ALMIR TAHIRI, ONE OF THE RARE HIGHLY EDUCATED ROMA: THE VOICE FROM THE BACK BENCH

Large number of Roma families says to their children: “Why would you educate, you only need primary school. In any case you will end up cleaning streets.” Such an opinion is formed by the society as well, because Roma do not consider themselves as equal members of the community

 

Young Roma and Egyptians (RE) must, above all, think for themselves. We make mistakes, but so the state and therefore the cooperation is needed – Almir Tahiri, a political scientist, said in an interview for the Center for Investigative Journalism of Montenegro (CIN-CG).

Insisting on the education of a growing number of young people from the Roma and Egyptian populations, Tahiri emphasizes that their community must also renounce customs justified by tradition. These are, above all, early arranged and forced marriages and violence against women. “Although the violence against women is not part of the culture, customs and traditions of the Roma, women still experience it. I am not saying that there is no violence in other communities but it is very present in our community. We have to fight against it together. ” 

Tahiri is one of the few university-educated Roma in Montenegro. After graduating from the Faculty of Political Science in Podgorica, he extended his knowledge of international relations, diplomacy and English at the Central European University in Budapest. He is currently working as an assistant director and administrative manager in the international company Alucon group, which participates in the realization of the Portonovi project. Eager to acquire additional knowledge and skills, he enrolled in postgraduate studies in business management at the Faculty of Management in Herceg Novi.

“My mother, father and entire family were my biggest support and they literally forced me to finish the university, saying that it was crucial for my future. At the age of five, they sent me to preschool and thus tried to integrate me into the majority community. My childhood, just like the childhood of any other Roma, was filled with stigma and discrimination. But it was also filed with my constant proving that I really can and I know. I wanted to prove others wrong. I can’t say it was easy. Especially if you are the only member of the Roma community in the school. The harsh reality is that Roma children are sitting in the last benches – Tahiri recalls.

His problem, as he says, was the lack of the role model to look up to in his earliest childhood.

-My parents are uneducated and when I would come home, crying and saying I did not want to go to school, because other children mistreat me and call me names, I did not find understanding. Nobody instructed me that these things should not be considered as normal that we have to fight against discrimination and never accept it. My parents aren’t to blame because they are not emancipated. However, they did their best for me to follow the right path. In high school, stigma and discrimination were not so common, while I got on well with my colleagues in college. I made some nice friendships and I am still in contact with some of them, Tahiri said.

 

How do you assess the importance of education of Roma and Egyptian population on the path of their empowerment and fuller integration into society?

– That must be the imperative. In addition to primary, I would introduce compulsory secondary education by law, as some countries in the region have done. All Roma children should be given an opportunity to attend primary and secondary schools and they should also be encouraged to go to college.

In my opinion, the work of the state but also of the non-governmental sector is insufficient in that respect. They do not encourage young people enough to continue their education; they do not work with them nor do they motivate them. 

If currently almost a thousand children from the RE population attend primary schools, and only one in ten enrolls the high school while a little more than one percent enrolls the college, where do you identify the key problems?

-Most of our parents work in utility companies, or they collect secondary raw materials. I am not generalizing but large number of Roma families tell their children “Why would you educate, you only need primary school. In any case you will end up cleaning streets.” Such an opinion is formed by the society as well, because Roma do not consider themselves as equal members of the community. A year ago, I suggested a local hotel to hire my brother, who is an excellent, educated bartender. I also recommended a friend of mine for a job. He would agree to do ordinary physical jobs such as cleaning, maintaining hygiene, working in the kitchen, or to be a driver because he only has a primary school. The hotel manager refused, and later I found out that he employed the Filipinos. 

Based on your experience, what should be done to ensure Roma pupils’ attendance and attainment in schools and adequate employment later?

– We need to be given a chance. There is a possibility to reduce the number of unemployed Roma, to participate in the development of tourism. We have rich cultural heritage. In my house for example, four languages are spoken, two of which are English and German. There are hundreds of such families in Montenegro. Just imagine if you have Roma children who already speak several foreign languages, how easy it is to teach them another one, or to introduce them in professional training, to work as a waiter, a cook, a bartender in order for them to be employed in some luxury, tourist hotel. The guest of that hotel will get an impression of being in a civic, multicultural, multinational, multi-confessional community. Not to mention how our culinary specialties can further enrich the tourist offer. There is an economic benefit as well. If you hire Roma, they will not be a burden to the state. Moreover, they will contribute to it. We just need to think rationally, we don’t have to “integrate” into the society because someone is fond of us. 

This would additionally encourage the younger generations to further improve and get educated because they would see positive examples.

In your opinion, what is the role of the state in that integration, and what is the role of the non-governmental sector?

The state should provide opportunities to Roma young people, who are emancipated, educated and creative. We love Montenegro. We’re not going anywhere from here, like it or not. Montenegro is as much a state of Montenegrins, Serbs, Croats, Albanians and Bosnians as it is ours. In my opinion, the solution is to participate together in creating public policies that would contribute to our position. There are also international organizations, which should help. Isn’t it absurd that from 2010 to 2020, maybe fifteen Roma graduated from college? It is such a low number. But we cannot blame the state alone for that. The state provided me with a scholarship and a dormitory. Without that scholarship, I would have never graduated from college. The Roma NGO sector is also to be blamed, because they do not encourage young people enough to get an education. I am not sure whether it is a certain kind of jealousy of self-proclaimed leaders or a fear of competition that would be created after a certain time. Anyway, that is another topic. There are only a couple of non-governmental organizations, which really work, engage, advocate for the better future of RE population, but that is not the general attitude towards Roma. 

I also follow the work of the rest of the NGO sector. Those organizations receive certain funds from European and state donors to implement projects for Roma population. They receive money to hire Roma and no Roma is employed in those organizations. Even if they employ RE members, they work as interns, activists, assistants and they are not adequately paid.  

It is all just for the project visibility in media, to create an impression that RE members really work there. There are no cases of Roma members being a project coordinator, a project manager… All that money is given for the employment of Roma, and there is no Roma employed. 

There are growing demands for the political participation of Roma and Egyptians and the so-called affirmative action applied to other minorities. As a political scientist, how do you see the possibility of Roma and Egyptians appearing with their party in some upcoming elections?

– I think that we are politically discriminated against because one minority community is provided with a reduced census, and we are not, although there are slightly more of us than them. But that should not stop us from intending to be politically active and enter the political scene. 

It can only benefit us. I think one political party was founded a year ago. I don’t know why they didn’t go to the parliamentary elections. That’s a great pity. Personally, I would be happy to see a Roma political party in the future that will advocate for the progress of the community and enrichment of civil Montenegro. It would be great to have Roma employees in various institutions as well as to hear the voice of the Roma in the parliament. 

Nardi AHMETOVIĆ

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