Flinn Scholars

On the Road 2010: Day Three

May 29, 2010

By Flinn Foundation


Each summer the Flinn Scholars Program takes an entire class of Scholars to Budapest, Hungary, and neighboring Romania for a three-week seminar on the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe. Here’s a day-by-day account.

Dawn Cole (’09)

This morning began as the previous few had, with breakfast at the Radio Inn. It promised to be just a little more interesting, however, since it was a “challenge” day, meaning we would have to find our own way around the city. Although everyone claimed to know the way, we soon began to question whether we were going the right direction. We turned our heads in circles, occasionally glancing at the maps, but accomplishing little more than looking like confused chickens.

A man passing by on the street noticed this tourist SOS and asked us what we were looking for. So taken by surprise, and admittedly loopy from a lack of sleep, not a single one of us managed to utter an answer. “Do you speak English?”  he asked, a question we seem to be getting a lot lately. We quickly fumbled with our maps and schedules to produce the name of the street, and he kindly sent us in the right direction.

We began the day with a discussion on the current relations between Roma and Hungarian people.  The speaker, Ferenc Zsigó, first introduced us to the “Roma problem,” using free association to bring awareness to us about our own stereotypes and ignorance on the issue.

Even the simple term “jipped” reveals a lot about how we perceive the gypsy culture to be defined by poverty and begging.  The cigány, the Hungarian term for the Roma, which literally translates to “the outsiders,” are treated as just that, second class citizens.  But as citizens of Hungary, the Roma, literally “the people” in Romani, deserve equal opportunity and treatment.

Despite having been settled in this region of Hungary for over 100 years, the people have been marginalized by Hungarian policy. They maintain distinct cultural practices and physical appearances that can distinguish them from ethnic Hungarians, but do to intense discrimination, they are often identified based on socio-economic factors rather than cultural ones.

Ferenc noted something that I think is very important to recognize–that if efforts to “integrate” the Roma into Hungarian society were successful, it would only be possible to identify them based on cultural and not socio-economic status. Similarly, in a truly integrated school, the percentage of the population of Roma students in higher education should be equal to the percentage of Roma in the overall population, some 10% rather than the current .01%. With such low levels of education, the Roma lack an elite population capable of participating in politics and representing the interests of their people.

Reforms in education are therefore desperately needed, if they are going to be able to have any chance of gaining political influence and the ability to affect change in policy to reduce the amount of institutional discrimination. And widespread improvements in access to quality education will only be possible if Hungarians are able to stop blaming the country’s problems on the cultural differences of this minority.

I think it is important here to point out that when discussing these issues, we often say that “they,” referring to the Hungarians, are being unjust and inhumane with regards to the Roma. But especially now, we must recognize that we too are culpable of ostracizing the “others”  in our own country. Many claim that the “biggest issue in Hungary is gypsy crime” just as many people in the US blame reduced availability of jobs and high crime rates on illegal immigrants and our Hispanic populations in general.

We must now take what we have learned about this repressed people and take the anger and frustration we have felt about their unjust treatment and apply it to the marginalized populations of the US. We must recognize that these problems are not unique to this region or people. Furthermore, we must realize that many of the root causes of injustice and solutions are very similar.

Although we may have little ability to influence change here in Hungary, we do have the ability to prevent the discrimination taking place in our own state.

In both cases, education will play a vital role in achieving equality. We must fight to educate both the oppressors and the oppressed. We must challenge long-held stereotypes. We must show Americans and Hungarians alike that it is flaws in the basic systems and not actions or characteristics of their respective minorities that cause problems.

Furthermore, the oppressed must be educated on their rights and empowered with the right to vote. We must provide them with adequate representation by improving general conditions of education. We must not be “afraid to see clearly or to be seen clearly.” Only when we recognize our role in this inequality will we be able to improve the situation.