Teachers rose to the challenge of helping spirited Roma kids shed a legacy of prejudice and embrace education, only to see Ottawa force them away
thestar.com | LOUISE BROWN GTA, Education, Schools
They came in waves; sudden, boisterous, defiant, exuberant waves of children from an almost mythic culture who filled the schools of Parkdale with a challenge beyond any they had faced before.
Who knew this wave of Roma students would reverse just four years later, emptying classrooms, laying off teachers and leaving a community heartsick at the loss?
It’s a rare case of Canadian schools working hard to embrace newcomers who couldn’t stay.
“This is a story of love and loss,” said Principal Susan Yun. Parkdale Public School, at the heart of the Roma influx, has seen its pool of 297 Roma students 18 months ago drop to 54 this fall, just as all the school’s outreach was starting to pay off with these reluctant young scholars and their parents.
“We invested so much in helping them succeed, and now the energy they brought is gone,” said Yun. “Our staff are grieving. It’s a huge loss to the whole community.”
When Hungarian Roma began fleeing to Canada in 2008 to escape discrimination — visas no longer were needed, so it was easier — even the newcomer-savvy schools of Toronto’s west end were overwhelmed. At 20 new students a week, some classes were soon half Roma, kids who needed help with more than just English and the 3 R’s.
Their troubled status back home — often discriminated against and streamed into dead-end, low-achieving classrooms — left many Roma children unfamiliar with the routines of regular school, like coming every day, arriving before lunch, not smoking on school property, not pinching girls’ bums, not leaving in the middle of a lesson to visit a friend down the hall.
“The Roma parents told me I was running a boot camp, and I can see why,” recalled Yun.
But some Roma parents also weren’t sure their children were safe at a Canadian school.
When a Grade 8 Roma girl went missing one day and Yun called the police, her parents showed up crying — “not because we called police, but because they saw we were actually worried about a Roma child,” said Yun. The girl was fine and soon turned up.
Some kids proved to be colourful characters who could capture a teacher’s heart with the proud news they had caught a fish after school in Lake Ontario and sold it for $20 — not your average show and tell.
“They’re so enthusiastic and direct, you’d see them biking down to the lake with their fishing poles,” said Parkdale teacher Karen Wurtz, whose favorite class last year was a group of Grade 4 Roma students keen to improve their reading.
For the past four years, the schools of Parkdale have wrapped Roma students and their parents in support — hiring Hungarian-speaking hall monitors, settlement workers and counsellors, creating extra English as a Second Language classes, putting extra teachers in regular classes, holding workshops in Hungarian to explain everything from report cards to exams, and working very, very hard to convince Roma parents they had their children’s best interest at heart — that it was safe to send them on overnight field trips and that they were welcome on after-school teams.
Some teachers even started to learn Hungarian.
Gradually, it began to work. Roma children started to learn the ropes and catch up academically. Parkdale librarian Jennifer Carey held a Grade 6 “book launch” where Roma students who couldn’t speak a word of English when they arrived now held a microphone and read their stories before an audience of school dignitaries and their own camera-wielding parents. Some got involved in teams and plays — a Grade 10 Roma girl was elected to Parkdale Collegiate’s student council — and began to take their place in their new school communities.
Until they started to vanish.
Over the past 18 months, especially since Canada tightened up its refugee rules last December, hundreds of Toronto’s Roma families have been deported or given up and gone back.
Often, the students disappear overnight — in class one day, gone the next, with their remaining Roma classmates left to explain the empty seat: “They go back to Hungary, Miss.”
Boxing coach Miranda Kamal ran a club last year at Parkdale Public School, in partnership with local police, that drew more than 20 Roma students who were crazy for boxing. No wonder; Hungarian boxer Laszlo Papp was a national hero, winning Olympic gold three times.
One boy named Ferenc was particularly keen and called her daily to ask, “Boxing today, Miss?”
But in May, when she was on holiday, she decided not to pick up his daily calls, until the vice-principal emailed to alert her that Ferenc’s family had to go back to Hungary. Immediately.
Mortified, Kamal, whose students call her MJ, listened to the plaintive voicemails she had missed; “Miss! I go back to Hungary!” “Miss, I at the airport!” “I gonna miss you MJ. I love you guys.”
By the time she called back, his phone had been disconnected. He was gone.
“It was heartbreaking; I took it pretty hard,” said Kamal, who says only a handful of those Roma students are still in her club; the rest have gone back to Hungary, either deported or having given up.
Ferenc reached out to her briefly from Hungary on Facebook, but his last message was June 22: “Hello, hello, hello — we have no phone. We have no computer. I so sad. I miss you guys.” Kamal tried mailing him boxing gloves, but he had moved to another city. She has not heard from him since.
Queen Victoria Public School has only about 40 of its once 145 Roma students; Parkdale Collegiate is down to about 50 from 150 two years ago. Across the Toronto District School Board, the number of Hungarian-speaking students, most of whom are believed to be Roma, jumped from about 400 in early 2009 to nearly 2,000 in 2011-2012, but by May 2013 had fallen to about 1,240.
“It’s a cruel process, Ottawa’s new immigration rules, and it leaves these families living on a precipice, not knowing if they’ll be allowed to stay,” said Parkdale school trustee Irene Atkinson.
It has also meant schools have to lay off teachers — Parkdale Collegiate lost some 12 teachers this year because of the drop in Roma students, said parent Simon Cotter, a member of the school council.
“It’s been a brutal loss to the school,” he said, “and had a crippling effect on staffing. Eighteen months ago it was, ‘How are we going to find enough classrooms?’ Now it’s ‘Can we field a team?’”
Principal Irene Chewchuk said the exodus of Roma has rocked the neighborhood.
“There’s an absence you notice, even out on the streets and in Tim Hortons; where are the Roma?” said Chewchuk, who recalled a Remembrance Day assembly that included a talk about how Roma were victims of the Holocaust, too, with simultaneous translation into Hungarian.
“When they saw themselves included as part of history, that’s when I knew we had turned the corner and gained their trust,” said Chewchuk.
But the Canadian government passed new regulations last year that designated Hungary a “safe country” and made it harder to claim refugee status. It bought billboards in one Hungarian citywarning against frivolous refugee claims, and former Immigration Minister Jason Kenney spoke about “bogus" refugee claimants,”and singled out claimants from Hungary.
Kenney’s comments may have turned public opinion against Roma, said Janet Dench, of the Canadian Council for Refugees, who noted that Canada still has accepted some 183 Hungarians as refugees this year, “which illustrates clearly how far from safe Hungary really is for some people.”
In a statement to the Star, a spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Canada said that, “while concerns have been reported regarding the situation of Roma” in parts of the European Union, countries like Hungary that have been designated as safe say they are “pursuing corrective measures to address these concerns.
“In Hungary, crimes against Roma have been investigated and prosecuted, and new laws have been passed to curb activities by extremist groups,” said department spokesperson Sonia Lesage. “The Hungarian government has also undertaken a variety of measures aimed at addressing social exclusion experienced by Roma and promoting their integration in Hungarian society.”
She noted that 98 per cent of refugee claimants from Hungary in 2011 applied to Canada, yet “the vast majority of claims from Hungary were either abandoned, withdrawn or unfounded.”
Parkdale’s school council has written Ottawa citing the latest European Court of Human Rights ruling in January 2013 against Hungary’s placement of Roma in special needs schools, but has had no reply, said parent John Doherty.
“It was really disappointing for the federal government to take students who have been denied an education (in Hungary) and are finally in the school system here, sent back to a system where the rights of those children are being denied.”
Returning Roma children have little to look forward to, warned Gina Csanyi-Robah, executive director of the Roma Community Centre. “They’re shuffled into schools for special needs, are told to sit at the back and when they’re deported they’re placed back in the same grade they were in when they left — even after four years.”
Rose, a Roma mother waiting for her case to be heard, said she’s depressed thinking that her two teenaged children may have to return to Hungary, where classmates used to taunt them.
“We are between the two worlds,” she said through an interpreter, “but my children are so happy here. My daughter has a role in the school play and my son says he can do better at school now that he doesn’t have to worry about discrimination from other kids. They have goals now; their future is bright — if we can stay.”
Said boxing coach Kamal: “You just hope they take with them some of what they learned and, maybe when they grow up, they’ll get in touch.
“But these are just young kids — no one asked them if they wanted to go.”
Clarification - October 7, 2013: This article was edited from a previous version that said Immigration Minister Jason Kenney spoke about 'bogus Roma Refugees.'