• Emilia Sava
  • Joi 23 sep 2010

Leslie Hawke, known for her charity work in Romania, believes that Europe could learn from America’s experiences with racial integration.

Why did you star this organization in Romania?

I am working in Romania for two reasons:  1. Romania is where the U.S. Peace Corps sent me.  I really didn’t have any choice in the matter.  2.  I met Maria Gheorghiu, an inspired teacher and crusader for education and we started Ovidiu Rom together.  Without Maria, I would not be here – because none of it would ever have happened without her. The Alex Fund in New York raises money for our work in Romania, but otherwise we have no affiliates.

When did you first come to Romania and what were your first impressions?

I arrived in February of 2000. I was pretty shocked to see children begging in front of brand new bank buildings and Orthodox churches.  I was shocked to see people in suits, carrying briefcases, walk past them without even a glance.

What is your impression of Roma communities?

We mostly work with people of Roma descent, not traditional Gypsies.  I have been to many ghettos filled with people of Roma descent – in  Bucharest, in Bacau county, in Constanta county, in Dambovita county…  In Sector 5 there is a street called Pangarati that is not paved and where there is one water spigot for 180 people.  I think most Romanians would be shocked to learn that people live like that in Bucharest.  We have tried to get a water pipe installed so people can connect to it, but it’s complicated and no one with the power to solve the problem has the will to figure out a solution.

The importance of education

How do you see them?

All the Gypsies or Roma whom I know personally just want what most other Romanians want: a decent job , a home they can be proud of, quality healthcare, and the possibility of a better life for their children.   The problem is that they are uneducated – which makes them unemployable for anything but day labor.  And unfortunately, many schools are still not very welcoming when a Gypsy parent gets up the courage to register their children in the system.  However, I am happy to say that I see that changing.  I know that the Ministry of Education is committed to their getting an equal education.

From your experience, how hard do you have to work for Roma integration?

Actually, Ovidiu Rom’s focus is not on Roma integration.  That will only really happen about 20 years AFTER Roma children have the benefit of the same start in kindergarten that most Romanian children receive.  Brain development between 3 and 5 is crucial to the acquisition of the mental skills necessary to handle 21st century jobs.  That’s a fact.

The American lesson

What should the Romanian authorities do about the French expulsion of Roma?

I can’t answer that question because I am not an authority on European law.   But I think the French authorities should apply to emigrants THEIR OWN law that requires ALL children to enter the school system at age 3.

Why do you think this Roma problem is so difficult?

It all started about 600 years ago when the Orthodox monasteries in Moldova first enslaved them.  Slavery is REALLY bad for one’s self-esteem and opportunities for education!  Fifty years ago America went through the same issues with regard to Black people that Europe is now experiencing with Roma.    Europe could learn a lot from what DID work and what did not work in America.  A lot of things we tried were disasters but early education has worked.  We still have race problems but now there is a large, highly productive black middle class.  Fifty years ago it was tiny.

Ethan Hawke, involved in Ovidiu Rom fundraising

How much have you invested in these programs?

Again, we have never done “Roma programs”.  Our programs are for any child whose family lives below the poverty line.  And I’m not sure what you mean by “invested”.   We have a budget of 450,000 euros for 2010.  That’s down from a high of 525,000 in 2008.  However much money we are able to raise for 2011 will be spent getting poor children in kindergarten and giving their parents food coupons if the child has perfect attendance.

Is your son supporting you in the work of Ovidiu Rom?

He and his wife support us with their money, their participation in our Halloween Ball and other fundraising events in New York, and their encouragement.  My grandchildren support me by making me incredibly happy.  Skyping with them is almost as good as being there.

Leslie Hawke
co-founder „Ovidiu Rom”