International Day for Street Children: Serbia

Matt Hackworth | April 12, 2013

Alen, guarding cars around 1 a.m. outside trendy Belgrade bars. Photo: Matt Hackworth/CWS

Alen, guarding cars around 1 a.m. outside trendy Belgrade bars. Photo: Matt Hackworth/CWS

It’s almost 1 a.m. and Alen Radosavijevic is hard at work.

The problem is he’s only 12. Like many of Belgrade’s street children, Alen works a job to help provide for his family, who are among the hundreds of thousands of Roma systematically and directly discriminated against because of their heritage.

Alen’s status as a Roma child doesn’t entitle him to clean water. Shelter.  Enough food to keep hunger at bay. But his mere presence outside Belgrade’s trendier expat bars is good enough to guard a Mercedes and a BMW for around 100 dinar – about $1.50.

Alen does have access to schooling in the afternoons but not every day. Sometimes he’s just too tired.

For kids like Alen and those who manage to stay awake, school can provide a profoundly stabilizing force in an otherwise turbulent life. For many Roma children, it is the day’s opportunity for a meal. A chance to get away from makeshift shacks and rummaging in dumpsters. A chance to play. To have a fleeting glimpse at what the rest of us count on as a normal childhood.

Providing special schools for Roma children certainly enhances potential. Yet it continues to keep Europe’s Roma pushed to the fringe, conveniently placed in a separate setting where access to basic needs available to the rest of society are easily kept beyond reach.

This is not the case with CWS’s growing program in Europe, and herein is its strength. While CWS has a targeted program for Roma, we are also setting a trend for integrating Roma children with their non-Roma peers of European descent.

The idea that Roma and Caucasian children will reach for the same crayons and push each other in swings is also a draw. It is new. It is different.

As CWS staff in Europe put it, the only way to break the cycle of Roma discrimination is to start with the next generation, hoping today’s preschoolers will grow up to see Roma kids not as a cheap way to guard an expensive car, but as a child who deserves as much love and care as any of the rest of us.

Matt Hackworth, Director of Marketing and Communications, CWS