” he recalls. 

It is a windy evening outside the headquarters of CampusRom. Inside, Fernando is sitting in front of a white table on which various branded goodies and gadgets have been placed. Among them are bracelets – one of which he proudly wears on his right wrist – together with leaflets explaining various projects. An English zoom class is taking place on a big screen, to help a group of ten people prepare a vocational education and training exam. The teacher is going over the use of “have got.”

  • Fernando Macías, Barcelona University professor and founder of CampusRom, talking with a student. © Gianluca Battista

  • Fernando Macías teaches a Didactics class at the University of Barcelona. © Gianluca Battista

  • Fernando Macías © Gianluca Battista

Jumping into the unknown

When Andrea decided to try the university entrance exam, to study mathematics, her mother stood beside her. Nevertheless Ana Mari admits she felt completely lost: “I had no idea what that was about and I had no one to ask. I was really worried about her alone in the big city of Barcelona, where we only ever go to sort our papers out.” Ana Mari and Andrea often laugh and share complicit glances as they recall those times. “Then a cousin of mine who works as a cultural mediator in the neighborhood told me that the Integrated Plan for the Roma could help Andrea prepare for the entrance exam and CampusRom for reinforcement classes and guidance, and that the right person to talk to for both was Fernando.” After the first telephone meeting with him, both women breathed a sigh of relief. As Ana Mari recalls: “He told me ‘cousin’ (a term of mutual recognition among gitano peers), ‘the kid will enter university and we will help you in the process,’ and that gave me the peace of mind I needed to say ‘we are not alone’.”

CampusRom is now a non-profit association of about one hundred volunteers attending to roughly the same number of people. The organization provides individuals with help, free of charge, ranging from advice on the enrolment process to reinforcement classes, both at the access-stage and while attending post secondary studies and vocational training. Fernando is in charge of the Spanish classes (Castellano) as well as institutional relations. 

People who contact CampusRom either receive support directly from some of the volunteers or, in the event that there is no one with the requisite expertise, the organization (which receives both public and private funding), pays an external expert. Although there is no explicit obligation to return the help received, in most cases this ends up happening either when attendees start giving classes themselves or by participating in the association’s events.

  • The CampusRom office in Barcelona. © Gianluca Battista

  • Fernando Macías demonstrates how remote classes work at CampusRom. The organisation has adapted its classes during the pandemic according to everyone's needs. © Gianluca Battista

  • The CampusRom office in Barcelona. © Gianluca Battista

The experience of CampusRom has already been replicated in other Spanish regions such as in Aragón, where a delegation was created in 2018. That was the same year that Andrea began studying mathematics. Despite failing her university entrance exam by just a few points, she was able to enroll thanks to an “affirmative action” measure by the Catalan government. This action ensures one reserved seat for gitano students in each public university degree taught in the region. 

At the beginning I felt like an ant, like I was going to disappear. I also felt very stigmatized for having got there with support [i.e.the affirmative action]. I was also afraid about relating with others, that they might find out I was gitana, until little by little I started making friends,” Andrea recalls.

During this period she started receiving reinforcement classes in programming from CampusRom. While she ended up passing her exam, she ultimately realized that pursuing mathematics was not her life dream after all and quickly switched to psychology, where she is currently completing her third year. She didn’t require assistance from CampusRom for the new degree, so she started giving maths classes herself. 

If Andrea is the first in her neighborhood to study at university, her mother Ana Mari is the first senior that has tried to access higher education. She dropped out of school when she was 15 and worked as a house cleaner until she saw the help her daughter Andrea – as well as her 17-year-old son Yuri – had received thanks to the governmental Plan and CampusRom. As a result, she decided she would resume studying too. She’s hard at work on a warm afternoon, in the home study space she shares with Andrea. In the small room, two identical black swivel chairs face a wall decorated with pictures, drawings and notes. In a corner, a poster displays the history of the International Roma Day which is held every year on 8 April. On the other side of the screen, connected via zoom, a CampusRom volunteer teacher is helping Ana Mari prepare for the Cold War section of the history component of the entrance exam. She hopes this will allow her to enroll in university and one day become the pedagogue she dreams of being. 

When asked what CampusRom means to her, Andrea replies without hesitation: “The family support we don’t otherwise have: being able to call someone and say ‘look, I have an exam tomorrow, or I’m applying to a scholarship and I have no clue, can you help me?’ and being sure they’ll be there for you.” The figures the organization provides, based on its own participants’ surveys, suggest the system is working: in 2021 out of the about fifty enrolled university students, 75% passed their courses with more than 80% of the credits completed. 

Nevertheless the initiative is far from perfect: its human and financial resources are limited and, as Fernando stresses, it is unable to provide adequate support to all who request help. As university entrance exams vary from one region to the other, and CampusRom only has expertise in Catalonia and Aragón, they are not able to help students from other regions. “We would need more expertise or to have more people from other regions in order to do better counseling,” explains Fernando.

  • Ana María studying in her home in Gavà. She's preparing for the Cold War section of the history component of the university entrance exam. © Gianluca Battista

  • Ana María and Andrea study in their work space at home. © Gianluca Battista

  • © Gianluca Battista

Gender-discrimination and women’s resilience

The air smells of orange blossom and horse excrement, at the Hípica Herederos de Santiago ranch, in the outskirts of Cambrils, Tarragona. A horse moves its hooves up and down in what seems like a dance, inspired by the flamenco melody playing. This is a typical scene in the gitano community which has historically been dedicated to horse trading. A “dance” is exactly how the owners describe it. Loli Santiago, co-president of CampusRom, claps her hands to the rhythm of the music. She is a tiny, curly haired woman, and at 46-years-old she’s already a grandmother to a seven-month-old child. She is the only daughter among five children of an equestrian trader who have turned their activity to horse dressage.

“Since I was a child I’ve always desired to help other gitano people get an education, and this is what I’m doing now,” Loli explains. Although she’d always wanted to study herself, it wasn’t until she turned 36 that she was finally able to do so. “You could say I’m one of the first actions of CampusRom,” she remarks, smiling. Before discovering the organization, Loli had already tried to resume the studies she had quit when she was 14 by enrolling in a social integration bachelor’s degree. Nevertheless, she explains, she felt demotivated and extremely uncomfortable on account of the anti-gitano comments she heard in class, sometimes even from teachers, generalizing her community as being thieves or not wanting to work. 

It was then that Loli met Fernando, who in 2016 pushed her to pursue and enroll in university. After that, she benefited from CampusRom, which was born that same year, and which provided her with counseling throughout her studies. Having graduated with a social work degree, Loli is today the only person among her 80 person extended family with a university education. Alongside CampusRom’s co-president, she also coordinates the English classes, and as a job she does community work, providing advice and mediation between gitano students, their families and several primary and secondary schools in her district. Loli considers CampusRom an important pillar in her life: “It’s like a dream come true.”

  • The Hípica of Loli's family lies in the outskirts of Cambrils, Tarragona, about 100 kilometres outside of Barcelona. © Gianluca Battista

  • Loli's family of horse traders has turned its activity to horse dressage, to which the family’s ranch Hípica Herederos de Santiago (Santiago Heirs’ Horse Center) is primarily dedicated. © Gianluca Battista

  • At just 46, Loli Santiago is co-president of CampusRom and already grandmother to a seven month old child. © Gianluca Battista

  • © Gianluca Battista

  • © Gianluca Battista

Women make up just one third of participants in CampusRom. “From my experience it is three times more difficult for women to combine study, work, home and childcare and I think maybe that’s why it is more difficult for us to participate in spaces like CampusRom,” says Ana Mari. That is also why Loli created a women-only gender equality group. All 25 women participating in CampusRom are part of this non-mixed group, where they can share doubts and challenges they are facing so that their needs can then be taken into account in CampusRom actions. The organisation has put a plan in place that outlines measures to ensure equal treatment and opportunities for women and men internally.

“Until recently it was rare for a group of Roma women to get together to talk about university studies, and it is very empowering,” says Loli, seated at the very same table in her family living room where she prepared for all of her exams, surrounded by an impressive collection of racing trophies and paintings of horses. 

“We have a word for Roma sisterhood : 'phenjalipe', which we have been practicing for centuries in order to survive”

“In the case of women, in addition to the poverty and anti-gitanism faced by all Roma people, there is also the issue of gender discrimination both outside and within the community, with the result we can easily end up believing the only sphere for us is the domestic one,” notes María del Carmen Filigrana, Roma psychologist and coordinator of Fakali, Federation of Roma Women’s associations.

In 2001, María del Carmen Filigrana also co-founded the Amuradi association as part of the Fakali federation. It is the first women only Roma university students’ association in Spain. She highlights: “Gitano people have the valuable habit of living in a more communitarian way and as women we are used to mixing with our cousins, sisters, aunts […] that gives us a feeling of collectivity that empowers us and makes us stronger; we even have a word for it, phenjalipe, the Roma sisterhood, which we have been practicing for centuries in order to survive. These university movements are also based on it, and have much to do with the strength of doing things together and for our people.”

  • A group of Roma people celebrate International Roma Day on 8 April at Besós River in Barcelona. They throw flowers into the river as a symbol of freedom, border-crossing, and the Earth as a shared place for all. They then leave floating lights on the water to remember their ancestors. © Gianluca Battista

  • © Gianluca Battista

  • © Gianluca Battista

  • © Gianluca Battista

Despite the challenges, the general trend which sees more Spanish women than men enrolling in university is likely to be true for Roma women too in the future, at least according to research carried out by projects like ‘Roma in the Spanish universities, challenges and actions to overcome them’ (UNIROMA, Spanish Ministry of Economy). Ainhoa Flecha, the project’s main researcher, highlights the relevance of initiatives like CampusRom: “Sharing experiences, doubts and feelings in a network that can support, encourage and orient you is essential, especially for students with fewer mentors and models. We identified this frequently in our study”. 

For people like Andrea, training and knowledge have an added symbolic value: “Having studied I feel more gitana than before, because now if people tell me ‘you aren’t good enough, this isn’t for you,’ I can refute them,” she says. “For the women who are making it, studying and having a professional career is seen as a form of social justice for their whole family and community,” according to María del Carmen Filigrana. 

 

“I would love to go and give a talk in schools and find gitano teachers there one day”

Ensuring gitano students have equal opportunities in Spain and elsewhere is a challenge all the sources consulted insist requires a range of elements: from increasing resources and training for all education-related institutions to the inclusion of gitano people and their organizations in policy elaboration and implementation. Among the necessary changes, Fernando highlights the need for specific legislation on anti-gitanism. A comprehensive law on equal treatment and non-discrimination is being debated by Spain’s Lower House. This law would, for the first time, include racial discrimination towards Roma people in the Spanish Penal Code as a specific form of hate crime and as an aggravating circumstance for any criminal offence.

  • Andrea poses at the university where she is attending her third year of Psychology © Gianluca Battista

The April evening in Gavà is coming to an end. Sitting back, shoulder-to-shoulder Andrea and her mother Ana Mari explain these are very busy times for them. Since they decided to study, they’ve both found interesting job opportunities and they’re juggling to balance this newfound employment with further education: Andrea is now working as a social services technician within the Catalan governmental Integrated Plan for the Roma and Ana Mari as a community worker (like Loli), in a high school in Sant Cosme, one of the most gitano segregated neighborhoods in the Barcelona area. They both love their jobs and have clear dreams about their future. Andrea hopes to do a doctorate in educational psychology with a view to helping minority groups pursue academic success: “I would love to go and give a talk in schools and find gitano teachers there one day. There are many of us in Spain, why can’t we be present there too?”

Connecting the dots

ERGO Network:

The European Roma Grassroots Organisations Network brings together more than 30 Roma and pro-Roma organisations from Europe

In Europe, minimum income schemes often leave Roma people aside

The umbrella organisation ERGO Network advocates for better policies and policy implementation at both national and European level regarding the inclusion of the Roma in society and the fight against anti-gypsyism.

In November 2021, they published a report on Roma access to adequate minimum income schemes in five European countries, to feed the EU’s actions under its European Pillar of Social Rights and the EU Roma Strategic Framework.

ereb: why are you working on this specific issue?

80% of Roma in Europe experience poverty, while 41% report experiencing anti-gypsyism on a daily basis. Against this backdrop, if you can’t get employment, you are forced to fall back on social security. But there are many barriers for the Roma to access social security and minimum income.

What were the findings?

First of all, the amounts of minimum income benefits are often inadequate and disconnected from purchasing power, inflation, reference budgets, and the national poverty line, so they don’t enable recipients to live with dignity. Second, minimum income schemes have very strict eligibility criteria. If you receive any kind of income, even a ridiculously small amount, you cannot apply. Thirdly, the procedures are complex, with many documents to file. That is a significant problem for the Roma, who often have short term housing contracts. Sometimes they don’t even have proof of residence, or an ID card. It’s therefore unsurprising that these procedures discourage a lot of people. On top of this there is the constant anti-gypsyism inside administrations, combined with the stigmatisation of benefits claimants. We documented a case in Czech Republic where a Roma person went to file an application to the administration, and they refused to proceed with it. This individual made other unsuccessful attempts before a non-Roma activist accompanied them, and they were finally accepted.

Based on this evidence, what is the next step for you to influence policies regarding this issue?

Our members will be using this research to influence national policies. Meanwhile, at the European level, the Council will publish a recommendation on minimum income at the end of this year. We contributed to the call for evidence from the European Commission, and now we’ll work to make sure the recommendation text points to specific groups such as Roma people. In the long term, we would like to see an EU framework directive on minimum income.

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