On The Road Blog
In Moldova, Embracing Diversity and Democracy
- By Joseph Bednarek on October 22nd, 2015
- Category: Blog, Europe and Eurasia, Featured, Featured Blog, Home
Moldova is the poorest country in Europe. Nearly half of its population is thought to be living abroad to earn money, and remittances are thought to account for 25 percent of the country’s GDP, the fifth-highest total in the world. Moldova is also a surprisingly diverse country, with Moldovans, Ukrainians, Russians, Gaguaz (a Turkic minority), and Roma all being prominent ethnic groups.
This mixture has often been a challenge for Moldova as a country, but I believe this diversity can help Moldova form a unique national identity separate from Ukraine, Russia, and especially Romania. However, to move the country forward, all ethnic minorities must have equal rights and opportunities.
GFC grassroots partner Ograda Noastra (Our Courtyard) has worked toward this goal for over ten years. Ograda Noastra was founded in southwestern Moldova by a young Moldovan man, Ruslan Stanga, who came from the Roma minority. Ruslan’s mission, and the mission of Ograda Noastra, was to inspire Roma families to keep their children in school and to show other Moldovans that Roma children could and should be included in school and society in general. Ograda Noastra started in the town of Cahul, where it continues to work closely with teachers, school administrators, and Roma parents to give Roma children equal opportunities for academic instruction, as well as incentives for academic achievement.
One of those incentives is Ograda Noastra’s Democracy Clubs, which meet at the school after classes are over for the day. The Democracy Clubs are much more than civic education workshops—they are an opportunity for Roma and non-Roma kids to hang out without the pressure of Soviet-style teaching, which is still in use in Moldova and entails being forced to answer questions or read out loud on the spot. During Democracy Club meetings, kids have fun and learn about all kinds of academic and non-academic topics, including subjects like the environment and gender relations.
The Democracy Clubs have been extremely successful in motivating Roma kids to not only attend classes but achieve high grades. Regular Democracy Club participants are among the best academic performers at the schools where the Democracy Clubs are hosted. Because of this success, Ograda Noastra has attracted the attention of the Moldovan government and large international donors.
In 2013, an international donor from Liechtenstein awarded Ograda Noastra a large grant to support the Democracy Clubs and educational inclusion for Roma children in schools all over Moldova, not just in the organization’s home region of southwestern Moldova. For many small NGOs, a huge new grant might have created problems with the organization’s core mission or changed its character.
This might have especially been a problem for Ograda Noastra, which won this grant soon after its founder left the organization to become the special advisor on Roma issues to the prime minister of Moldova. Fortunately, Ograda Noastra program manager Tatiana Costev, a schoolteacher from Cahul, stepped in as executive director and did an amazing job transitioning the organization to become a national NGO.
On my recent trip to Moldova, we had the chance to visit one of the newer Democracy Clubs, which had been set up at a school in the northern Moldovan village of Gribova (population 2,000). We left Chisinau for Gribova with Tatiana, another Ograda Noastra staff member, and a driver. We drove for nearly three hours through Moldova’s lovely countryside before arriving in Gribova, which has just one school with about 100 children.
We were greeted in Moldovan traditional style with children dressed in Moldovan national costumes who served us bread, salt, and homemade wine. We were then treated to a short display of Moldovan songs and folk dances by the students. We continued on to one of the classrooms where the Democracy Club operates, and talked with some of the kids.
I’ve been to dozens of villages all over the former Soviet Union, and normally kids are a bit shy, but these kids seemed very open and thrilled that we were visiting. But I don’t think they were especially interested in me, the American in the group; they were far more excited to see Tatiana, whom the kids absolutely adore, even though they don’t see her that often. Tatiana has a classic best-teacher-you’ve-ever-had style. She is open, caring, and clear with her instructions and questions, and she remembers every single kid and their families.
Teachers and kids and parents all seem to respect Tatiana and want time with her to give her updates about their lives. Tatiana processes all this information during, before, and after visits, and she told me that the school and the kids have changed a lot in the two and a half years that Ograda Noastra has worked in Gribova. The kids are much more active, and the teachers are much more open to new ideas and techniques for motivating the kids.
One of the Democracy Clubs’ main focuses is encouraging kids to volunteer in their communities. The progress toward this goal was displayed when we left the school with the kids to go to the nearby park for a group cleanup. Armed with trash bags and gloves, 30 or so kids cleaned up the small park in under a half hour, and they seemed to be having a lot of fun doing so. I was very impressed by how enthusiastic the kids and parents were in these efforts. If Ograda Noastra can have this kind of impact in a small, out-of-the-way village like Gribova, I believe that Moldova will have a bright future.