Youth as builders of a common future in Croatia

Roma girls at photography class /photo by: Juliette Delescluse

By Juliette Delescluse

Many small yellow houses from the Austro-Hungarian period with an often worn-out facade; some newly built white or pink houses with sometimes closed roller blind with the owner living in Germany but visiting his homeland country during summer; a large number of medium-size houses which are not completely finished but have flowered plot and well-maintained vegetable gardens in front of the houses; a renovated elementary school dating from the Tito’s Yugoslavia; and a large football pitch for Sundays’ morning football games. When you arrive for the first time in Kuršanec, you can feel what makes this place a typical Međimurje region’s village, this triangle-shaped northern region of Croatia which is also paradoxically at the same time one of the most rural and the most densely populated Croatian regions. 


  • According to 2011 Census, 16 975 citizens identified themselves as Roma (total population 4.284.889). However, the estimate of 30 000- 40 000 Roma living in Croatia is officially accepted (the Council of Europe estimate).
  • In March 2010, the European Court of Human Rights considered in the case “Oršuš and Others vs. Croatia” that the Republic of Croatia discriminated Roma pupils by creating Roma-only classes. The Elementary school of Kuršanec was one of the Elementary schools mentioned in this case.
  • UNDP supported Međimurje County to develop its own County Roma Inclusion Action Plan complementing the Croatian National Roma Strategy 2013 - 2020 by prioritizing local needs. This effort resulted in the adoption of Međimurje County Action Plan for Roma integration in April 2013.

Then you go outside Kuršanec. You can see a large plain, some wheat fields and you have to turn left, take a narrow worn-out road for one kilometre and half. A group of children wait for the bus which will take them to elementary school whereas another group decided not to wait and go to school on foot. All you can see around you is settlement. You arrived to the Roma part of Kuršanec. Metal roofing on brick houses; non-paved streets for worn-out shoes; and you can find - again - the flowers in front of the house.

In 2013, Roma continue to be one of the most disadvantaged groups in Croatia: 92.31 % of Roma live in relative poverty compared to 42 % of non-Roma living in close proximity; 26 % of Roma are completing elementary school and only 10% of them complete secondary school; 65% of Roma labour force is unemployed, compared to 24% of total population of the country. With the highest share of Roma in its total population, Međimurje County has 12 Roma settlements like Kuršanec spatially separated from the majority of the local population which especially results in geographical aspects of exclusion, particularly for youth generations.

“I got a new red bicycle for my birthday and they stole it. That is why I did not want to come here before for not seeing other kids driving my bike” says Emina, a 13-year-old non-Roma girl from Kuršanec.

Like most of non-Roma children, Emina never came to the Roma part of the village before UNDP CO Croatia started in January 2013 with the organisation of inter-ethnic activities for young people in Kuršanec as part of the project „Platform for Roma inclusion in Međimurje County, Croatia” (funded by „Open Society Foundations/Making the Most of EU funds for Roma“).

The percentage of the Roma children in local elementary school is as high as 68%. Despite high figures, there is no real integration into the society. There are two parallel worlds: one for Roma and the other for non-Roma children. Children meet in elementary school and have the opportunity to interact there, but it does not happen in a way that true friendships are created. Children from two parts of the village do not interact outside school classes; they don’t socialise or visit each other at home. Two communities live their own separate lives, their children meet, but connections between them are not lasting.

To foster interaction between Roma and non-Roma teenagers in Kuršanec, UNDP CO Croatia has organised many workshops for now a total of 50 of them in the premises of the Family Centre, the newly built but insufficiently used municipal community centre located in Roma settlement.

 Learning about photo-video techniques, making a theatre performance, knowing more about violence prevention, healthy lifestyles and gender equality are some of the topics covered during these very popular workshops led by NGOs or artist from Zagreb, Croatia’s capital. “I will be a lawyer or a photographer”, says Biljana, a 14-year-old Roma girl participating in the photo-video workshop with 7 other girls in the same age group, “I learnt how to use digital photo camera and now people in the settlement ask me to take photos for their wedding and birthday!..

Elementary school teachers, Roma teaching assistants and other local people working with youth in Kuršanec also had their own workshops dealing with inclusive education or issues which will allow them to conduct these workshops by themselves once the project ends. “We managed to make a difference in a really short period of time thanks to these activities”, says the elementary school pedagogue, “Non-Roma children involved in workshops want to come alone by bike to Roma settlement now and they even decided with their Roma friends to build a football pitch in Roma settlement for having a place where they could meet after school”.