As a child, she used to hear that Romani people from Jarovnice in Slovakia don’t go to university. Today Natália Kalejová is doing exactly that and planning to travel the world.

Špeciálna pedagogička Natália Kalejová. Foto – archív NK

Slovenskú verziu textu si môžete prečítať tu. Rozhovor preložila Gwendolyn Albert pre portál

She disagrees with the claim that education in her country is being provided free of charge and that it is accessible to anybody. In order to become a correspondence student at the university, she has to work in addition to studying, and part of her pay aids her grandparents, who raised her.

Kalejová says she used to feel that life was unfair because she had to work hard for things others take for granted: “However, then I realised that compared to many people, I am the privileged one, and my anger changed into gratitude. I won’t lie, though, it took a long time for me to begin thinking that way.”

In this interview Kalejová explains, among other matters, why living in a settlement does not automatically mean one’s living conditions are poor, how she became an assistant pedagogue despite having never imagined she could, and what her first day in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, was like.

What was your childhood like?

I lived with my grandmother and grandfather in Jarovnice, in a settlement. However, we were included properly in the village, we didn’t live on the outskirts in the dirt and the garbage without access to water, as many people apparently imagine when they hear the word “settlement”. The village was always divided into the part where the Roma lived and the part where the non-Roma lived. As for my childhood, I lacked nothing, it was a beautiful childhood. It will sound like a cliché, but there was a field and a forest right behind the house, where we fooled around every day before falling into bed at night because we were tuckered out. What’s more, my grandparents had a garden at their house where they grew raspberries and strawberries, which we usually picked before they were ripe and then our stomachs hurt after eating them. (Laughs)

Do you think you have to emphasize that the settlement where you grew up isn’t on the outskirts of the village and that you don’t live in dirt?

 Yes. In Slovakia, when one says “settlement”, most of the majority society imagines dilapidated huts, piles of trash and no running water. Unfortunately, we also have such settlements and there are more of them than there should be, but it’s not possible to tar everybody and everywhere with the same brush. For example, we had running water, but we didn’t have a water heater, so we had to heat it ourselves. Even that is big progress, though, my Mom grew up in worse conditions and my grandparents in even worse ones. It’s changing for the better. After some time we moved into newer housing where we still live today. In the beginning there were three of us sisters, today they already are both mothers themselves. The middle sister and I shared a room, but now I have that room to myself. Our youngest sister used to sleep with our grandparents because she was afraid.

Among the Roma, the kitchen is the headquarters, whether the house itself is newer or older. Everybody gathers there, cooks together, eats together, watches television together, relaxes together. The kitchen is simply the heart of the home.

Why did you live with your grandparents?

 It was their decision, because Mom gave birth to me when she was 16, and she didn’t know how to take care of me properly yet. My grandparents had wanted more children, but that hadn’t been possible for medical reasons. When I was born, they agreed with my Mom that they would raise me. I believe it was a good decision for me and for my Mom. I live with them to this day and consider them my parents.

What was it like to be raised by them?

Quite strict, both are rather conservative. For example, lip gloss, makeup, a miniskirt or straightened hair were taboo. I always had to be home by a certain hour and I also had to wait to go on dates, or to discos. On the other hand, my grandparents would do anything for me, and thanks to them, I wanted for nothing. I know they meant well, they just wanted to raise me as they were raised.

Are you in contact with your Mom too?

We are in contact, we have a good relationship, but I wouldn’t say we’re mother and daughter. We’re more like two friends.

When you were a child, what did you dream of becoming?

I read a lot, and I always imagined myself as the protagonist of the book around which the plot was revolving – the princess, the superhero, or the tomboy. I never had any specific work ambitions or dreams, though, those didn’t come until I was in high school.

In what sense?

For high school I went to Prešov, 25 km from Jarovnice. It was the first time I had ever left our village, so I felt like I was in the big city. I found school fun, I saw that I was good at it. I also got to spend time with different people. My friends from Jarovnice wanted to start their families and get married, while I felt like moving on, traveling. The new crowd in high school started taking me on trips with them, and I was absolutely beside myself to see that one could live like that.

I told myself: “My dear, no more fairytales, you must start educating yourself if you want to go somewhere and live like that.” The allowance from my grandparents wasn’t enough anymore, they couldn’t give me more, I know that. Eventually they themselves were also one of my motivations for changing – I wanted to contribute to the household.

What was your first temporary job?

During my first summer vacation in high school I convinced a girlfriend to go to Bratislava with me. I believed we would certainly find something there. I don’t know why I was so naive… So that’s how the two of us heroines ended up in the capital. We didn’t have the slightest idea how the transportation system worked there, we’d never been anywhere on our own before. We found accommodation at a dormitory. By the way, speaking of the dorms, they were in a worse state of repair than some of the settlements. (Laughs). We began looking for work through an agency. We actually did whatever came up – we unloaded deliveries, worked as sales clerks, as barmaids and as waitresses. My first payday back then amounted to EUR 700, which I recall was an enormous amount of money at that time.

I immediately sent my grandparents EUR 100 so they could go have a good meal somewhere. I didn’t know what to do, I was so happy, and naturally I spent it all faster than was necessary. However, I learned from that and went back home with money I had saved.

Did you continue that the following summers?

Yes, ever since I have been working every summer, and in addition I received a scholarship, so I was able to study a great deal on top of working. I believe I learned to manage money well and it aided me with setting goals. For example, I’d always wanted my own car so I wouldn’t have to rely on the buses. I saved up, a hundred euro at a time, and made enough money for driving lessons and then for a used car. Another milestone was to start exercising, to be able to buy a monthly gym pass, as well as to assist my grandparents, who were in a bad financial situation.

What are your current milestones?

University. That was my long-term aim since ninth grade, when a teacher told me she had never heard of a Romani person from Jarovnice going to university. Although I was one of the best pupils in my grade, that’s what she said to me. I was startled. I just looked at her and told her I planned to go to university, I just didn’t know which one yet. She laughed at me and made fun of me in front of the whole class, so the rest of the children also laughed at me. Fortunately, that didn’t have much of an impact on me – rather, I just grumbled to myself during the class that I didn’t care, I was going to university anyway.

Which you did.

Yes, but unfortunately – and fortunately – as a correspondence student.

Why is that unfortunate and why is it fortunate?

I disagree with the claim that education is being provided absolutely free of charge and that it is freely accessible by anybody. As I’ve already mentioned, my grandparents’ economic situation worsened, and for that reason I felt the need to aid them even more. Naturally I have my own expenses and I wanted to be financially independent.

The “unfortunate” part of being a correspondence student is that I would prefer to attend in person, to establish relationships with my classmates, to extend my life as a student and postpone my “adult duties”. At the same time, the correspondence format is fortunate for me, because I have managed to fulfill what I made up my mind to do – although I am a Romani woman from Jarovnice, I am a student at university.

Was it a difficult decision for you?

It wasn’t difficult for me because from childhood I’ve been accustomed to not receiving things on a golden tray. If I want something, I have to get it myself. In the beginning I was slightly aggrieved to have to think, at every step, about whether something would pay off for me or not and whether I can afford it. If I buy something, I know there is something else I cannot have, but then I see that somebody else has everything so easy.

Somebody else gets a car as their 18th birthday present, gets an allowance equivalent to my salary, goes on five vacations a year, skiing, documents it all on social media, presents it in such a way as if it were the common standard for everybody. Or when I was talking with my classmates about what perfume to buy at Christmas, I Googled the brands and learned that they all cost more than EUR 100. I imagined all I could have for that money… That makes me terribly angry. I used to be depressed by how life is unfair – for one person, everything falls into their lap, while I have to work hard for what I have. However, later on I realized that compared to some people, I’m the privileged one, and my anger changed into gratitude. I won’t lie, though, it took a long time before I began thinking that way.

You probably don’t like hearing people say “Where there’s a will, there’s a way”, or “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.”

Oh yes, those quotes from the motivational pages on social media are my favorites. [Laughs] However, they do have some truth to them – to a great degree, things depend on oneself. We minorities, or those of us from worse social conditions are fighting even more than others, probably. For us, even a EUR 40 scholarship is enough during primary school. For the same reason, in addition to working fulltime and doing my university coursework, I still take one-day temporary jobs, for example, counting the votes for the local election commission. After all, I know I could be much worse off if I didn’t, because there is no chance that my grandparents would manage to pay for everything themselves, and I have no interest in humbling myself anymore. I’m proud of what I’ve achieved so far. However, I ignore such motivational talk from people who have never achieved anything in life themselves and who enjoy showing off what their parents have. There are other things that make me angrier.

Such as?

If somebody praises me just because I am Romani. For example, talk about how wonderful it is that I, as a Romani woman, am in university, or that I’m different from other Roma. Would anybody say such a thing to a non-Romani girl? Of course not.

That reminds me of the reactions of the nativists here after people began arriving from Ukraine.

Exactly! Because some came dressed in brand name clothes and driving good cars. They should probably have rolled around in the mud before fleeing and traded their Jeeps for used Škoda Favorits.

So after weighing all the pros and cons you decided to become a correspondence student?

Yes. I told myself that after high school I would take a gap year, work, and then apply to university. In the interim I changed my mind about which field to study, because I had been thinking of more than one.

First they hired me in a bank, which at the time was my dream job – I’d go to work in suits and blouses and feel quite important. (Laughs) However, the pandemic came, and with it, mass layoffs which affected me as well – I never even started work there. Then they offered me a position as an assistant pedagogue at the school in Jarovnice, which presented several advantages – a stable income, a sure job for a longer time, and the fact that I would not have a long commute. In the beginning I didn’t see it as realistic, as I’d not had any relationship to children before then.

Well they must have won you over, because you’re still at the school.

In the beginning it was difficult because I actually had no relationship with the children. I persuaded myself to stick with it while looking for something else. Over time I asked around and I was still thinking about what I would study. The breakthrough came at the end of the school year, when my pupils made a little heart for me on which they wrote “thank you” for all I had done and they all gave me hugs. At that moment, something moved in me. I told myself maybe it’s not as bad with the children as I had expected. I agreed to return the next year.

You also decided to study pedagogy.

Well exactly, who would’ve expected that? When I saw, at the end of the year, that the pupils who once had problems reading a full sentence had started reading books, or that more of the “failures” had made progress in some subjects and were now getting passing grades or even better, I was moved to tears. That was the moment I told myself that none of them should be failing anything, and so I applied for a correspondence student position in pedagogy at Prešov University. However, what changed first and foremost was my motivation. By now the children are my motivation – it is definitely not the pay. I believe people working in the schools deserve higher wages.

What is your job description as an assistant pedagogue? What does your average day look like?

I aid the pupils who need support in some way. They either have, for example, attention deficit disorder, or they are dyslexic or dysgraphic, or their mother tongue isn’t Slovak, or learning is more difficult for them for some reason. I work with them individually so they will keep up with the class and not be ashamed to read, write or count in front of the others.

I follow the schedule and what the homeroom teacher has planned. I agree with her on the material and on what to focus most during the class. I also consult with the psychologist, especially if something is not clear or not specified as to whether a pupil has a disorder and if so, what kind. Ahead of each class I do the preparations, I make my own teaching aides and materials. Currently I am working with five pupils who need a special approach.

Is there something you have learned from the children?

A: I have learned to “not judge a book by its cover”, and also I have learned that we are all equal. They are not concerned with who is better dressed or has the latest school bag. They don’t even envy the girl with the prettier barrettes in her hair. I also learned to take pleasure from small things, for example, when pupils first write their name and surname without making mistakes, or when they get the top grade for a dictation. Other people in Slovakia should also be inspired not to judge books by their covers. We all view Romani people and anybody different to be a threat in general. Once I met a Black guy at the bus station in Sabinov and people couldn’t stop staring at him. They whispered to each other asking what he was doing here and wondering whether he might assault them. Another time, we were going with the children from a Youth Center, where I sometimes volunteer, to take a trip to the Tatra Mountains. We were traveling by train, but we couldn’t all sit together, so some children sat next to passengers whom they didn’t know. Those people drew away from them, turned up their noses and exchanged disgusted glances with each other. However, I have to stress that there was nothing wrong with the children. Their clothes were clean, their faces and hands were washed, they behaved well. Many never said a single word because they were overwhelmed to be riding in a train for the first time and to be outside of Jarovnice. I was quite sorry that they had to experience that. It has affected them for no good reason. There is an enormous problem with accepting difference in this country.

Do you want to keep working as an assistant pedagogue?

A: I think so. However, before I do that, I would like to go abroad for a longer time and perfect my English, because today one can’t get by without it. I want to take advantage of at least two stays abroad through the Erasmus+ program and get to know people from other countries and their cultures. At the same time, I want to travel around Europe on my own, and then maybe other parts of the world too. If I achieve that, I will be prepared to settle down and fully dedicate myself to the children at school. Recently I joined the Media Incubator project, which is giving Romani people from Slovakia and the Czech Republic space to express their views of minority-related subjects. Usually it’s members of the majority giving their opinions, and not always correctly. I found out about it absolutely randomly, through a classified ad from the producer, Magda Kmeťková, which a friend passed on to me. I wrote to her and immediately got the feedback that she would be happy to collaborate. Thanks to this project I am learning how to interview people, film them, edit, work with technology and much more. I found out that I also enjoy moderating and writing stories. I certainly want to continue with that, it was one of the reasons I also attended the Academy of Minority Journalism held by the Romano fórum portal.

Natália Kalejová (23) is from Jarovnice in eastern Slovakia. She graduated from high school with a concentration in business in services and trades. Currently she is a correspondence student at Prešov University, where she studies preschool and elementary school pedagogy. In addition, she works as an assistant pedagogue in a primary school in Jarovnice, collaborates with the Media Incubator project, and volunteers as an animator in children’s summer camps.

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