Costel Arsene works on heavy machinery by day, but on his afternoons off he helps neighborhood kids do their homework in a community center for Roma. His 13 year-old daughter is doing a lot better in school since she started coming to the center when it opened not far from her house two years ago. "She is now reading flawlessly, and her writing is quite good," Arsene says with a gleam of pride in his eyes.
That's an important achievement in a community where 33% of children drop out of school before age 12. Battling the depressing numbers is a forward-thinking city hall in Calarasi. Backed by a handful of enthusiasts, they are dedicated to offering Roma education as a way of finding long term jobs, securing stable incomes and getting on a more equal footing with the rest of Romanian society.
Arsene, a leader in his Roma community of Obor Nou, lobbied the mayor's office for this center. It does more than tutor kids, it overcomes many of the hurdles that stand between poor people and education. It offers a free meal a day, school supplies, clothes, and hot showers, which are often unavailable in a community without running water.
The World Bank, through a Social Inclusion Project (SIP), supported building the center and hiring staff. The mayor's office co-financed the project, and has since taken over operating costs. The local community pitched in EUR 1,000 worth of labor.
The $74 million SIP project, out of which over $17 million are managed by the Romanian Fund for Social Development, has supported many Romanian communities in their efforts to include Roma and other marginalized groups in over 130 locations around Romania.
In Obor Nou, three quarters of families survive on food assistance. That is not uncommon for Romania's Roma, the vast majority of whom are unemployed and live well below the poverty line. But there is hope in this grim picture, and that is early education. A recent World Bank report shows that Roma who attend pre-school are likely to stay in school longer and do better there, and therefore are more likely to get a well-paying job.