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PC(USA) webinar focuses on challenges faced by Roma population

Church partners present work inherent in the Matthew 25 vision

by Scott O’Neill | Presbyterian News Service

Márton Juhász leads a Protestant-based charity service and aid organization doing work in Hungary. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — In the aftermath of Monday’s International Roma Day, which commemorates Europe’s largest ethnic minority and Romani culture, nearly 50 participants joined a Zoom webinar Thursday afternoon to learn more about the Roma community, including facing challenges such as widespread discrimination in housing, education, employment, and health outcomes —particularly for its children.

Watch the 80-minute webinar here.

The webinar, presented by PC(USA)’s Middle East and Europe Office, part of its World Mission ministry, aligns with two of the PC(USA)’s Mathew 25 priorities, eradicating systemic poverty and dismantling structural racism. Featured speakers represented a cross section of advocates across eastern and central Europe working in varying capacities, including youth and education development, faith-based reconciliation work, human rights and charity work. Luciano Kovacs, PC(USA)’s area coordinator, Middle East and Europe, greeted participants, introduced speakers and moderated the 75-minute presentation, which included a brief Q&A session from the registrants.

Elena Sirbu

First to speak was Elena Sirbu, a journalist with 16 years’ experience as a human rights activist who heads the Roma Women Platform in Moldova (ROMNI). ROMNI is a non-governmental organization that supports and promotes the rights of Roma girls and women. Sirbu gave an overview of the Roma community, noting there are 12 million Roma in Europe who speak multiple languages, making efforts to promote Roma rights more difficult. In 2016, she found an opportunity as the host on a national TV show to speak out on the Roma people and educate viewers to what Roma face as a minority as well as voicing support for Roma women’s rights both nationally and internationally.

ROMNI’s tagline — “I am like you. I have the same rights as you” — promotes integrity and education. In Moldova, they have expanded “Roma Day” to be “Roma Week.”

“This week we started with a Roma women’s march, and each day after we’ve had different events and roundtables and met with different labor groups to share our good stories,” said Sirbu.

Marko Tošić

Marko Tošić, executive director of the Center for Youth Integration, an organization located in Belgrade, Serbia, was next to speak. His nonprofit provides specialized services and personal support to street-involved children and children at risk of becoming street-involved. Tošić noted they currently support more than 600 children and their families and since 2004 have supported more than 3,000 youth.

“The services we provide, and our approach in Serbia, are unique,” said Tošić. “We take pride in getting to know the children to understand their needs and circumstances. Every child we assist benefits from individualized support tailored to their personal needs, so children choose when and how to access services.”

Tošić said they perform a lot of mediation work on behalf of families to ensure they can access available social services, including health care and education services. He noted the street environment in Serbia for children is poor, at best.

“Children from extremely poor Roma families that live in informal settlements live in really bad conditions. Those communities suffer from segregation, social exclusion and discrimination.” He added, “most families live in improvised housing; we call them ‘barracks.’ They are small houses made from wood, plastic and other non-adequate housing material without running water or electricity. (The homes) have been constructed without formal building permissions so are unregistered and completely illegal. Therefore, people from these settlements are also denied access to police protection, social protection, and health care.”

Szabina Sztojka opened her comments noting she studied in the U.S. at the Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. Sztojka is associate minister at St. Colombia’s Church in Budapest, Hungary and leader of the Reformed Church in Hungary’s national Roma ministry.

Szabina Sztojka

“I’m always happy to be with Presbyterians in the PC(USA) because I have fond memories of studying at the seminary,” Sztojka said. “My main motivation to study at Columbia was not just its civil rights legacy, but to learn more about the theology of liberation and how that could be a source for developing a theology understood by the Romani communities in Hungary and worldwide.”

Sztojka spoke to her upbringing, which celebrated the Roma culture but also included dealing with negative stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination.

“(Our family) celebrated music, loved fencing and horses; I was happy as a young girl. I went to primary school that was segregated but at age 7 I attended music school and was the only Roma girl in the school. In the first week a girl two years older than me said I should leave because I stink. So, the prejudice and drama we see today was already present in the heart and mind of a 9-year-old girl.”

That experience would eventually help her recognize how internalized racism affects communities and drove her to reconciliation work. Ordained one of the first Roma women in the Reformed Church in Hungary, developing a Christian community and ministry that includes Roma and non-Roma people is her goal.

“My biggest passion is reconciliation,” said Sztojka. “I was trained in Rwanda at the International School of Reconciliation, but I started this ministry in Hungary, where we have Roma and non-Roma facilitators of reconciliation who bring the message of what it means to be in the shadow of Christ’s cross to ask for forgiveness from each other, and also give forgiveness to each other.”

Márton Juhász

Márton Juhász was the final presenter. He leads a Protestant-based charity service and aid organization doing work in Hungary, primarily in the Carpathian Basin. According to Juhasz, Hungarian Reformed Church Aid  helps with humanitarian tools regardless of race, gender, religion, or political affiliation. When founded in 2006 by the Hungarian Reformed Church, its primary focus was helping institutions but in response to increased needs they began engaging in traditional relief efforts as well.

Its Roma assistance efforts consists of aid to the slum areas, after-school events for parents and children, education programs, and an employment program focusing on economic development.

“We split our services into three main areas: education, mental health and well-being, and economics,” said Juhász. “We believe that besides the needs of the body we must work with the needs of the soul. For this reason, we started support groups led by pastors to help adults develop self-awareness and build self-esteem.”

In their final remarks, a few common themes stood out amongst all the speakers. First, government programs are available, but are woefully inadequate.

“In Serbia, we have government programs to serve the Roma communities, but we don’t have enough programs or adequate support,” said Tošić.

“Here in Hungary, we too have government support for social inclusion programs, but the church has to take on that responsibility,” said Sztojka. “Our after-school programs are sustained by the Reformed Church, but the government sets the quota.”

When asked how participants can support the speakers and their organizations’ efforts, the second theme came up — through prayer.

“We need to pray for health and for peace,” said Sirbu. “Pray for the people who want to really help.”

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