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09 feb 2024
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I’ve always had people around me who supported me

She grew up in a large Roma family with 13 siblings and she knew from a young age that she wanted to go further in life. She was the first of her siblings to graduate from high school, then she got a job, but the idea of moving forward was still in her head. So she decided to take a risk, quit her job and go back to school. Denisa Billá is our scholarship recipient who, despite difficult conditions and several obstacles in her life, graduated from the University of Prešov. We bring you her inspiring story. 

Deniska is a petite, fragile-looking woman from the village of Petrova. She was born into a large family with 14 children, the seventh in the order. We met at our community centre in Sveržov, where she regularly went as a young student, and which also played a significant role in her future direction. The girls from the coffee shop next door made us lattes and we struck up a conversation. 

SCHOOL 

After primary school in Petrova, Denisa studied for three years to become a baker, but even then she suspected that an apprenticeship certificate would not be enough for her in life. So she finished her postgraduate studies in business and successfully graduated. During her high school years, she used to visit our community center where she took advantage of tutoring opportunities. „In return“ she would go there to volunteer for activities with the children. She got to know our colleagues better and they in turn sensed a talent in her. For example, our Jarka Krukárová, who runs the centre in Sveržov, and who the locals from the community and beyond cannot get enough of. It was she who was one of the many points of support for a young woman who longed to cross her shadow as a girl from a marginalised Roma community, but didn’t quite know how to go about it. 

WORK 

After graduation Denisa decided to find a job, as she needed to become financially independent, to take care of herself. Quite quickly she received an offer from her home village to work as an assistant at the municipal office. She accepted it. In addition to working at the office, she did a two-year teaching minimum in the field of teacher for grades 1-4, as she had always been drawn to children, but she didn’t have the courage to try university at that time. „I was scared to even consider it, so I did the minimum. And why was I scared? Well, because I didn’t have anyone around me who could set an example. No one in my family studied. I lacked motivation, encouragement. And the other thing was finances. At that time I didn’t know that there were scholarships and grants. So I continued my job at the municipal office. It was more or less paperwork, and I knew I didn’t want to do it all my life. Gradually, I started to question myself what to do next.“ 

UNIVERSITY? 

„Although I had done the teaching minimum, I felt that it wouldn’t be enough to go into real teaching. I knew that I did not have enough knowledge and especially not enough skills to stand in the front and educate children,“ Denisa recalls her feelings after completing the teaching minimum. 

Quite a turning point in her story came during her visit to our community centre, where she confided in a colleague that she was tempted to go to university, but couldn’t realistically imagine how she would manage and pull it off financially. He encouraged her and suggested that she should definitely try life outside of the village, that she was wasting her potential there. He also made it clear to her that going to university might not be nearly as unrealistic and difficult as she fears. She could, after all, receive a scholarship. 

At first I couldn’t imagine it at all. Living on my own, taking care of myself, and in a place where I don’t know anyone. My first reaction was – no! But then followed a conversation with Jarka and Anka from the community centre, who strongly encouraged me to at least give it a try. And so the decision was made. I’m going to go for it, I’m going to be a university student. I applied for full-time studies at the Faculty of Education of the University of Prešov. 

Denisa

SECOND HOME 

And what about her family? „Well, of course, my parents wondered how I could leave the job I had literally under my window and venture into the uncertain waters of higher education. They didn’t encourage me, but they didn’t forbid me either. But I needed someone to have my back, and that was the staff of the community centre here in Sveržov. 

I knew I could come here anytime for a word of encouragement or support. Yes, even financially. I used to come here for English tutoring, but I was volunteering here, so I felt like I had a place here. A place where people would never turn their backs on me. The community centre in Sveržov was like my second home.““ 

At first I considered studying social work, but Andrej from the community centre didn’t really recommend it. He literally told me: you did social work in the office even though you didn’t have school, you already know that. Somewhere deeper inside me he probably saw the teacher in me and encouraged me to go to the Faculty of Education at the University of Prešov. I listened to him.

Denisa

THE FATEFUL MEETING… 

…or rather God’s plan. Denisa said that this was the name of her reunion with a friend from driving school, whom she had not seen for a while, but from whom she had learned that she was going to study at the same school as her. 

 „Much to my surprise, she was also going to study at the same school as me at the same time. We were very pleased that we would not be alone in this. And so this meeting of ours really influenced many aspects in our lives. Together, we have overcome the challenges of our studies and the obstacles that life sporadically put in our way as two Roma girls. I don’t know if we could have done it without each other. It helped me a lot that I wasn’t alone. But as they say, everything is as it should be.“ 

UNIVERSITY LIFE 

The girls entered their first year. Since Denisa was not eligible for boarding school, they commuted to school together daily at first. They left at 5 in the morning and returned home in the evening at dark. After a month of this, they were so exhausted that they couldn’t study and decided to find a sublet. They managed to rent an apartment through a friend, which became their home for the next five years of their studies. 

If I had continued to live at home and commute to school, I might not have even finished.

Denisa

DISCRIMINATION 

It helped the girls to have each other all the time. They supported each other, kept each other afloat, mutually mentored each other. When one of them was going through a hard time, the other one was always there to support her. In short, it was very important that they were in it together, that there were two of them, Denisa describes their friendship.. 

I wonder if they have experienced any form of discrimination at the school. „In lectures, at first, our classmates made us feel that we were Roma. Yes, we felt racism and it was difficult. We also wondered that we were still encountering it at university.“ 

NECESSARY CHANGE 

Denisa recalls that they were also stressed because they did not speak Slovak well. Naturally, they spoke Romani language at home and at school they had to translate. However, everything bad is good for something. This „handicap“ made them start to speak only Slovak at home. 

„The most difficult thing for us was to acquire the right accent, as Slovak has never been and will never be our mother tongue. However, we started to learn Slovak diligently and read books. Normally we had to read, for example, 30 children’s books in preparation for class. However, we realized that this was very helpful. And so we pulled each other along, we went on. And over time, we gained a lot more respect among our classmates and teachers. Maybe a little more cringe-worthy than the rest of the class, but they gained. 

REAL LIFE 

Denisa had her state exam this June and her family was of course very proud of her. After school she started looking for a job. She has already received some offers, but she is still waiting for the right one. She is currently employed part-time at the Roma mission within KBS, where she can put what she has studied to good use in teaching children. She has returned home to Petrova to live, but is being pulled away again. After all, five years of independence clearly doesn’t compare to a parental nest full of younger siblings. „I’m open to all possibilities. Just because I graduated from teaching school doesn’t necessarily mean I have to go into teaching. I want to wait for the right offer,“ muses the young, likeable woman, who also knows that university wasn’t just about learning and a diploma, but a whole package of other life-important skills. 

I learned how to speak in front of people, I made friends with whom I am still in contact. I found out what life outside the village was like and most importantly, I gained self-confidence. 

Denisa 

ENLIGHTENMENT IN THE COMMUNITY 

Denisa is also trying to raise awareness in her community. She encourages local girls to go to school. Not only for their vocational certificate, but also to learn how to communicate with people, fill out forms, get a scholarship or other practical skills for life. In short, it encourages them to find out how the world works out there, beyond their home environment. Many of them get pregnant after high school and get stuck in a cycle of parental responsibilities that is then very difficult to break out of. 

These young ladies can equally benefit from the women’s groups that we do in our community centres, where we try to help them with their personal development, giving them a sense of belonging and also a space where they can express their feelings, their sorrows and their joys. We support and educate them, we try to strengthen their social relationships and give them a space for personal growth. The professionals in the women’s groups also teach these women about gender equality. 

She also raises awareness in the Roma mission, where she meets with girls and encourages them not only to faith, but also to education. „I want to be an example that it can be done. Money is often not the most important thing on the road to success. A social scholarship or support can always be arranged. I have received travel and study aids from People in Need, and when I needed a laptop, they provided me with that as well. Without it, I could hardly finish my studies.“ 

She also tries to encourage her younger siblings to learn as well. The brothers try and go to high school. I am very happy for them. Even if they start making excuses some mornings that they don’t want to, they just take one look at me and they know they won’t get away with it.“ 

WORD TO CONCLUDE 

„If I were to sum up my university times, I would say that on the one hand they were due to fate, luck, chance or divine intervention. I simply always met the right people at the right time to support me and I can’t imagine how I would have made it through without them. University wasn’t easy for me at all, I didn’t believe in myself and not infrequently I thought I wouldn’t even finish it. However, every time I couldn’t, there was someone who pushed me on. Whether it was the people here at the Sveržov Community Centre or my friends. On the other hand, I myself had to want it very much and tried maybe even a little harder than others. 

Yes, it is this combination of luck, strong will and the right people that can change lives. Denisa is living proof of this and we are very proud to have been able to stand by her side on her journey and watch her unbreakable will to move forward. We will be happy if the story of this nice lady inspires more and more young people. 

If you are interested in Denise’s story and would like to support other young people on their journey to a better education, you can do so, for example, by purchasing a Real gift on Šanca na vzdelanie alebo Ženská sila.. Thank you 

The project Gender Equality for Roma Communities, which was supported by Norwegian grants and the state budget of the Slovak Republic, is implemented together with EsFem and Vyrovnávanie Šancí

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