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Story Publication logo May 27, 2015

Hungary: The Artist in Gusev


Image by Jeneen Interlandi. Hungary, 2014.

A string of courtroom victories have promised to bring an end to school segregation for Roma...


Gusev is the larger of two Roma settlements in the Hungarian city of Nyiregyhaza. I visited the settlement back in October to report on a school segregation case that had made headlines. As I reported in the New York Times, the court had ruled that the Greek Catholic Church was breaking anti-segregation laws by running a school in the settlement for Roma students, while keeping a much nicer school in the center city for non-Roma students. At the time of my visit, school officials had appealed that ruling, and the school itself was still open. The court ultimately rejected their appeal, maintaining that the separate school amounts to segregation. In response, education Minister Zoltan Barlog launched a campaign to amend the anti-segregation laws.

The following is from an interview with Marianna Pongo, an author and artist who grew up in the settlement, and who is raising her own son there, now.

More than a decade later, Marianna Pongo still remembers standing in line at the police academy on registration day. She had already been accepted to the school, all that remained was to pay the 20,000 Forints in tuition, which her father had saved up over months and given to her that morning, and sign the sheet indicating that they done so. When they got to the front of the line, the teacher in charge of registration handed her a pencil, and the classmate she was standing with, a pen.

That same teacher had already made it clear to Marianna that she was not wanted at the school. The job of police officers is to stop gypsy crime, she had told her. How can you, a gypsy girl, possibly be suited to that task?

"She did a very nasty thing," Marianna recalled as we sat in her kitchen one afternoon, over coffee and a plate of homemade, star-shaped, cinnamon cookies. "She erased my signature when I walked away and then tried to insist that I had never paid the money."

Marianna remembers calling her father and telling him. She remembers how he came to the school to fight for her and how the girls that had been with her also stood up for her. "We went to the head of the school, and they sorted it out," she said. "They made the teacher apologize; they fired her. And they asked me to stay on at the school."

But she was young at the time—just 19—and the incident had weakened her resolve. "I felt ashamed in front of my classmates," she said. "And after that, I didn't want to go to that school anymore." She spent the next couple years working odd jobs and painting. Eventually she enrolled in a two-year course in gardening, offered through a Roma job-training program; but the certificate she earned had proven useless as far as getting work was concerned.

"If they know you are from the settlement, they will not hire you," she told me. "Even if you have good appearance and good work ethic."

In the years since the police academy incident, Marianna's life had been a series of attempts to escape the settlement and establish herself in the world beyond. She and her husband had left the settlement together for a while and moved far enough away that nobody knew where they were from. He had managed to find a real job that way. But then they divorced, and Marianna returned to Gusev with her son.

Now she was 31, and had a workfare job, cleaning toilets in homeless shelters for 61,000 Forints (a little more than $230) a month.

This was not the job of her dreams, she said. But she was making due; she was painting and writing and trying to maintain some friendships outside of Gusev. A journalist from Budapest had arranged an exhibit of some of her paintings at a gallery there. And she had self-published a book on Nyiregyhaza's prostitution problem.

The city produced so many prostitutes, she said, that it had a street named after it in Amsterdam's red-light district. (This was common knowledge in both of the city's Roma settlements). Husbands submitted their wives to the practice, and teenage girls had been known to offer themselves up, sometimes eagerly, to the pimps. For them, it was a chance to see Amsterdam and Switzerland, not to mention, earn a living.

The things that happened to some of those girls were gruesome: one, who was developmentally disabled, was tortured to death by her pimp because she tried to quit. "They took her to where they keep the pigs and tied her down," Marianna told me. "They beat her and put things inside her. It was wintertime, and she was found naked, with one leg frozen into the pig feed. The people who found her managed to get her to the hospital, but she died there."

The men responsible for her death went to prison, Marianna said. But without the income from her prostitution, the girl's family was now living in the homeless shelter where Marianna worked.

There were other stories, too. A twelve-year-old girl had recently given birth to a baby from her 40-some-year-old pimp. The man had several prostitutes, and everyone knew him to be the baby's father. But nobody had bothered to report it.

"Everyone knows who the pimps are," Marianna said. "But nobody does anything about it."

Marianna had seen both sides of Hungarian education: the Roma and the non-Roma. She had attended a "regular school" outside the settlement, until she was 9 or 10. Then her family moved, and she switched to the school in Gusev. The difference, she said, was striking, even to her 10-year-old self.

"I immediately started getting much better grades," she said. "But the level of education was so poor, it was basically a special school." There were few books, she said, no supplies, and hardly any instruction. Teachers didn't teach, but only sat at their desks, either screaming at the children to behave, or ignoring them altogether.

She was determined to keep her own son in a regular school for as long as possible, though it was a bit of a commute to get him there, now that the busing program had been canceled.

To her, the solution to the school problem was simple. "There are two public transit lines with stops very close to the settlement," she said. "They can easily reach every school in the city with just these two lines." Bus fare was far too expensive for settlement families living off workfare contracts. But for the municipality, offering free bus passes to students in Gusev would be cheaper than running a whole separate school in the settlement.

"The question is, do they want us to move out of here," she said. "Or do they want to keep us here forever, and not let us access anything?"

It was close to 4 pm and the streets outside had come alive. Children were trickling from the schoolyard down to the main road, which was wide and paved, and onto the dust-and-gravel side streets, which were neither. Some of them lingered on the streets, or kicked balls around an uneven concrete lot a few blocks from the school. Others disappeared quickly behind brightly painted wooden fences, into yards run amok with stray cats and broken toys, and from there, into homes that lacked indoor plumbing as often as not.

Some men had gathered on a corner across from what looked to be Gusev's nicest building, a newly renovated barracks-turned-apartment-house that was rumored to have several units with functional toilets. The process by which such units were assigned was a mystery to the residents I spoke with, but they suggested that having kids helped a little, and being non-Roma helped a lot; some families made homeless by the financial crisis had trickled into Gusev in recent years and were living in the newer building. There was a chicken wire fence around it, and a security guard who locked the gate every night at 10. The men stood on the street just outside the fence, trading jokes and gossip, and talking soccer.

The settlement was a mixed bag. Some of those men were pimps. Others of them were trying to develop their own NGO, so that they could lobby the municipality for more resources for Gusev.

Marianna thought a lot about the kind of man she wanted her own son to grow into.

His first year at the integrated school had been tough. He came home crying almost everyday because the non-Roma kids called him a dirty gypsy and refused to include him in games and activities. And the other Roma kids—the ones from the other settlement—were too rough. They smoked cigarettes and picked fights with everyone. Marianna's son was not like that. Marianna talked to the principal about the bullying. And the principal, in turn, talked to the students. Things had improved since then, she said, so she was feeling hopeful about the future.


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