Days of twenty smiles

World Vision organizes swimming lessons to improve the physical health of especially vulnerable children of Roma minority, 80 per cent of whom live in poverty.  

A group of smiling children gathers in front of the office of the local Roma association in small community 40 minutes away Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovinia. They wait eagerly for their trip to Sarajevo to begin.

Ernad, a talkative 12-year-old Roma boy, with the haircut resembling that of Brazilian football star Neymar, is among the children. He says he was born in Germany; “the same Germany that won World Cup this year,” he adds. His older brother, Sanjin, is also there. He insists on being called by his nickname, Sanco. At 13 years old, he is the eldest participant in the group. Besides them, there are brothers, Ajdin and Kenan, and Valerija, Lejla, Admira, Ema and Daniel, the youngest at 6-years-old.

The children are all excited, they are aware that a full day of adventure is in front of them. They are travelling to Sarajevo where they will attend swimming lessons in the Olympic pool. This is their second day. Those who were at the pool the day before are sharing their experiences, impatient to go again. A few of the new children are quiet; waiting for the stories they have heard to come true for them as well. Daniel clutches his swimming equipment. He doesn’t put it down, not even for a second. 

The children talk about what they learned during previous day, the techniques, the appropriate behaviour at the pool and the equipment.  “I thought the water was deep and I was afraid a bit. But, I got used to it right away,” says Lejla who is celebrating her seventh birthday. After she returns from the pool, birthday celebrations await her at home. At first, she wanted to skip swimming lessons because of her birthday. But, after the first day at the pool she decided to go and move her celebrations for later in the day.

Only two out of 10 children had ever been in swimming pool in their life before they started taking these swimming lessons. Now, they will have the opportunity to spend two weeks learning this valuable skill along with 10 of their peers from other Roma communities.

The two week swimming school for children of the Roma national minority was organized by World Vision, in cooperation with the “Be My Friend” association and Centre for Roma support “Romalen”.

All of the activities are part of the larger “Promotion of systematic changes in order to secure adequate response to Roma needs” project that aims to improve lives of Roma people, one of the most vulnerable national minority groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Country data shows that 80 per cent of Roma children live in poverty and are deprived of the access to many of the basic life skills and opportunities that their other peers have.

“With these swimming lessons, we want to improve physical health of the children,” says Nasiha Imamović, project officer at World Vision Bosnia and Herzegovina. “It is well known that swimming improves flexibility and the endurance of the body as well as helps children with keeping the right body posture which is the main precondition for good health, normal growth and development in general,” she adds. Some of the data shows that nearly 30 per cent of children in Bosnia and Herzegovina have curvature of spine.

While they wait for the swimming lessons to start, some of the boys talk about school. Official data shows that only one-third of Roma children in Bosnia and Herzegovina attend primary school. The percentage of those who attend high school is even lower.  But these boys are lucky. They are in the minority who attend classes. Kenan loves biology because, as he says “it is easy to learn it.” Sančo loves Bosnian language, but he failed mathematics. All the boys, not surprisingly, love physical education.

After one hour of swimming lessons, all children agree: “It's too short!. One hour passes too quickly!”  Member of the “Romalen” Centre who was chaperoning the children says that children talk only about swimming all the way home. Danijel, the youngest participant, is happy. When he was asked what he liked best, he  is not sure how to respond. “What do you mean what was the best? Everything was the best!”

The swimming school was also supported by charitable organisation Caritas Switzerland.