Schools for Gypsy Children
We believe that education is the key to transforming communities and reducing poverty, suffering, and injustice.
Imagine, for a moment, not being able to read or write. A newspaper is just a jumble of foreign shapes and symbols and the word of God, indecipherable. Instead of the excitement of learning something new, printed words bring only confusion, frustration, and shame.
This is the daily reality for 95 percent of Gypsy people, and one that Pastor Ruslan Surmay and his wife, Iryna, are working tirelessly to change. The Surmays (who are themselves Gypsies) hold lessons twice a week at their church, in the Gypsy village of Perechyn. Ruslan believes that, by teaching the basics of reading and writing, the socially isolated and impoverished Gypsy peoples will have a better opportunity for a brighter future.
Ruslan has known the importance of literacy to the future and dignity of the Gypsy peoples for a long time. Having grown up in an orphanage that gave him an education, teaching the alphabet and grammar was always a top priority for this, his first church plant. Eight years ago, before HART partnered with him, Ruslan was teaching out of his home and using a Bible and old newspapers to teach children to read and write.
The church building in Perechyn is one of six Gypsy schools HART has helped organize in Ukraine.
The grammar classes taught there are an integral part of both Bible studies and church life, Iryna explains. Typically, classes comprise about 15 children aged 9 to 15. During the Bible study hour, attendees get a chance to both deepen their knowledge of the Word of God and practice reading.
According to Ruslan, enabling Gypsies to read the Bible is the most important impact these schools have. “At the very beginning of this ministry, I was driven by the idea that my people will one day read the Bible themselves,” says Ruslan. “I always believed that if they could do so, nothing could lead them astray.” Ruslan has even begun translating the Bible into the Gypsy’s “Roma” language.
“The school has completely changed my life and my outlook,” says 18-year-old Angelina. “After two years at church school, I’ve decided that I would never go begging on the streets again.” Today, Angelina is a second-year college student and future seamstress and planning to serve God with her new skills. Learning the alphabet represents a marked change in the direction of Gypsy culture. For generations, illiteracy has kept Gypsy communities trapped in poverty and social isolation. Children old enough to go to school often didn’t because they’re required to care for their many younger siblings.
Those that want to attend typically can’t because their parents haven’t the means to purchase clothing and school supplies. Most Gypsies are often unwilling to send their children because Gypsies are stigmatized in Ukrainian society. These children are regularly bullied for their ethnicity, traditions, and lifestyles.
So what do these children usually do instead of attending school? They take the next step in the Gypsy life cycle—early marriage, often between the ages of 12 and 14—and start having their own families. This vicious cycle of uneducated parents producing children that also will be uneducated would continue if it weren’t for Christian pastors like Ruslan and organizations like HART.
“Not too long ago, we didn’t have any Gypsy children who would attend public schools,” says Ruslan. “Today, around 40 percent of those who attend our church classes now also attend public schools. No Gypsy children attend the public schools without coming to our church school first. We prepare and train them to excel and keep up with the other kids,” says Ruslan. “They no longer feel like outsiders in the public schools.”
“I always wanted to be smart,” says 11-year-old Sasha. “Playing with my Ukrainian friends, I was ashamed that they could read, and I couldn’t. The worst was to see a boy younger than me making fun of my ignorance.” Today, Sasha is attending Ruslan’s church school and has dreams of going to university.
The school, which functions as a part of church ministry, has quickly become a powerful evangelizing tool. Almost all the children who attend the Gypsy school in Perechyn village also attend Pastor Ruslan’s church. Moreover, the children’s parents get a positive image of the church by seeing the results of its social ministry. Many of these parents now come to church with their children.
Twelve-year-old Samir has been attending church school for three years now and is gaining confidence in his skills. “My mom doesn’t know how to read and write,” he says. “She was very impressed when she first heard me reading. Maybe, one day I will teach her, too.”
Thanks to the seeds sown in faith by Pastor Ruslan and the prayers and generous donations of HART supporters, these Gypsy children and young adults have a more hopeful future. These schools give young people a priceless chance to learn a trade or a profession, find a job, and become successful.
Each child educated is one less trapped by poverty and one more that can begin a new cycle of raising up their own educated children.
“Thanks to church school, I can study the Bible and read it to my own children,” says Iryna, 23. “This year, I’ve graduated from college and now plan to get a job.”
“A few years ago, we couldn’t even dream of such progress,” Ruslan admits.
“Today, we have courage and motivation, thanks to HART’s precious support.”
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