How a Buddhist-inspired high school is boosting Hungary’s Roma

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How a Buddhist-inspired high school is boosting Hungary’s Roma

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In a Hungarian high school, members of the long-oppressed Roma community are taking inspiration from the way another such group, the Dalits in India, set its sights on reform and took control of finding a better future.

Dr. Ambedkar never set foot in Hungary, much less in the provincial northwestern city of Miskolc where the school was established in 2006. But members of Hungary’s Roma community learned about Dr. Ambedkar’s transformative work, in which he helped outlaw India’s caste system last century and improved the lives of his fellow Dalits in India. And they recognized a kindred spirit.

The Dr. Ambedkar School is working to empower intellectual and political leaders from within Hungary’s Roma community, based on the Indian social reformer’s example. And while his neo-Buddhist worldview may seem like an odd bedfellow for Roma activism, the two are finding remarkable synchronicity among the school’s students.

“The role of the school is more than that of an educational institution, but rather a community institution that treats students with respect and dignity, providing a sense of hope and respect to Roma who are otherwise treated as outcasts by the mainstream society,” says Jekatyerina Dunajeva, a political scientist with Central European University’s Romani Studies Program. “What permeates the culture of the school is a keen awareness of justice, fairness, and opposition to oppression.”

Lessons from the Dalits

Dr. Ambedkar was a leader in India’s independence movement in the 1930s as well as a member of the country’s oppressed Dalit group. In 1956, he founded the neo-Buddhist movement, also known as Ambedkarite Buddhism, which looked at Buddhism as a vehicle for social reform. In particular, neo-Buddhism turned into a means for Dalits – who face rampant discrimination at the bottom of Hinduism’s caste ladder – to leave the system that was oppressing them.

Romani activist János Orsós learned about neo-Buddhism in the late 1990s by reading a biography of Dr. Ambedkar. Then in 2005, he traveled to India, from which the Roma ethnic minority originally emigrated nearly 1,000 years ago.

There he saw that both members of the Roma community and Indian Dalits struggle with problems like racism, discrimination, and segregation. In his memoir about finding Buddhism, Mr. Orsós noted he was most impressed by his visits to Dalit Buddhists’ schools.

“The Dalit people run these institutions themselves, not white people,” he wrote, “I saw people like me take their destiny into their own hands through Buddhism and that is what I wanted to do.”

Hungary’s educational system is highly segregated. Many Romani children attend Roma-only schools that are often underfunded and staffed by poorly trained teachers who do not understand Roma’s distinctive culture and history. Today, 60% of Romani children drop out of school, compared with 8.9% of the general population.

Mr. Orsós believed that his Roma community could be empowered and emboldened by Ambedkarite Buddhism’s basic principles: educate, agitate, organize. So he founded the Dr. Ambedkar School in 2006.

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“We are a caste”

The school draws its 125 students from Miskolc, which has a population of around 161,000, and its surrounding villages, of which around 58,000 are Romani, according to Hungary’s 2012 census. Teachers prepare students for Hungary’s national graduation exams in areas like mathematics, literature, and history. But students also learn lessons drawn from Dr. Ambedkar’s life of activism.

“I would call myself an activist, too,” student János Kun says. Like Dr. Ambedkar, Mr. Kun has grown up in extreme poverty and struggles against racism.

“There are eight of us in my family,” the 20-year-old says. “Six of us children live in one room.” His parents have only a sixth grade education, and he will be the first of his family to graduate from high school. He is the eldest child and helps care for his younger siblings in a house without running water.

Romanis and the Dalits are the same, Mr. Kun says, down to their social status. “We are a caste,” he declares. “We are at the very bottom level of society. But I’m not embarrassed to be poor.”

Mr. Kun is honing his activism by organizing summer camps for younger Romani children where he helps show them paths out of poverty. But he also organizes on behalf of his school. He personally recruited nearly half of his graduating class to attend the school, including Petra Békési, Mr. Kun’s 21-year-old classmate, who says that he first told her about the school when they ran into each other on a Miskolc city bus.

“My friends and I who go to this school strive to show people that it doesn’t have to be this way,” Mr. Kun says. “Anyone can learn. Anyone can develop themselves.”

Plenty of obstacles

Dr. Ambedkar’s story and the activism-oriented school of Buddhism that he founded help students develop a positive self-image, says Tibor Derdák, the school’s director. “We are all equal in our spiritual development,” he says.

Few students actually convert to Buddhism, he adds, although he says the message of equality and self-esteem touches everyone: students, teachers, and parents alike. But while several staff members, including Mr. Orsós, are Buddhist, the school does not offer courses on Buddhism and does not condone proselytizing. Publicity about Buddhism in the school and community has incurred harassment from the authorities in the past.

Even without the suspicion that authorities show toward Buddhism, the school and its community still have to deal with the government’s prejudice against Roma and desire to control the country’s education system.

Hungary’s current government, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, has drawn broad criticism for using racist rhetoric to promote xenophobic, anti-migrant policies. On campus, Mr. Orbán’s hostility to minorities is nothing new.

Governments have come and gone in Hungary, says Mr. Derdák, but none have improved living conditions for Roma. “Thirty-four years have passed since the fall of communism, and nothing has changed,” he says.

Mr. Orbán’s allies in his Fidesz party donated the school’s Miskolc building as well as 100 million forints ($280,000) for renovations. However, as a private, independent school, the Dr. Ambedkar School does not receive regular government funding and opted against receiving any additional state aid.

Other private schools serving Roma communities decided to accept state funding – and saw the government immediately step in to replace teachers and staff. Mr. Derdák calls it a cautionary tale. “We don’t like the way the state is influencing the school’s day-to-day functioning,” he says.

The school’s independence has limits, though. The same economic policies that affect Roma throughout Hungary are also negatively impacting the Dr. Ambedkar School.

The biggest threat to the school’s future, Mr. Derdák says, is the Fidesz government’s “work-based society” program. Under this scheme, the government lowered the mandated school attendance age from 18 to 16, and expanded government work programs to provide employment to young people. Mr. Orbán has promoted the idea that those who aren’t succeeding in school should be diverted into the workplace where they can practice practical trades.

But the work-based society program creates problematic incentives for Romani students, who are already struggling against discrimination in hostile school environments, to leave and seek out an easy and immediate paycheck, according to Mr. Derdák. Instead, they end up in dead-end, menial employment for village and town governments, which have little incentive to provide additional professional training. “The vast majority end up in the same subordinated, oppressed situation,” he says.

But the Dr. Ambedkar School’s empowerment-centered educational model could change that, says Dr. Dunajeva, the political scientist. Dr. Ambedkar’s philosophy is the key. “It’s the inspiration for Roma youth to not only acquire basic skills,” she says, “but also develop a strong identity that will equip them in their future quest for social justice.”


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