Mark Szabo – Hungary (Roma International Scholarship Program)

I am a young Gypsy man who has faced many difficulties. However, I have also seized many opportunities to gain control of my life. In what follows I will reflect on my personal story and these experiences.

I grew up in a small Hungarian village under poor living conditions with my single mother who worked as a vineyard laborer. I always looked up to her: she was a strong and determined person. She raised me on her own and although we were poor, I never felt any need as a child. However, eight years ago, in my last year of primary school, a horrible thing happened: my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. She underwent a serious surgery, and the recovery lasted long, during which time she remained in the hospital and I had to take care of myself alone. When she returned home she realized that she can no longer support her family. She became desperate and escaped into alcoholism. I could not solve this issue alone and so I turned to our neighbors (my mother’s friends from Budapest who spent the summers in our village) for help. They helped my mother in dealing with her alcohol problems over the next seven years and they also took part in raising me.

That same summer I had to make a major decision about where to pursue my high school education. In Hungary you are given a choice, I had to decide whether to apply for an academically oriented high school that offers an opportunity to go to college, or to study at a vocational training school that prepares students for work after graduation. Despite my elementary school teachers suggesting the vocational track, I decided to apply for one of the country’s most selective and prestigious boarding high schools. The application required a challenging admission exam, and I spent the entire summer preparing for it. I was delighted when I learned that I was admitted. I felt that I gained control of my own life. In the following years, I lived in the boarding school and spent the weekends with my mother’s friends in Budapest. They became my second family.

In my new school, I met excellent teachers and inspiring peers, some of whom became my best friends. I also became aware of the several delays and gaps in my education that I needed to cope with. I kept working on them throughout the years, and I feel that I still have a lot left to do. When I was in 10th grade, I learned about the United World College (UWC) program, which presented an opportunity to continue my studies in an excellent international high school. It posed a profound dilemma for me, considering my mother’s condition and my own ambiguities about who I was, to whom I belonged. After I discussed this thoroughly with my peers and our family friends, I decided to apply. This was the second time I made a decision that led to a major change in my life. I was admitted, and continued my studies in one of the farthest UWC schools from home: in America, in New Mexico. The first year was extremely tough. My English was not so good and I often struggled keeping up in classes. Yet my teachers, my new friends and in general, the new environment helped me rethink my goals and reconsider my own place in the world.  

Now, at 21, I feel that I have control over my life due to these experiences, which have made me stronger, more mature, and more capable of giving me meaning to my own personal journey. I have realized that in order to find my place in this world I need to follow the path I started in my Hungarian high school. I need to  prove to myself and to my environment that a young Romani person can break out of poverty despite the circumstances in his/her life.

I am currently studying at Bard college (a small liberal college in New York State) with the help of a REF scholarship. I am not only grateful to REF for the scholarship, but I am proud that I can be part of this scholarship. This scholarship is helping me realize my dream in gaining more perspectives and studying in the United States. I would like to be able to add my own perspectives and values of what it means to be a Roma to others, therefore, I am planning to be involved in the Romaversitas program during the summer months. Unfortunately, I have not had the opportunity to do this yet,  but I am really excited to meet with young Roma people and I hope I can give them some new perspectives that will help them to connect to their identity.  I believe the biggest challenge for Romani people today is to believe in themselves.

Roma people face many challenges in Hungary. Among these challenges I would like to highlight racism. Racism is the most important issue impacting the Hungarian Roma people. Racism is a complex phenomenon and many people are not even aware of that. It affects the Roma both internally and externally. The external pressure such as discrimination in job hunting means that you as a Roma are not accepted by your environment as an equal and therefore you will be excluded from economics and other fields. The external pressure creates an internal pressure that negatively affects the discriminated person’s emotions, behaviour and mentality. For instance, when I was growing up, my peers often threw hurtful words at me like “gypsy”. Despite the fact that I didn’t know what the term meant exactly, the word itself hurt me externally, because I felt I was not being accepted as an equal by my peers and internally I felt I am less of a person than my peers. There is an article by Claude M. Steele “A Threat in the Air” that proves this point by explaining the reasons behind the academic gap between African and White Americans. According to the author, African American students are performing worse in schools because of internal pressures which are coming from the assumption of the White Americans that the African Americans are “not” good at academics.

Sometimes I imagine a world where everybody experiences discrimination, because I believe then everybody would understand then what it means to be discriminated against. They would then know what it feels like to be of less value than others, and how that will negatively affect your personal life, studies and achievements. However, the world does not seem to be that way. Today, the majority such as non-Roma people do not feel empathy to minorities, therefore they do not care to fix the situations caused by racism. Because of racism, Roma people also suffer from being socially, academically and economically disadvantaged. Disadvantaged people have several handicaps due to their lack of information, prior knowledge and financial resources. These handicaps start accumulating from a very young age and reinforce the cycle of poverty and exclusion.

Everybody’s identity matters. Roma identity is important for me, however the meaning of it in the public’s mind is “twisted”. Hungarian common knowledge says that to be a Roma means to be a “criminal, dump and untalented”. Because of the public’s opinion it was important for me to learn about the history of Roma, that they originated from India and belonged to the second cast. I am still looking for more positive elements of my Roma identity. A strong identity such as Roma should relate to positive values.

Another way to address the situation is to adopt ideas from other education systems. I had the chance to study in the Hungarian education system and in an international private school (UWC) in New Mexico. The Hungarian school is rather traditional and concentrates on lexical knowledge. In the international high school, I enjoyed the school’s partnership and closer relations between teachers and students. This school emphasized logical thinking over lexical knowledge. Logical thinking helped me to gain new perspectives on my own identity and social background. According to Darwin people have better chance of surviving if they are in groups (Struggle for Existence). A way to interpret this theory is: people in a group can support each other and gain new perspectives from each other. Furthermore, in this school I experienced that I am Hungarian Roma student, previously I couldn’t face the fact that I am a Roma, because of the Hungarian prejudices on Roma. However, in the United States I could look for my own identity as James Baldwin’s article, “What it Means to be an American” explored this topic that it was easier for him to gain strong elements of his identity in Europe. I learned in America “what it means to be a Romani” and it means you are not less valuable than others.