A handful of Roma teenagers were just beginning to believe they could dream big dreams for their lives. But those dreams – of overcoming the stereotypes and expectations of being born a “Hungarian Gypsy” – are now at risk.

The New York Times recently reported that the economic downturn has triggered a wave of violence against the Roma in Hungary, where Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) field personnel Clista and Glen Adkins work with these marginalized people. After several years of seemingly less discrimination, old stereotypes and prejudices are aggressively returning.

No one is pretending to like ‘gypsies’ any longer, according to the couple.

In southwestern Hungary, just outside the city of Pecs, the Adkins serve at Gandhi School, a residential high school for as many as 300 academically gifted Roma teenagers seeking a better future.

The Gandhi School was started 15 years ago and remains the only high school for Roma students in the country. Public schools are open to them but are often hostile environments for this minority, according to the couple. Though laws exist to protect all students, some schools still isolate Roma students into classes for the mentally handicapped. Only 3 percent of all Roma students in Hungary graduate and go to college, they said.

“Many students want to have big dreams, but reality here tends to squash those dreams before they even have time to take root. They have a hard time holding onto hope,” Glen Adkins said.

Most Gandhi School students come from impoverished families, many of whom don’t have a steady income, healthcare or balanced nutrition. Their parents often are suspicious of and resistant to education, preferring their children to marry early and start a family. Beyond providing a standard high school education, the Gandhi School teaches and equips its students to strive for more.

“When they graduate from Gandhi, they have what few Roma have – hope for their futures,” Clista Adkins said. “In addition, we hope we can help them to understand that God loves them and that God’s gift of love in Jesus Christ was for Roma just as much as it was for everyone else.”

Students like Janos have great hopes for the future. He wants to be a doctor and is thriving in school, where he is passing national exams, helping tutor his fellow classmates and improving his English – something his previous school told him he couldn’t do. Another student, Dori, wants to attend college in the United States and then return to eastern Europe to help educate Roma women and children.

“Education has given Dori the chance to dream. She wants to provide that hope and vision for other Roma women,” Clista Adkins said.

And that’s vital in a culture where desperate Roma girls and women sometimes resort to prostitution for income. Once during a weekly Bible study, the Adkins asked students what they were most afraid of.

“One 15-year-old girl answered, ‘I don’t ever want to have to stand on the side of the road,'” Clista Adkins recalled. “The threat of having to be a prostitute to survive is both real and frightening. Therefore, working with young Roma women – to help them find hope – is critical for the future of these desperate and despised people.”

Since 2007 when they were appointed as CBF field personnel, Clista Adkins has taught English classes at the school, and Glen Adkins has directed the school’s choir, which recently recorded a CD and will be going on tour in Baptist churches in Hungary and Slovakia.

“People all around us seem to be looking for hope. Hopefully, by building relationships with all of these students and teachers, we are being living parables about the love of God and the family of God,” Glen Adkins said.

Both seminary graduates, the Adkins previously served at First Baptist Church in Greenville, S.C., a CBF partnering congregation that is consistently engaged in Roma ministry. One group of women in the church recently provided a shopping trip for a new student, named Isti, who arrived at the school with no underwear or socks. Because of church members, she was able to return the clothes she had borrowed from her homeroom teacher and buy something she wanted.

“I don’t know that I have ever seen such dawning joy on the face of a teenager in all my life. I think this shopping trip did more for her sense of worth than we will ever know,” Clista Adkins said.

More than 70 percent of the students arrive with little to nothing. To meet the constant need, other churches have given gifts of socks, toiletries, choir materials, English books and funding for several students to attend the Baptist World Alliance’s Youth Congress in Leipzig, Germany, in 2008. Churches like Northminster Baptist Church in Jackson, Miss., and First Baptist Church in Augusta, Ga., have even traveled to Hungary to help with English camps and other ministries.

“This is a place where miracles happen every day, even in the middle of tragedy and hopelessness,” Clista Adkins said. “If any or all of these students accomplish their goals, the results could ripple through their families and communities in ways we cannot even comprehend.”

Carla Wynn Davis is communications assistant specialist for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

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