I may be from a different country, but I belong here
When I was spending summer on the beach in Croatia at the age of 11, I had no idea I would one day leave the Balkans and go to study in Slovakia, which has become my second home. I also had no idea that I would be judged because I am not one of you, Slovaks.
As a Slovene, I tried to be like people around me for twenty-two years. I wanted them to accept and welcome me. I moved from one city to another until I eventually settled down in a small town of Senec, where more and more foreigners are finding their home. I think that’s why I like it here so much. Wherever I go I can hear Serbian, English or Ukrainian. After all these years, I finally don’t feel alone. I often go for walks, sit down on a bench and watch the different cultures and people of different colour of skin, different religions and nationalities around me. It feels good.
Serbian kids to the side
In autumn last year, a friend of mine from Serbia told me about the first time she experienced discrimination. It was when her son, filled with excitement and anticipation, started going to school. He didn’t know yet that the heaviness of his school bag would soon match the heaviness of rejection. On his first day at school, children were happily gathering in front of it and teachers were dividing them into groups according to the name lists they had prepared. Everyone was taking pictures capturing the happy moments from the first day at school. However, as soon as the boy’s Serbian name was called, this little human was told to stand apart from other children and join the group of kids who also had foreign names. Suddenly, his enthusiasm and the sparkle he had in his eyes were gone. Just because he was different, like me.
I would have never thought that people in a developed EU country would make such little children feel they were different. I had no explanation for my friend as to why that had happened. I couldn’t explain it because I, myself, didn’t have answers to the many questions I’d been asking myself all those years here, in Slovakia. But I was certain of one thing – I knew I was going to do my best to make sure that every child had a picture from their first day at school regardless of what country they came from. What happened to my friend’s son encouraged me to work even harder for the integration of foreigners‘ children.
We need more empathy in education
One day, someone asked me what multiculturalism was. I was taken aback as the person was a teacher. I do understand that not everybody may be interested in the issue. Not everyone has a chance to meet people from other countries and the media often play a negative role in stereotyping. But, if multiculturalism is a cross-cutting theme in education, a teacher should be familiar with the concept.
Multiculturalism should be a part of education in kindergartens. It should be equal to any other area of learning. And still, we dedicate only few days a year to discussing it. It is necessary to address it more and not only in our kindergarten, which already has a lot of children of foreigners. At the same time, if teachers had more opportunities to educate themselves in this field, I believe it would make integration of children easier.
As a kindergarten teacher, I was given an opportunity to take the certification exam. It took a long time for me to decide what topic I wanted to address in my thesis. After consultations with my coordinator, I decided it was important to focus on the issue of integration of children in kindergartens, as well as on multi-cultural education. As I was writing my thesis and examining these issues more closely, I met different people with different points of view. And, I began to find answers to the questions I had been asking for so long.
Ever since I moved to Slovakia, meeting foreigners has been really empowering for me. I didn’t quite understand why I was asked not to speak English to children. Apparently, it was because of the proverbial „when in Slovakia, speak Slovak”. Therefore, I had a niggling worry in the back of my mind – I wasn’t sure if I stood a chance or had the strength to break down barriers between people.
As a teacher, I feel many people have little empathy for children of other nationalities. I’ve often seen both children and adults expressing negative attitudes to children from foreign countries. These children had to repeatedly prove that, in many ways, they were the same as Slovak children despite being from a different country. If we somehow manged to incorporate elements of empathy into each educational activity or if children learnt about other cultures through various social games, our coexistence would be better. If there’s good atmosphere in the classroom and children take home something positive from each day, we can say it was a meaningful day.
I will never allow that my children feel ashamed for where they come from
Hearing my daughter getting Slovenian, Serbian and Slovak words mixed up while playing, makes me feel genuinely proud. I’m proud to see she isn’t denying her roots. When my children were born – my son in Slovenia and my daughter in Slovakia – I decided I would never let anyone make them feel ashamed of their origin. I don’t want them to be afraid to walk in the streets like I was because they’re from a foreign country. There’s nothing worse than the feeling of not being welcome.
After the negative experience at school, my friend wouldn’t let her son speak Serbian to my children in the playground. I tried to understand her when she said she wanted him to speak only Slovak to avoid problems at school. The way I felt when she said that can be compared to my desire to wear high-heeled shoes. Ever since I was a child, I’ve wanted to walk like a lady in such shoes and to feel stable. However, my fear of losing balance was stronger. It seems to me my friend lost her balance on her son’s first day at school when the teachers asked him to stand apart from other children.
Negative experience drives me to move forward
Negative experience drives me to move forward. Many people have told me not to address these issues. They think it doesn’t make sense. They say every nation has a certain nature, certain habits and everyone fights for what is theirs. However, I still hope that, as a teacher, I have a chance to help children and their parents open their eyes and teach them how to see the world and people around them differently. I also hope that people in the town where I live will be able to recognize the value of other people and see good things in them. My own experience has taught me that new information and new cultures open new horizons for me.
I have realised that the lessons I’ve learnt have made me stronger. I’m no longer the person with low self-esteem I used to be. I’m becoming somebody who wants to show people that we may come from different countries, but we are all multifaceted human beings longing for love and acceptance.
Alenka Kljajić was born in Slovenia and came to Slovakia in 2000. After graduation from the Faculty of Education she worked as a childminder at her own nursery (Alja). Since 2011 she has worked as a teacher at a kindergarten in Senec. In 2020 she founded an NGO Diversity Senec focusing on integration of foreign children and families (via cultural events, education and workshops).