Our World

Human Rights, Theosophy, and Gypsy Children of Kosovo

Kathleen F. Hall – Canada

“Among these gypsies one may find traces of ancient avatars, whose souls were gods long ago in India.” (Walter Starkie, In Sara's Tents. London: John Murray, 1953, p. 1)

In July 2010, my fifteen-year-old son and I traveled to Kosovo, in the Balkans, to work with marginalized children of a people known as Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptians (RAE), also called Gypsies, whose ancestors were ultimately from north India. Working with these children in a summer arts program sponsored by a local nongovernmental organization gave me insight into some of the great challenges within the lives of the RAE of Kosovo.

Devastation in Kosovo in 2011 still visible

In 2008, Kosovo became a republic independent of Serbia and the former Yugoslavia. This newly found independence was not easily won; it followed a horrific 1999 war, which was marked by ethnic cleansing and mass destruction of properties belonging to Serbians, Albanians, and the RAE. During that war, NATO displaced many threatened RAE families into neighboring countries for protection. When the war ended, some returning RAE had no homes to go to and, being considered as Internally Displaced Persons (IDP), were housed in camps or IDP designated housing projects.

Living conditions in the IDP areas is dismissal. Many are run down and lack consistent water, electricity, and municipal services such as garbage pickup. Mitrovica, an IDP camp in northern Kosovo has extreme levels of lead poisoning, the cause of serious health issues, particularly in children living there. Plemetina, a community outside Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, has an IDP housing project that is situated next to “Kosovo B,” a huge coal-burning power plant that pollutes the surrounding area with mountains of coal ash.

Many RAE who were placed in neighboring European countries during the war are now being forcibly returned to Kosovo. Huge challenges await these returning RAE, as they face intense poverty, discrimination, unemployment, and language barriers. The already inadequate social services in Kosovo cannot support them, so they have little hope for leading successful lives. Poverty and discrimination affect RAE children’s access to education. Many families cannot provide their children with books, supplies, or the clothing needed to attend school. Others cannot afford the fees to enroll their children in school or lack birth records needed for registration. Many children are embarrassed to attend school because their homes lack water and electricity, making it difficult to bathe regularly or have clean clothing. School nurses, psychologists, and special-education specialists are also lacking as help for children with learning or physical disabilities and chronic health problems.


Gypsy woman cries as her house burns during the war

Language is an additional problem. The official language of the schools in Kosovo is Albanian; many RAE children speak Roma, some speak Serbian, and others who were displaced to EU countries during the war grew up speaking German, Dutch, French, or other languages. Although the right to an education in a child’s mother tongue is an international law of the United Nations (1989), that right is overlooked in Kosovo, where children must learn Albanian in order to succeed in school.

Discrimination is perhaps the biggest challenge for Kosovo RAE and their children. RAE children are often treated unfairly in schools by both peers and teachers, and consequently they do not want to go to school, nor do their parents want their children to be subjected to such treatment. Many RAE adults experience discrimination that denies them employment because they are identified as Gypsy. In Eastern Europe, like many other places in the world, Gypsies have historically suffered great prejudice. The persecution of the Gypsies stems from the early Christian churches of Europe and extends back to the fourteenth century or earlier. The churches feared and misunderstood the unique culture of the Gypsies, who today are still treated like unwelcome minorities in many countries, including Kosovo. The Gypsies are a passionate and spiritual people, whose cultural traditions, particularly music and dance, have provided artistic inspiration throughout the world. It is sad to see a great culture subjected to ignorant prejudices and the resulting discrimination that denies their children basic human rights.

Refugees in Kosovo

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work with RAE children in Kosovo and to recognize the challenges they face. Those children displayed a great passion for life despite their marginalized circumstances. However, to be able to reach their fullest potential, RAE children need access to education so that they can eventually overcome the oppressions that limit their lives.

From a Theosophical perspective, working towards alleviating the oppressive, poverty-ridden situation of the RAE in Kosovo is a call to duty. In The Key to Theosophy (p. 229) H. P. Blavatsky states: “Duty is that which is due to Humanity, to our fellow-men, neighbours, family, and especially that which we owe to all those who are poorer and more helpless than we are ourselves.”  She also says (p. 230-1) that what is due to humanity at large is “Full recognition of equal rights and privileges for all, and without distinction of race, colour, social position or birth.” Such due is not given “When there is the slightest invasion of another’s right—be that other a man or a nation; when there is any failure to show him the same justice, kindness, consideration or mercy which we desire for ourselves.”

RAE children

Blavatsky also states in The Key to Theosophy (p. 230) that duty is a call to “action, enforced action, instead of mere intention and talk.” From my perspective as an educator, the action that is most needed to help the situation for the RAE in Kosovo is to work toward ensuring that their children have every possible opportunity to access and complete an education in an environment that is supportive, without discrimination, and sensitive to their needs as learners. Children are the hope for the future, and those who are in a position to help have a duty to ensure that the RAE children of Kosovo are given their right to an education.

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