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Through schooling, a few Gypsies join middle class

The Balazova family lived on nothing but potatoes and rice one month as they struggled to pull together the money to buy an electric typewriter for their teenage daughter.

It was one of many sacrifices that paid off. Today, 31-year-old Zuzana Balazova teaches at a university in Slovakia while finishing a doctorate in sociology.

She's among a small but growing number of Gypsies who are rising into the ranks of an educated middle class across Europe — offering some hope that the minority may one day be able to use schooling to break through walls of prejudice that have kept them in misery for centuries. The issue flared last summer and fall when France stepped up an aggressive deportation program against Gypsies, or Roma, casting them as ignorant beggars who were a strain on society.

"It was always clear to me that I didn't want to do ordinary work somewhere in a factory, getting up early in the morning, doing the same thing over and over," said Balazova, who has also founded a nonprofit organization that helps disadvantaged Roma children in Skalica, a small town in western Slovakia.

"My parents sacrificed a lot," Balazova said, slipping out of the office at the University of Central Europe to share her story. "I appreciate it and am trying to return something to them now."

Such success comes against many odds: deeply rooted anti-Roma stigma, segregated schooling in some countries that often condemns Roma to an inferior education, stifling social codes in their own traditions that discourage contact with the non-Roma world.

Many of Europe's roughly 8 million Roma still live in extreme poverty and are reviled by mainstream society. In the French expulsions, the government rounded up hundreds of Eastern European Roma and deported them to Romania and Bulgaria, a program that attracted worldwide condemnation.

But for some, new opportunities are opening up, thanks to affirmative action programs in countries like Hungary, private scholarships, the determination of people like Balazova — and the sacrifices of parents who are themselves sometimes illiterate.

There are no hard statistics on how many Roma across Europe make it into university because most countries in central and eastern Europe, where most Roma live, do not gather statistics on ethnicity — still a potentially disruptive force across much of the region. The Roma Education Fund says about 25 percent of Roma are still illiterate, and the United Nations says as much as 50 percent of Roma do not complete primary school.

However, Judit Szira, a senior adviser at the Roma Education Fund in Budapest, Hungary, said the number of university-educated Roma is "absolutely growing."

It's an observation echoed by many who work on Roma issues.

"We're facing a new phenomenon," said Lucia Nicholsonova, Slovakia's deputy minister for labor, social affairs and family. "In the past, we had to deal mostly with poorly educated Roma. Now, there's a new generation of them with a decent education."

But a decent education doesn't protect Europe's Roma from prejudice, which is based largely on a belief that many steal or don't want to work. Activists acknowledge that some Roma — who often stand out because of their darker complexions — do steal, but they stress it is generally only a visible minority. Many, they say, want to work and are desperate because they can't find jobs.

Balazova said she didn't feel discriminated against by her teachers because she was always an excellent student, but shop assistants sometimes watch her with suspicion.

More devastating is the discrimination that many face in the job market.

Viera Samkova, a 27-year-old from Lubenik, in eastern Slovakia, graduated from university in 2006 and had hoped to start working right away as a teacher. But four years later, she still can't find a school that will hire her.

"No employer directly said that my Roma origin is a problem, but they always come up with other reasons to reject me," said Samkova. To make ends meet, she has a temporary job advising the government on the education of Roma children and is pursuing a second university degree that would qualify her to teach disabled children.

Anti-Gypsy sentiment explains why so many Roma in the past have tried to pass as "white" once they make it.

Emese Balogh, a 29-year-old Hungarian Roma, once tried to hide her heritage. She applied for a job as a customs officer a couple of years ago and was asked during her interview if she was a Roma. She decided to lie, worried the truth would kill her chances, and her light skin helped her deception. But her boss eventually found out and fired her.

Furious, she grew determined to channel her energies to help other Roma and now directs an organization in Demecser, Hungary, that promotes education among young Roma, called the "Charitable Association For a Happy Life." She also dreams of going to college.

"When I was fired, I decided to fight," Balogh said.

The Roma are originally from India and began migrating to Europe about 1,000 years ago, as they fled Islamic raids into northern India. They still speak their own language, Romani, which is related to Hindi, and keep a number of cultural practices that set them apart from mainstream Europe.

"We are a square peg in a round hole," said Ian Hancock, a British Roma who is the director of the Romani Archives and Documentation Center at the University of Texas at Austin and a professor of linguistics. "Roma today still have no voice and no power and are distinctively different."

In his book "We are the Romani People," Hancock cites Rita Hayworth, Michael Caine and Charlie Chaplin as just some of the well-known figures with Roma roots. Chaplin, in fact, acknowledges his heritage in his autobiography, writing that "Grandma was half-Gypsy. This fact was the skeleton in our family cupboard."

Yet in another sign of change, many of the young, upwardly mobile Roma are no longer hiding their identity.

"There is a generation coming up of young people who will make a mark if given the opportunities. And they are proud of what they are," said Hancock, also the author of the recently published book of essays "Danger! Educated Gypsy."

Balazova says she never tries to hide the fact that she is a Roma.

"There's nothing wrong with being Roma — that's what I tell my nieces and nephews," said Balazova, who has bucked the tradition in some Roma families of teenage marriage. In her early 30s, she is still too busy with work and studies to search for a partner.

That sense of pride and defiance can be seen in Robert Rezmuves, a 28-year-old from Hodasz, Hungary, who is finishing a university degree in economics. Though his mother is illiterate and his father only made it to the fourth grade, he credits his family with encouraging his studies and vows to keep up his people's language and traditions.

"I always start off my conversations with new people saying 'I am a Roma' and I try to show that there are positive things about being a Roma. You can win the trust of people when you show self-confidence," he said. "To stop stereotyping and discrimination in Europe, educated Gypsies should show that inside the community, education matters."

Sarah Carmona, a Spanish Roma who comes from a family of flamenco musicians — an art form that Roma helped shape — recently finished a doctorate in history. Her mother doesn't know how to read and write, and her five brothers are all musicians and dancers.

She warns that "the question of education is not so easy to analyze."

"They might be uneducated or unschooled, but my family were known as artists in Spain. They are part of the cultural patrimony of Spain — and the cultural patrimony of the world."

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Gera reported from Ostrava, Czech Republic.