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The right to read

Sunday, March 7, 2004

TARGU BUJOR, Romania -- Tired of reading soap opera subtitles to his wife while watching TV, Costel Pitigoi issued her a decree: Learn to read them yourself.

So Maria Pitigoi joined 29 other women in this town's Gypsy enclave in a new reading program aimed at putting the long-mistreated ethnic group on a more equal footing with Europe's other peoples.

For Maria and her classmates, literacy is a dream come true. For Romania and other countries with significant Gypsy populations, it's part of a broader push to lift the embattled minority out of poverty and persecution.

While experts say this could take decades, there may never be greater inducement. Improving life for Gypsies, or Roma as many of them call themselves, has become a requirement for membership in the European Union.

The vast majority of Europe's 7 million to 9 million Gypsies live in countries set to join the expanding EU. Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic become members May 1; Romania and Bulgaria hope to join in 2007.

Slovakia has spent millions of dollars to bring roads, electricity and running water to its Gypsy communities. Hungary set up educational and anti-discrimination projects, while the Czechs are training Gypsies to become police officers.

This is a moment when Gypsies' needs intersect with Europe's interests. Leaders of EU nations want the poor of countries joining the bloc to have opportunities at home, to pevent waves of downtrodden migrating to seek better lives elsewhere on the continent.

Held back by racism, poverty and illiteracy, most of Europe's Gypsies endure living conditions closer to those of sub-Saharan Africa, the United Nations concluded last year.

Traditionally, Gypsy women marry as young as 14. Long held back by Gypsy customs, many weren't allowed to go to school to ensure their purity.

But the women who are now spending hours bent over schoolwork, their floral-patterned headscarves spilling over their desks, say they are ready for change -- and progress.

Standing in the back of his wife's classroom, a wool hat tugged over his ears, Pitigoi says he hopes for even more for his children. "They need this to have jobs," he says. "They need to get jobs to support their families."

His wife, Maria, 40, never learned to read because her mother thought it was dangerous, that it might give her too many ideas. She married at 14 and had two children.

She's almost gleeful to be studying a sentence that reads: "Luca has tulips."

"Look at this! Look at this!" she demands, her notebook falling open in her trembling hands to reveal pages covered with the letters N and R.

"I didn't know how to write a single letter," she says. "And look at what I'm doing now."

Associated Press reporter Karl Peter Kirk in Hungary contributed to this story.

The stereotype of Gypsies as colorful nomads has largely faded. Most of eastern Europe's Gypsies were settled under communism and live largely on the periphery of society as the poorest of the poor.

Many never attend school. Police harass them. Skinheads beat them. Often the courts fail to protect them.

Nowhere is the problem as daunting as in Romania, which has Europe's largest Gypsy population, estimated at 1.8 million to 2.5 million. Widespread discrimination hurts their chances of finding jobs, and nearly 80 percent live on just over $4 a day -- though that's not too far below the $5.80 a day the average Romanian earns.

Many Gypsies won't declare their ethnicity on government forms, fearing further discrimination. As a result, no one knows exactly how many Gypsies there are in Romania, or elsewhere in Europe.

While the EU has pumped about $20.5 million into programs for Romanian Gypsies stretching into 2005, the government has offered only about $1.3 million so far in direct help. Private foundations pay for most efforts.

The government says its strategy for dealing with Gypsies includes giving the issue a higher political profile, reserving places in high schools and universities for Roma and starting vocational training programs.

But Leslie Hawke, an American who works with Gypsies in the northeastern city of Bacau, says funding tends to be distributed among a few -- and only to those allied with the ruling party. "They do very little in major cities," she says.

Onno Simons, the interim charge d'affaires at the EU mission in Romania, says the government has made a good start but still doesn't provide adequate financial or human resources.

Still, Gypsy leaders say they are delighted that something is being done to ease their poverty.

Costel Pitigoi, the Gypsy leader in Targu Bujor, dreams of big things for the 183 Gypsies living in this town 160 miles northeast of the capital, Bucharest.

Traditionally, Gypsy women marry as young as 14. Long held back by Gypsy customs, many weren't allowed to go to school to ensure their purity.

But the women who are now spending hours bent over schoolwork, their floral-patterned headscarves spilling over their desks, say they are ready for change -- and progress.

Standing in the back of his wife's classroom, a black lamb's wool hat tugged over his ears, Pitigoi says he hopes for even more for his children. "They need this to have jobs," he says. "They need to get jobs to support their families."

His wife, Maria, 40, never learned to read because her mother thought it was dangerous, that it might give her too many ideas. She married at 14 and had two children.

She's almost gleeful to be studying a sentence that reads: "Luca has tulips."

"Look at this! Look at this!" she demands, her notebook falling open in her trembling hands to reveal pages covered with the letters N and R.

"I didn't know how to write a single letter," she says. "And look at what I'm doing now."


Associated Press reporter Karl Peter Kirk in Hungary contributed to this story.


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