Govanhill’s Roma community – the largest in Scotland and second largest in the UK – are celebrating as seven young Roma adults are set to go to university or college next year.

“It’s a positive moment,” 24-year-old youth and community assistant Leon Puska told me, “but there’s still work to be done.”

The Roma people – alongside the Traveller community – are the most disadvantaged ethnic group in the UK.

On average, they have a shorter life expectancy than the rest of the population, often face hostility and discrimination and usually experience poor educational outcomes as a result.

But the work of Puska and his colleagues at Roma charity Community Renewal Rom Romeha have ushered in a new and growing group of young Roma people in Govanhill breaking into further education despite numerous barriers.

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19-year-old Marisa Kovaci is one of them.

A community development student at Glasgow Kelvin College, she is also looking to apply to continue on that degree path at the University of Glasgow.

Kovaci has volunteered as a community leader for Rom Romeha’s Govanhill Roma Youth Project since she was 14 years old. With an added degree, she hopes she can use that knowledge to continue working with and helping people in Govanhill.

She said: “It feels empowering. Before, I never heard of anyone saying they’re going to college or further education.”

“When I see my friends on the street, they ask me how college is. I feel like if just one of us makes a change, a lot of people can follow.”

It wasn’t that long ago that the idea of young Roma adults in Govanhill going onto further education was seen as much more rare.

One of the reasons: discrimination against Roma children in schools in Scotland, leading to many dropping out early. Kovaci said: “Roma kids were kind of separated from the others. Most of the time, I felt like everyone was against us.

“Many people called us slurs and names, with a lot of young people dropping out of school because of this treatment.”

Many of the young Roma adults in Govanhill today also have parents who were segregated into special schools just for Roma children in Eastern Europe.

Puska’s mother went to one of these “special schools” in the Czech Republic and his father faced a similar predicament in the Czech care system. “Both of them don't have an education,” he said, “but they know the sense of working hard and they make money to feed us.”

Last week, the European Commission brought Slovakia to the European Court of Justice for that very reason, arguing they violated their educational rights and condemned generations of children to racist and poor-quality schooling.

Puska was keen to stress that this is nothing new. Roma people have suffered persecution in Europe for hundreds of years and faced genocide under the Nazi regime. He said: “If you think about it, that’s not many generations ago.

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“Roma people are taught by their parents that society never accepted or respected Roma people – be careful who you trust.

"People say it’s cultural that Roma people don’t want to go to school. But in fact, it's not. Roma people do value education.”

It’s why this growing group of empowered young Roma people going to university is something that is being celebrated. The fact they are all studying community development doesn’t come as a surprise to Puska.

He said: “There’s a real spirit in Govanhill, we all see each other as family. We want to make this community better. We want to see more people in better jobs.

“I'm not saying they need to have further education, but visible jobs like working in a cafe, being a bus driver or working on a train so people can actually see Roma people. We can show how beautiful our culture is, how rich.

“Roma people are proud of who they are. And Scotland is making us feel welcome here.”

That’s not to say that there aren’t improvements that can be made.

Puska said: “I would love to see Roma educators. Someone who understands the Roma way of life.

“I would like teachers to understand the culture and history of Roma people. If training were provided, that would be great.”

John Halliday is the CEO of the Community Renewal Trust, the overarching charity that includes Rom Romeha, and has worked with Scotland’s Roma community for over a decade.

He said: “It's important that Roma support Roma. It’s often the best support when they've got their peers around them acting as role models.

“Loads of young Roma adults are doing fantastic work. We've got people who've been youth leaders running the sexual health awareness campaign that we did during COVID, that were youth leaders putting out translated versions of the public health advice.

“They're doing this off their own back to try and make a difference.”

Puska is contemplating studying psychology at the University of Glasgow further down the line. For the moment, though, he loves his job.

“I always wanted to work in schools. I wanted to work on the development of my people.

“I wanted to prepare people to figure out their future steps when they leave school - whether that’s further education, an apprenticeship, volunteering or learning a trade.

“And we finally achieved that.”