Recently, Vladimír Cervenaka, a Roma student (sometimes pejoratively called Gypsies) received his Doctor of Medicine degree from the medical faculty of Charles University in Prague. He will be one of the first Roma doctors of medicine in the region. There are several reasons why Cervenaka’s graduation is newsworthy.
A disturbing part of social life in much of eastern and southern Europe is the situation of the Roma. There are now several million Roma living on the margins of society, often in isolated ghetto-like conditions or separate villages. Only a small fraction of Roma children graduate from secondary schools. Many Roma face discrimination and prejudice from individuals, groups and national governments.
According to a recent article in The Economist (Sept 2, 2010), “An ingrained underclass, Roma are the victims of prejudice, often violent, at home in eastern Europe. Thousands have migrated westward to seek a better life, particularly as the expansion of the European Union has allowed them to take advantage of freedom-of-movement rules. Yet although conditions may be better in the west, the reception has rarely been friendly and politicians like President Sarkozy have ruthlessly exploited hostility towards the newcomers.” The article is referring to the recent expulsion by president Sarkozy sending more than 1,000 Roma migrants back to Romania and Bulgaria.
The Economist points out that in spite of an EU campaign, “most Roma are still worse off than under communism, which, for all its faults, at least guaranteed work, housing and welfare, and stamped down on hate crimes.” The Roma suffer the worst health conditions in the industrialized world together with some of the worst health problems associated with the third world. Rates of both infectious and non-communicable diseases are high. The proportion of Roma living in poverty exceeds 75% in countries throughout the region. There are reports of some living in caves and old shipping containers.
Most Roma children receive a severely inadequate education with many placed in schools for the mentally handicapped regardless of their level of intelligence. So poor education, massive unemployment, discrimination, isolation, extreme poverty and terrible health conditions among the Roma all elicit reactions from their neighbors, whether in compassion or in hostility.
As part of its commitment to applying a Christian worldview to social issues, the IICS-sponsored Comenius Institute of Prague has partnered with a German organization, Giving Hands to sponsor university level education for a small number of Roma who are ready for advanced studies. One reason the IICS-Giving Hands Roma student program is important symbolically is the growth of neo-Nazism in the area which is openly anti-Roma. There was recently an anti-Roma riot, very strange, something hardly seen in Europe since the 1930s. In contrast to some Europeans who want to send
the Roma to concentration camps, as Christians we want to help send Roma to universities to get a good education.
Cervenaka hopes to provide medical care in a Roma area after completing his practicum in a Czech medical clinic. He will not only be meeting a serious medical need among the Roma, but he will also provide a good role model for young Roma, and help earn respect for the Roma people in the wider area in a manner that reduces prejudice.
Whether Europeans decide to respond to the Roma in compassion or in hostility is influenced by our view of human dignity. The Giving Hand/Comenius Institute program is based on the Christian view that all human beings have a God-given dignity, because all people are created in the image of God.
The need is immense. But the opportunity to extend a helping hand to others who are also created by God is an unmistakable window of opportunity for ministry.