Stories of Change

Children at the Belgrade botanical garden.

Preschool for Jelena

Jelena* was scared to start preschool. She’s a 6-year-old who lives in Belgrade, Serbia, with her family. 

Jelena’s family are from Belgrade’s Roma community. They live in an informal settlement with other Roma families. Enrolling in school and pursuing an education aren’t givens for Roma children, since they are among the most marginalized children in the country. In order to get into elementary school, though, all children must finish preschool (which in Serbia lasts for one year and is before first grade, like kindergarten in the United States).

If Jelena is going to get an education, she had to start with preschool. She refused to go, though, saying she would rather stay home. Her mom and grandmother dropped her off, but she would run home crying. Getting increasingly desperate, Jelena’s mom reached out to CWS’s partner and our Protection through Education program. This program focuses on helping Roma children enroll in school and giving them the support they need to stay in school and not resort to living or working on the streets.  

The program team agreed to help. As a first step, we invited Jelena to join other children on a field trip to Belgrade’s botanical gardens. That way she could meet some of the children who would be her classmates outside of the classroom, in a more relaxed environment. She loved the idea, joined the trip and had a great time. 

Step by step, the program team kept working with Jelena. They visited her family and got to know her. A breakthrough moment came when Jelena told the staff that she wanted to be a hair stylist when she grew up. One team member told Jelena that she had also wanted to be a hair stylist when she was Jelena’s age. She explained that going to school is an important first step in chasing her dreams. She talked about the importance of education and all of the ways that it could help Jelena. Jelena listened closely and then agreed. She would no longer fight the idea of going to preschool.

We’re excited to say that Jelena is thriving in preschool. She started later than the other children, but she’s there every day learning. She is taking the steps she needs to towards her education–with her family and the Protection through Education team there to have her back. We’re excited to see her chase her dreams, one step at a time.

*Name changed to protect identity