Empowered Roma

Interview with Bozidar Nikolic: “I realized that I had to fight for the integration of Roma in the profession”

Bozidar Nikolic is a Pedagogical Assistant from Serbia, a big, fun guy. For 17 years he has been working to improve the education of Roma children in his own country. He was discriminated against when he started as a Roma Teaching Assistant, today he is one of the seven European Global Leaders for Young Children who were awarded a grant by the World Forum Foundation.

Bozidar started working in children’s education in 2002, thanks to a project called ‘Equal Chance’.

“I started as a Roma Teaching Assistant, I helped Romani children with their linguistic difficulties in class and with their home works. Seven assistants were hired in my city thanks to that project, four of which in my school. Our profession wasn’t even officially recognized back then, it was project based.”

Fighting prejudice

“When we arrived at the school, we immediately understood that some teachers kept a certain distance from us. We didn’t have place to sit at the teacher’s office, for example”.

“One day, the teacher left for a while and I sat on her chair. When she came back her reaction was unexpected. She slammed her agenda on the desk in anger and she went to report to the school principal.”

Following, the principal called Bozidar in his office and asked him not to go to work in the next few days.

“The principal told me that the teacher didn’t want to work with people with my function”.

“I felt humiliated. I had just graduated in Chemistry with good grades and I was very happy about my new job. I realized that I had to fight for my position and for the integration of Roma people in the educational system in Serbia.”

“I’ve decided that I had to work very hard to prove people wrong.”

The reward

Two years later, his work was rewarded. One day, a mother came to talk with the new principal.

“She didn’t know that I wasn’t qualified as a teacher yet and that I was of Roma origin. However, she went to the principal and asked for her child to be enrolled “where teacher Bozidar works” because her son had spoken so well about me.”

“Later the principal called in a meeting with all the other teachers and said, “now I know who behaves as a professional here,” and told us the whole story. I was radiant. This reinforced my position in the school.”

In 2009, the Ministry of Education recognized the Roma Teaching Assistants’ contribution to the educational system and extended their responsibility so that they could assist all children with learning difficulties.

Bozidar’s advocacy work

He became a trainer for Embracing Diversity and Social Justice (today called Embracing Diversity) and advocate with

Romanipen, a civil society organization that promotes access to education for Romani children in Serbia.
However, he says, political will to invest in Romani children’s education is still lacking.

As part of the Global Leaders for Young Children, he advocates for free pre-school education: “my project is called High Five for the Under Five”.

“Less than 6% of Roma children aged 3 to 5 attends pre-school. Many of them are rejected by the local authorities either because they say there’s not enough space or because it’s too expensive for Roma families to pay for such a service.”

A national law would grant free pre-school education to children from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, Bozidar says, “pre-schools aren’t able to comply with the law because – they say – they lack capacity”.

His plan is to bring this issue high on the political agenda and to make sure that local authorities are put in the conditions to comply with the law.

“It’s better and cheaper, in the long term, to invest in children by giving them the chance to become part of society. This would be beneficial not only for them but also for the whole Serbia. But we have to fight for this.”

Bozidar is the coordinator of REYN Serbia, read more about them here.