FEATURE STORY

Marijana’s Story: From a Poor Roma Childhood to International Social Development Expert

April 8, 2015

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Highlights
  • With an estimated 8-12 million people, Roma are the largest minority group in Europe. Roma face significantly higher risk of poverty, exclusion and discrimination than their non-Roma neighbors.
  • Roma have the same aspirations, including for their children’s future, as their non-Roma neighbors. But Roma face worse opportunities, for example in access to quality education.
  • The World Bank is working to improve opportunities for Roma and is arguing that investing in Roma makes strong economic sense in aging Europe.

The numbers are grim. In Europe, almost three quarters of Roma households live in deep poverty. A Roma boy’s chances of finishing secondary school are 29% in the Czech Republic at the highest, and much lower in some areas. For Roma girls, the numbers are lower still. Fewer than half of all Roma men and only a quarter of all Roma women hold a job.

Marijana Jasarevic, an Operations Officer at the World Bank, is the embodiment of many of those numbers, and also none of them.

Marijana grew up in Serbia. Her parents worked picking vegetables and selling on the market. Neither one of them ever got past primary school.

“It wasn’t easy,” she says. “We were poor. I went to mainstream schools, not segregated Roma schools, and that helped, but what really got me through school was that my parents, especially my mother, believed in me.”

The Roma are Europe’s largest minority group, numbering 8 to 12 million. They often face discrimination and have trouble getting access to basic rights and services. Many Roma families cope with chronic hunger. Roma children are excluded from educational opportunities and often segregated into ‘special schools’ for children with special educational needs. Without education, people can’t find jobs, and the cycle of poverty and isolation continues for generations.



" It wasn’t easy... what really got me through school was that my parents, especially my mother, believed in me. "
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Marijana Jasarevic



The Roma are Europe’s largest minority group, numbering 8 to 12 million. They often face discrimination and have trouble getting access to basic rights and services. Many Roma families cope with chronic hunger. Roma children are excluded from educational opportunities and often segregated into ‘special schools’ for children with special educational needs. Without education, people can’t find jobs, and the cycle of poverty and isolation continues for generations.

Growing Up Poor, Female and Roma

The World Bank is focusing on improving the lives of the Roma, not only to ease the human toll of discrimination and poverty, but also because of the high economic cost in lost labor and productivity.

In the Balkans, the majority of working age people - Roma and non-Roma alike - do not participate in the labor force, representing an extraordinary loss of human capital for the long-run development of these countries. 

As Europe ages, between 10% and 20% of new potential workers in Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia are young Roma. Getting this group into jobs would increase national GDP and boost government revenues substantially.

For Marijana, as for so many young Roma, both the chance for success and the pain of discrimination began in primary school.

“It made me feel so bad,” she says, “when my classmates’ parents didn’t want their children sitting with me, with Roma kids like me.” 

But, she says, that helped make her more determined to stay in school, even though as a Roma and a girl, and coming from a poor family, she was triply disadvantaged. She says her extended family often complained to her parents about the folly of paying school fees for girls.

“They’d say, ‘why educate girls, she’ll just go off and get married and you won’t get anything, why are you wasting your money and time on her?’ Nobody except my immediate family believed I could do it.”

Despite the obstacles, Marijana and her parents are not alone. Data shows that the vast majority of Roma want to work in steady jobs. A large percentage of Roma parents want their children to go far in school. 

So the World Bank, in addition to other international partners, is supporting countries in lowering and ultimately eliminatingthe barriers Roma faceClosing the gap in early education is crucial. Offering decent housingpromoting access to banking, microcredit and job training are also key.

Taunts and Good Marks in Mainstream Schools

Inclusion is the most fundamental challenge, especially access to decent education, Marijana says. Despite being taunted with shouts of “Gypsy!” she is glad she went to mainstream schools, where the quality of education is much better, even though sometimes she had to cope with teachers who picked on her simply because she was Roma.

Once, in fifth grade, she did a craft project for a class. “I made it myself, but the teacher said, ‘you didn’t do it, someone else did. You are Roma, it is in your character to lie,’ he said, in front of all my classmates. According to him, I didn’t do it and I got a negative mark.”

But it was not all accusations and discrimination. “I had a very nice teacher of geography,” Marijana says. He said, ‘you are the only Roma in our school, we used to have one from a settlement, but she gave up, don’t do the same thing.’ And because of the trust my parents gave me, and some of the teachers gave me, I felt obliged to succeed and not quit. I can’t give up. I need to keep going and succeed.“

After university in Belgrade, she says, her family was so proud of her and all she’d done.

Marijana has been working for the World Bank for 7 years. She handles both Roma and non-Roma issues ranging from labor policy to education to social protection.  

But her most important impact might just come from her own history.

Especially when she is out of the office, doing her job, she is a clear example of success over daunting odds. “I try to be an inspiration for others, when I have a chance to do field visits as part of my work, I always use the opportunity to encourage Roma kids and their parents to go to school, not to give up--giving up is a luxury, it is important to be persistent.”


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