The School on Four Wheels by Alexandra Filip
For over a hundred children in Dallas, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Iasi, school comes on a weekly basis, on four wheels. Corina Chiriac, one of the graduates of “the mobile school”, hopes that one day she will become a social worker
There is a cinematic mood in the corner classroom on the second floor of the Alexandru Vlahuta Gymnasium. A handful of children are placing the desks alongside the walls and the chairs in the middle of the classroom. It happens to be “alternative week”; thus, they will not do any homework today. Today they will be playing. They will run after each other playing blind man’s buff, blindfolded with a perforated, red, woolen scarf, no, they cannot see through it if it is folded in two , and later they will team up with the older children, visiting volunteers, and they will play bowling with red, green and purple coloured plastic pins. They will be watching “The Little Match Girl” on the large screen TV which is hanging from the ceiling. “Give us 3D glasses”, a little boy wearing a blue T-shirt with “superboy” written on it is shouting. His name is Sebi and is one of the noisiest children that come to the educational center of the Save the Children Organisation, from Iasi. He does not seem very pleased with the activities of “the alternative school” when the lady teacher asks him what they have been doing. He has been planting trees, but he would have liked to do something different; some children were taken by the teacher to the museum, others were wearing a “rubbish suit”. “What rubbish suit?!” asks the lady teacher. “A suit made of rubbish bags”, answers a little girl that carries a ballerina dress made of black plastic with pink crepe paper hearts glued on it. There was the eco-parade. “What does eco mean?” asks the lady teacher again. “Natural”, answer the children.
At the educational center of Save the Children, the students participate after school four days a week, from Monday till Thursday, four hours per day. Children come here to do their homework, to study and to play, children who do not have electricity at home, no-one to help them out and no proper place where to write, a desk or a chair. They do not have peace at home either, since they have younger brothers and the books and notebooks are always torn, messy or wet.
For most of the children who come to the centre, home means the improvised neighbourhood in the Ses-Bahlui area or Dallas, as one of the poorest areas of Iasi is known. Poverty sent them to the outskirts of the city, on the right bank of river Bahlui, which is winding through the hills of Iasi and which separates Dallas from Mircea cel Batran neighbourhood. The houses are without electricity, mended with whatever materials were available, plywood or shriveled doors discarded by others. The place makes you think ironically of the Texan city, with skyscrapers which illuminate the night, whose name it has taken. Nobody from the community knows from whose bitterness the name came to be, but it seems to be the way those from the inside make fun of the difficulties, while those from the outside know that here predominantly Romani population live and very few venture inside.
Officially, Dallas neighborhood does not exist. There are no street names or house numbers, hence people do not have addresses, and most of those who live here do not have ID papers, which means it is impossible to register children for school. The new regulations of the Education Act specify that every school has a catchment area. The children from Dallas do not belong to any particular school. “There are many situations in which schools, either do not have any available places, or they do not want to receive children from Dallas neighborhood, and it is very easy for them to decline them according to the new legislation”, explains Andrei Crăciun, a psychologist working for Save the Children in Iasi.
Save the Children Organization are helping those who do not exist in anyone’s records. The procedure has been the same for the last five years: firstly they are being helped with getting ID cards, then they teach the parents to register their children for the two stages of school admission. Most of them are being told that it is not possible, thus the record of those turned down is forwarded to the County School Inspectorate. When the Inspectorate becomes involved, places are found for the needy children.
More than ten years ago, members of the organisation went to Dallas for the first time and tried to explain people that only education can help them to get out of there. Every year the organisation is involved in educational activities in the community and at the centre. They work with approximatively 80-100 families. There are many children, as every family has four or five. Only a few of the children attend the education centre within the Alexandru Vlahuta Gymnasium. For the other children, too poor, school comes to them.
“There has been nine years since the colossus on four wheels entered Dallas for the first time“
Nobody was able to say what it was, but the vivid colours were attracting the curiosity of children like a magnet. Some were wondering if the circus had arrived. Slowly, they gathered around the strange car, some ten meters away, other five meters away, and the most courageous even started to ask questions. They saw the half metre green whiteboard open and from each side two more whiteboards came out and then again it opened one more time and two new whiteboards showed up. The mobile school, six meter long, was an innovative project in Europe, being introduced for the first time in Iasi in 2005. The five whiteboards open up like a telescope and can be easily coordinated, since they sit on four central wheels. Here, on the grass, under the sky, many children from Dallas community have learned how to read and write, to be creative through drawing, how to stay away from drugs or prostitution, as well as their rights. In a mirror which is hanging from one of the whiteboards the children have learned to recognise the expressions of the emotions, other than happiness and sadness which were the only ones they were familiar with from home.
Many children become interested in the educational centre after being caught up in the nets of games. “It is the next step which we suggest, but we do not push the children at all. The choice is always theirs. We tell them: Look, we have an educational centre. Do you want to see what is happening there? If they say no, this is not a problem; we try later”, says psychologist Andrei Crăciun. For most children in the community, who do not go to school, the street is the main educational environment. “They spend most of their time in the street, they have absolute freedom there, and hence going to school is difficult. Sometimes, they do not even have the option of choosing to go to school. The educational centre is somewhere in the middle”, explains the psychologist. The children do not have a schedule at the centre. There is neither curriculum nor formal courses. The program is easy and no one is ever being berated for being late. In this universe the rules are different. The children’s progress is not measured in points, but i smaller steps, such as: did he/she salute when he/she entered the classroom, did he/she knock on the door before going in, has he/she sworn once at his colleague, instead of seven times, does someone tell him/her something nasty, without him/her instigating a fight.
For those who dare to come to the activities at the centre, school registration is the next step. Nevertheless, a significant number of children out of those who manage to register with an educational institution end up abandoning school. The school requirements and the family needs always leave the children in the middle. Uniforms, special books, money for the classroom budget are requirements that are too big for the parents’ tight budget. An analysis done by Save the Children shows that the hidden bill for the education of just one child reaches 1500 – 2000 RON per year. Very few parents from Dallas have a job and the majority live off child support or from collecting old iron and recyclable plastic from rubbish containers around blocks. You can see them every day around Iasi, carrying huge sacks on their back. It usually takes up to two to three days to fill a sac if both parents are working. A single parent family manages to fill one sack per week and the young ones must help out. One can get around 60 RON per sack, so the monthly income reaches 200-300 RON. This is enough for survival, but not enough for going to school. Many parents say that they would register their children for school, but the idea of a better future is too far away and not clear enough for them to take precedence over the daily worries: what to put on the table, how to warm their homes with the stoves built by themselves or how to dress the children for winter. “Most families we work with do not have a culture of postponing the reward. For them, here and now are essential. The moment children reach the age they can work, starting around 12 and up, they become a source of income for the family”, says Andrei Crăciun. The psychologist does not blame only the parents. They, themselves have grown up in a similar manner, without educational programs that would try to take them out of an environment without any outlook.
Corina Chiriac is one of the students for whom poverty, hardship and prejudices that follow the Roma ethnicity did not prevent her in her journey to education. Tall, thin and with black hair that passes her waist, the girl is the third of the ten children of the Chiriac family who, due to the persistence of their mother, managed to get to high school.
Corina talks with difficulty about her ethnicity. You would think she does not want to or she cannot do it, that she is ashamed or she does not care. Actually, she believes that it does not define her. She has been born like this and that’s it. She does not think much of the discrimination of those around her, and now that she is in high school the incidents are not so frequent as before. When she was young, more timid and staying back at the last desk, the girl recognized that people were making fun of her for being Romani. “I was darker than the rest and I always stood out”, she tells me smiling, but still she excuses her colleagues.
In gymnasium, Corina had to deal mostly with the teachers’ meanness. “To make matters worse, there were teachers who would always give Romani children as examples when one student did not know the answer or had the wrong answer. The teachers were telling them: “Do you want to become a gipsy?” and other similar things, she recalls. When this happened, her colleagues were laughing. Corina wasn’t laughing though. She would bend her head down, “I can only bend my head down”, and she would ignore them until she would forget them.
She was studying for gymnasium final exam in Romanian language together with other colleagues, while Mrs Boita, their teacher, “was discriminating against me all the time, but she would always do it with a smile on her face”. Corina was active, was asking questions and answering, “otherwise, how would I learn”. Once being asked a question about pronouns, the girl gave the wrong answer. “You have drowned like the gipsy near the shore” said the teacher. Maybe she said it without realizing it or maybe she was nervous, but the words came together again in the little corner where Corina, after raising her head from the ground, chased them away.
The ugly stares of those around her resonated in her because of the lack of money too. Money for going to camps, money for the class fund, money for furniture, money for chairs, money for paint, money for new curtains, money for repairing the parquet; all this was money Corina’ s family could not afford. “There was discrimination rather because of this. We could never pay, just one chair was 50 RON”, intervenes Lacramioara Pricop, the 41 year old mother of ten children. Seeing that the demands and criticism kept adding up, the class teacher suggested that her 40 year old father, “jack of all trades” Mihai Chiriac helps out with some work, like painting, repairing the parquet and sorting out the desks. This was how they managed to settle the school’s financial requests that year. It was during gymnasium, towards the end of the year, that Corina felt that she started making some friendships with her colleagues and that she stopped feeling different or that she was looked upon differently.
Today, at high school, Corina feels more sheltered from the discrimination that may come from colleagues. She is a student in the 10th grade at a vocational high school with culinary specialization, in Nicolina in Iasi, and she is not alone any more. There are two more Romani girls alongside her in the class.
Dark skinned, some with curly hair, Marian, Ionut, Ana-Maria, Andrea and David sit next to each other, partially under the duvet. In front of them, by the bed, three year old Darius, the youngest of all, plays with the pacifier and lies on a pillow while he is being rocked by his mother on her legs. Madalina smiles from a photo on the other bed, on a small white pillow. It was a present from a colleague when she turned 18, the others tell me about the eldest sister who is 20 and dreams of becoming a general nurse. She studies at a nursing school in Iasi. The next sister, Larisa, is a student in the 10th grade. She trains as a hairdresser and she even won the second place twice, this year and last year, in a hair dressing contest organised by the school. Soon Nicoleta, the next sister, will arrive home. She is only in the 8th grade, at an Economics high school, but she wants to become a make-up artist.
Together with Corina and their two parents, the twelve people rent out a small, orange room furnished with two large beds, a wardrobe bulging with clothes, a tall, scorched stove, a table and a cooker. Here, in the middle of the hill, in Galata, close to the end of Cicoarei street, the Chiriacs share the house, which is for sale, with another family.
They pay for the room and the electricity almost 300 RON per month. This is more than half of the family’s monthly income which is made up of child support and what the father, who is the sole breadwinner, can add. He works in construction and repairs stoves. Together it can be up to 500 RON per month. It is difficult, of course it is difficult. They would love to leave, “but where, because no one takes me with so many children”, says the mother. A bigger place would cost more, and she is always being told that they are afraid of the young ones, that they tear things, or they destroy.
Even at the current address the father managed to have it officially in his documents only after many requests. The mother, whose name is Pricop, as they are not legally married, is registered at 4 Clopotari Street. That is also the address of Madalina and Larisa, the only ones among their siblings who have ID cards. She has registered the others for school using the birth certificates. Corina tells me that she managed to register for the gymnasium final exams the same way, although she had problems.
The Chiriacs try to integrate in society without keeping to many Romani traditions. “We are Romanianised Romani, we do not even speak Romani”, says the mother. She does not know it very well, she tells me that she was not interested because “it damages the Romanian language”. That is what she heard the other Romani saying. She says that those who speak Romani do not pronounce Romanian properly. Corina says that, although at school those who want to can learn Romani, she had always other priorities. The children’s father is Romani and Lacramioara Pricop is only half Romani. She is the eldest out of nine brothers and she has graduated gymnasium, but she could not continue further. She would like her children to study, and she wants and hopes that she would be able to send all of them to school. “To become someone”, she tells me, and that is why she always sends them clean and proper, “without people knowing what is the family situation”, she adds. There were moments when she wanted to appear on TV so that “someone could help us with a house for the children”, but the children did not let her. They were too embarrassed.
The house on Cicoarei street is too small for intimacy, for doing homework or to receive someone as a guest, but this is all what the Chiriacs have at the moment, until they move again or are chucked out. They came here after the family became too large for the previous place. The children were born and raised in the grandmother on the mother’s side’s house, but when Corina turned 11, the house became too small. The twelve members of the family then moved to the Dallas neighbourhood, where they rented a modest small house for a year.
In Dallas, the children have been attracted to the colossus on four wheels, they have studied at the educational centre and have received support to continue their studies. A primary school teacher from here sent Corina’s poems to a contest for creative students, Kreatikon, where she won the third place. Corina writes poems and her favourite writer is Eminescu with his famous poem Luceafarul. She has participated with several pieces, inspired by nature, one for each season, but she has given it up. She tells me that it has been more than a year since she has lost the courage to write any more. It was around time she got into high school. She was disheartened when “after reading other poets, I was not happy with what I was writing any more, it was not what it was supposed to be”. She composes sentences and rhymes in her mind, but she writes them down very rarely. She had several notebooks, but even she does not remember during which move they got lost.
Corina has always been creative. She wanted to become an actress, just like the ones on TV, and she even intended to apply to Octav Bancila National Art College of Iasi. She heard rumours from an acquaintance who studied there; she thought the requirements were too high and a lack of confidence has made her to change her path. Now that she’s got help herself, she would like to go to university and become a social worker.
Of the children that participate to the mobile school and who later come to the educational centre and are registered for school, less than 10% make it to high school. Many of them are driven to the eighth grade by the dream of getting a driving license, but there are also children who wish to continue to study. The probability that they will pass to the next level of studies depends on the parents’ financial situation.
While they are still young, the rest of the children in Dallas will continue to go to the educational centre, crossing Bahlui on the narrow, metal bridge. They will enter the coloured room, sign their names with a green pen in a mathematics notebook, and after four hours they will close the white door above which there is a poster: “I go to school, therefore I exist”.
This article can be read here: https://alexafilip.wordpress.com/2015/04/22/scoala-pe-patru-roti-2/