October 06, 2008


As the season really gets going (and cools down--did someone say mid-50s?) Jillian and I have taken up the task of greatly expanding the pool of English language learners in our town. Last school year was all about the elementary (Jillian) and high school (Dan) kids, but this time around we're reaching out in both directions through the community's preschool and our own self-started adult classes. At this rate, by next year we'll have our lessons included in Orthodox Last Rites and on womb-penetrating CDs, right next to Mozart.

Our adult classes start in earnest tomorrow, so for now let's just stick with the little ones. We teach English at the local community center/preschool for Roma children.

Ok, two things need amplification in that last sentence. First off, it's perhaps a bit of an exaggeration to say we're "teaching English." These little tikes have the attention span of our cat, so we can get in a few things (today it was "car, bus, bicycle, airplane,") before the restlessness boils over and they just want to play. Which, really, is totally fine. And fun.

And second: who are Roma children? As wild as this region of the world is for soccer, these are not children raised to be superfans of Italy's famous team, Roma. In fact they are part of an ethnic group that is well represented in Macedonia. Well represented, but not well treated. The history of this group is long and tortured (as in, many amongst them have undoubtedly faced torture over the centuries) and has left the Roma people on the fringe of society throughout southeastern Europe. They have hardly integrated and face intense discrimination. Is it there skin color (they originate from India)? Is it their language, Romani (though they also learn Macedonian)? Is it there customs, still preserved centuries later?

Broader questions like that don't seem particularly important when we walk to see friends and pass by the Roma part of town. In a community of 15,000, the Roma number somewhere around 500. The street is unpaved and dusty. Their homes have not been brought into the city water system, evidenced by the appearance of the few Roma children who attend Jillian's elementary school. No Roma children attend the high school, they've all dropped out by then. In a town (and country) struggling with unemployment, the Roma community here faces a virtual 100% jobless rate.

But one man who has a job is Safet. He is a one-man organization called Napredok-Anglipe--it's Macedonian and Romani for "forward." He operates a sort of community center that also serves as a preschool for Roma children. It's housed in the bottom floor of the preschool for Macedonian children and is (by local standards) a rather nice little spot. There are several cute rec rooms and a nice classroom with miniature desks and chairs and donated toys and games.

Safet came to us. He literally rang our doorbell one morning and asked us to join him at his center. He worked with another PCV several years ago and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. And while we're slightly wary of his enthusiasm towards our alleged ability to tap infinite (unnamed) financial sources--this is a recurring theme here--we absolutely love the opportunity he's given us to work with these children. What a difference from the high school!

[A funny aside involving Safet: When we were planning our work in the preschool, the original idea was that we would hold classes and activities with both Roma and Macedonian children in mixed classes. Well, this fell through...something about Macedonian parents wanting nothing to do with that. Anyway, when we went to speak to the director of the Macedonian preschool we found that we couldn't understand her at all. I mean, at all. She speaks ridiculously fast and shows no interest in slowing down for us. So Safet was translating into slower, simpler Macedonian (he's actually quite easy to understand). She would speak, and then he would speak and we'd get it.]

So we've been to the center a few times now. Like I mentioned above, we're not so much teaching English as we are simply playing with the kids while speaking English. Sure, we've had a few minor lessons with them--hello, stand up, sit down, make a circle, etc--but the kids seem to get just as much out of us sitting on the floor with them crashing toy cars (the boys and Dan) or drawing flowers on the chalkboard (the gals and Jillian). Ditto for us, as well. Being with these little children is proving to be such a wonderful experience and distraction from some of the frustrations with other projects, ideas and general life stuff.

This seems to be working out fine with everyone at the preschool. We'll just keep moving forward.

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