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“I think that gave my generation a solid sense of community that young people now just don’t have. We had a church, a place to call home. It was our home, so we worked for it, did things for it. This here is not just a religious center, but also a place where we can learn how to manage daily life, how to use forks and spoons or computers and the Internet. If you are somewhere that is home and you feel that it is yours, you always feel safe.”

That said, Hodász’s charismatic Romany cantor is frank, if not bleak, about his village’s future. “For young people, the only chance for a better life is to study, get a profession or trade and move away. For older people, there is no solution. We need capital to start something here.”

Unemployment, a major problem in Hungary, is especially acute in the nation’s underdeveloped northeast. By some estimates, nearly 80 percent of the village’s Roma and up to 25 percent of its ethnic Hungarians are unemployed. There are almost no jobs in the village. Young people often leave town to attend university or to seek better career opportunities. Most never return, except for the occasional family get-together.

Whereas most ethnic Hungarian villagers work within commuting distance, Roma generally split their lives between Hodász and the distant capital, Budapest, where they can still find unskilled jobs. Under communism, Roma were assured work, albeit low paying. But since the dismantling of the nation’s state-controlled economy – which followed the collapse of Hungary’s Communist government in 1989 – many of these jobs, and the security they offered, have disappeared.

Hungary’s post-Communist economic woes have taken their toll on family life in Hodász. The villagers also have watched the gap between rich and poor grow ever wider.

Yet despite these obstacles, Hodász’s Roma and non-Roma continue to live, work and celebrate together. “Our great feasts and celebrations – when the whole village comes together – are like a time machine,” recalled Mr. Lakatos wistfully. “They seem to take us back 50 or 60 years, when people were happier with less. Class differences seem to disappear and family bonds are again strong.”

In Hodász, all children – Roma and ethnic Hungarians – attend the same elementary school. But in the past decade, schools elsewhere in Hungary have become increasingly segregated. Viewing Romany students as disruptive elements in the classroom, non-Roma parents often transfer their children to school districts with few or no Roma. Parents and teachers frequently complain that Romany children skip school, with their parents’ consent, and subsequently fall behind and slow down the students who regularly attend class.

On 1 September 2007, Hungary passed a law requiring schools and classrooms to integrate. It remains to be seen, however, how the new law will translate in practice.

“I don’t think you increase interest in education by laws, but by personal example,” said Father Tibor Egri. “It depends on us.”

While Hungarian law requires its citizens to attend school until age 16, many Roma drop out before they reach that age. Few of Hungary’s Roma graduate from high school, only 1 percent hold a university degree.

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Tags: Hungary Central Europe Hungarian Greek Catholic