Roma, Slovakia (spectator.sme.sk) - A wave of religious conversion flows through Slovakia's Roma settlements. Spiritual organisations may show more success at integrating Roma than municipalities and social workers do.

In Čičava, a small village in eastern Slovakia, a priest is leading a Roma integration revolution. Ten years ago Martin Mekel moved with his two daughters, son and wife to the house that today also serves as a formation centre for Roma. The ground floor consists of a kitchen, a large common area for activities and masses and a room with bunk beds for students who want to focus on their studies. Pictures of saints colour the concrete walls, and wooden carved hearts remind visitors of God’s love.

Martin, who had first studied physics, is a tall, thin man with a gentle voice. When he smiles, he squeezes his eyes together instead of opening his mouth. He looks tired but not without reason. The past decade has been one of early mornings and late nights. He organises advisory meetings, workshops, music sessions, festivals and excursions, in addition to leading four masses per week. All of his work is aimed at the Roma minority. But for Martin, these activities are nothing more than a doorway to what he says is more important: building an identity in order to achieve social change.

Today the Greek Catholic Formation Center for Roma is working with approximately a thousand Roma across more than 13 villages. According to their own estimates 70-80 percent of their teenagers are attending high school (non-compulsory schooling after age 15), and about 30 students are enrolled in university. Those numbers are high compared to some villages, where only a few Roma teenagers, if any, are attending high school.

Sára is one of the students attending university. She lives in what is called the downtown ghetto of Čičava and studies pedagogy in the nearby city of Prešov. She wears pink shoes that match her sweatpants and socks in the same shade of blue as her T-shirt.

“Seven years ago, when I was 13 years old, I first came into contact with the Formation Center. Now I know I am not alone. And it has changed me. Without religion I would maybe have finished high school, but a university? Certainly not.”

Stories like this one are well-known throughout Slovakia. No matter where you go on the eastern side of the country, if you drop the name “Čičava”, you will see lights in the eyes of social workers. Many community centres have already started to work with the Greek Catholic Formation Centre for Roma in the hope that they will offer a solution for their own local integration problems.

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