Erhan was a boy I met during one of my visits to preschools in Serbia.
As I entered the classroom, I spotted him sitting alone in a corner, playing with blocks. He had just started kindergarten our Foundation built within the project “Schools of Life”. Before the facility was open, there was no preschool he could attend in the entire area. The way he was playing, quite sad, alone, far from other children, seemed as an open invitation for me to join him.
“What’s your favourite book?”, I asked him.
He looked at me, as if he didn’t know what to say.
I repeated my question.
“Sorry, I don’t understand. I don’t know what a book is”. His dark eyes revealed bewilderment.
Erhan was a five-year-old and had never seen a book in his life until his first day in kindergarten. However, he didn’t have the opportunity to enjoy many other things too. Drawing paper, crayons and playdough were a sort of luxury for his parents. To make it even worse, he was one of 94% of Roma children not attending preschool programs. However, society expects a lot from these kids: to succeed in life, finish their schooling and get a degree, find a job and become respectable citizens of this country. Just like their peers do. Not an easy task, for sure.
When we were choosing issues our Foundation should address and focus on, our vision was clear. One of our goals is to help and support children and the whole society. At the time I’ve been already appointed as UNICEF National Ambassador for Serbia for early childhood development – the topic of crucial importance for our country, but not so appealing to many. I became fully aware of the importance of learning for childhood development during the early years, especially regarding early development of underprivileged children.
The number of children in Serbia is decreasing every year. However, regardless how many boys and girls are sitting at school desks, they are the future of our country. Therefore, we have to do everything we can to provide them equal chances to have a normal childhood, receive proper education and prepare them for the upcoming challenges. That’s why we need more kindergartens and schools.
Early childhood development sets the foundation for lifelong learning, behaviour, and health which is crucial to all of us. Have you ever wondered what would have happened with your education if you had been in a situation to see a book and a pencil for the first time when you were seven? Would you be still motivated and willing to continue with the learning process and finish your primary schooling? Or would you rather give up and leave school as many Roma children do eventually?
Our responsibility is to provide education for all of them. According to UNICEF data, there are over 2,500 locations in Serbia that lack preschools facilities. Only half of all children aged 3-5 years attend preschool programs. Only 6% of Roma children, less than 10 percent of children from the poorest households in Serbia and 27% of them from rural areas go to kindergarten. Due to such alarming statistics Serbia was ranked as one of the countries with the lowest participation rate of children in preschool education in Europe. On the other hand, the European countries are counterpart with nearly 90% of children enrolled in pre-primary education. In order to move towards the top of the list we have to open as many kindergartens as possible and make sure that in every village or small town there is at least one classroom for the youngest to learn and play with their friends.
We don’t ask for impressive architectural ventures and huge construction sites. Each local community and municipality can provide some empty space or premises that can be reconstructed in a very short time and used as kindergarten classrooms.
In the past few years Novak Djokovic Foundation has been successfully implementing “Schools of Life” project. We have managed to open kindergartens in Ljig, Knic, Kraljevo, Raska, Vladicin Han and Merosina. In addition, the construction of the facility in Lucani has reached its final stage. Immediately after heavy floods hit our country last spring we joined flood relief projects and started to reconstruct damaged kindergartens. We wanted to make sure that children could continue their preschool education as quickly as possible, play with their friends and smile again.
Hopefully, we are not alone in this. UNICEF, Center for Interactive Pedagogy and other similar organizations focused on children and their wellbeing as our partners, teachers who take part in our training programs, parents and many people of good will provide us great help and support.
Last Wednesday on behalf of Novak Djokovic Foundation I signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the World Bank. The aim of this significant partnership is to raise as much money as possible so that all children in Serbia can have equal access to quality preschool education. The goal is also to encourage our partners to invest in early childhood development. If we want to change the things for children in Serbia for the better we have to join our efforts and work together.
Now Erhan is a first grader. He has learned all the letters from A to Z. I wish him to become a successful young man, grab any opportunity to progress and reach his full potential and make all his dreams come true. I also wish him to treasure the book with a message I wrote for him on the first page. He knows which one I mean.