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Roma teen bucks tradition to find out what college can offer

Of several hundred members of his family who live in Wichita, Patrick Costello is the first to pursue higher education

Patrick Costello, left, and his grandfather Michael Marks at home, June 4, 2015 in Wichita, Kansas.Roxana Pop for Al Jazeera America

WICHITA, Kan. (Al Jazeera America) — On a cool day last summer, Patrick Costello, the first person in his family to go to college, took his grandfather, Michael Marks, to an opening ceremony for freshmen at Wichita State University.

Grandfather and grandson listened to university officials tout their latest accomplishments — an Airbus engineering center on the new Innovation Campus, new mixed dorms and exciting prospects for the basketball and baseball teams. A world of possibilities.

As Costello prepared to leave for orientation, Marks looked around at the young, eager students heading in all directions. He snapped a few pictures. His heart filled with pride and hope.

To get here, his grandson had faced not only the expected challenges of first-generation college students but also the currents of a culture that has historically avoided formal education.

Photographs of the Marks family hang in the dining room of their home. Roxana Pop for Al Jazeera America

Roma, often referred to as Gypsies, have traditionally kept away from higher education, both in the U.S. and in Europe. Many families home-school their children or pull them out of public schools before they enter high school. Tradition-oriented parents fear their children will be exposed to drugs, sex and a generally tainted environment. Higher education is practically out of the question. Out of several hundred members of the Marks family who live in Wichita, Costello was the first to enter college.

“When you look at the barrier that separates Roma from gadje [non-Roma], there are factors on both sides that keep that barrier in place,” said Ian Hancock, a linguistics professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a Roma. “On the non-Romani side, there’s prejudice. Sometimes it’s negative. Sometimes it’s positive but in the wrong way — romantic. Either way, it makes life in school very uncomfortable for our children.”

While there are thousands of highly educated and well-integrated Roma around the world, many still mistrust non-Roma — an attitude stemming from centuries of discrimination, including slavery in Eastern Europe and genocide during World War II.

To Marks, 60, it became clear that education is the only way for youths in his family to avoid a bleak future.

“If they can break through, the Roma, and get to higher education and go to Harvard or go to Purdue or go to Mizzou or go to Kansas State or whatever school it would be and get the higher education — bam! — some kind of bell would go off, and things would happen for them,” he said. “But the [Roma] culture is so hard to get away from. It’s almost like a black hole. Nothing escapes.”

Michael Marks opens the door of an old Roma caravan dating to the early 1900s that sits for sale in the Kansas countryside. He dreams of buying it to display in a future Roma museum he wants to open.Roxana Pop for Al Jazeera America

Scrapyard vs. schoolyard

The Roma community in Wichita settled in the late 19th century, shortly after Germans started farming the Kansas prairie. It still has a traditional structure, led by what they refer to as the king of the Gypsies.

That role belongs to Marks. He’s the community’s adviser, argument settler and problem solver. He helps people build businesses, repair marriages and even find homes to live in.

About two years ago, when Costello was a junior at Kapaun Mt. Carmel High School, Marks decided his grandson should go to college. Costello, who was raised by his grandparents after his parents split, had other plans. He was already going almost every day after school to help with his grandfather’s business, a scrap metal yard. He wanted to graduate from high school, get married and transition to taking over the business.

Many of his cousins were already married, had children and made a living dealing metal and used cars.

The extended Marks family poses for a family portrait. Roxana Pop for Al Jazeera America

Marks started preaching to them too. His reasoning was that youths lack the work ethic of members of his generation, who were forced since very young to work in order to survive. Today’s youths were raised in comfort but kept a traditional lifestyle. They dropped out of school and married in their teens. He believes that their only chance for a good future is through higher education.

That’s easier said than done, two young couples said one evening during dinner.

“That was their deal,” said Teddy Marks, a grandson of Michael Marks. “[The older generation] needed to work to survive, and they made an impact. They got the yards. It’s pretty big for Gypsy people to own something like that. And they didn’t want us to work. Now times are tough. Now they want us to work.”

In Roma culture, they said, boys get married at 16 or 17 because that’s what they think is expected of them; that’s how they become men. They work with other men in their family, dealing cars or metal. Women’s role is even more straightforward: They stay at home and raise children.

Being a Roma wife is still what many girls aspire to. Daisy Marks, 13, wants it for herself. She is home-schooled. Her long black straight hair, deep eyes with curled lashes and thin figure might appeal to boys in the schools, so her uncle, who looks after her, decided to keep her at home. She’s going to be home-schooled for another year or two and looks forward to getting married when she’s about 17.

The Marks family gathers for a Sunday dinner, June 7, 2015.Roxana Pop for Al Jazeera America

These obstacles are not unique to the Marks family. All around the world, Roma youths fall through the cracks of education systems. Fewer than 1 percent of Roma in Europe go to college, according to a United Nations human rights report released in May. In Brazil, 90 percent of Roma living in camps in Curitiba city are illiterate, 68 percent of Roma children in Lebanon do not attend school because of discrimination, Roma in Central Asia are victims of violence in schools, and Iraqi Roma children often have to take irregular jobs or resort to begging, according to the report.

The low rates of advanced degrees contribute to keeping Roma at the bottom of social and economic indicators. In Europe, Roma are the largest and most vulnerable minority, according to the World Bank. Studies consistently show they are less educated, poorer, more unemployed, more imprisoned, shorter-lived and more segregated than non-Roma. The 1 million Romani-Americans were ranked last in social standing among 58 ethnic and religious minorities in a public opinion poll conducted over 25 years.

During high school, Costello oscillated between his cousins and his gadje friends at school. When he started college, his cousins were supportive. Nevertheless, he couldn’t help sensing reservation on their part.

“They didn’t understand why I wanted to go,” he said.

Patrick Costello collects the mail. Roxana Pop for Al Jazeera America

Stories and other traditions

In addition to its traditional lifestyle, the community has preserved its culture over the centuries through language and stories.

At home the Marks family speaks a mix of English and Romani, an Indo-European language with Balkan influences. The elderly, such as Michael Marks and his wife, Dorothy Marks, speak mostly Romani among themselves. Their language is similar to that of their ancestors in Europe, but some words have been changed. For example, American Romani have changed the word for “slave” (robo) to mean “lazy” and the word for “slavery” (robia) to mean “prison” in an attempt to discard reminders of a painful history, according to the University of Texas’ Hancock.

Compared with previous generations, fewer children being raised today in the Marks family speak Romani — Costello estimates half to two-thirds — and the older members fear the language will be lost with stronger assimilation into mainstream American society.

Michael Marks poses for a portrait on Monday morning, June 8, 2015, at his ABC Recycling business in Wichita. Roxana Pop for Al Jazeera America
Customers unload scrap metal from their truck at ABC Recycling.Roxana Pop for Al Jazeera America

But storytelling remains strong, used by Roma to perpetuate a sense of identity, history and their role in the world. Roma stories tell of their journeys and struggles, and they explain why Roma are nomads, good with metal and horses, restless, oppressed, free. Why they try to outsmart but not hurt other people. Why they have their own mysterious ways.

One such story traces back to the Old Testament. Moses, the Jews and the Roma were crossing the desert when they reached Mount Sinai. Moses went up the mountain to pray. The Roma built the golden calf. When the Jews started debauchery, the Roma left the camp and moved closer to the mountain. Moses descended with the Ten Commandments, and the Roma were the first people he saw. He was furious with them not only for making the golden calf but also for wandering away from the camp. “Because you moved, I want you to go and roam and never have a homeland,” he said. “Because you lied, I want you to live by your wits. I want you to lie, and I want you to never, ever have rest.” But then Moses delivered the second part of the mraya — a curse you give to someone you love, which always has an upside. “I want you never to get hurt by roaming and living by your wits,” he said.

Marks grew up listening to stories from his elders, but they were usually tales of hardship and discrimination. His grandmother would tell him about the time the family was traveling through North Dakota by trailer and a sheriff stomped on their dinner, which was laid out on the side of the road. When he was younger, Marks and his family returned from vacationing in Florida. They were served horrible-looking food at a restaurant in Arkansas, and the server told them dogs and Gypsies were not allowed inside.

Other stories — like the one about a Roma hero who presumably helped defeat a whole army just by being his clumsy self — make everyone laugh around the dinner table. (Listen to Michael Marks' son Steve Marks tell the story of San Dilo in this clip.)

“We need to become more acclimated into the society, and higher education will do that for us,” Marks said.

He hopes that college-educated youths will preserve the language and the stories by writing them down. Even if that doesn’t happen, he said, the transition will be worthwhile. His own story is an example of constantly moving forward into the non-Roma world.

Unafraid of the gadje

Michael Marks, center, plays with his dog Panda beside his grandsons Jake Marks, left, and Patrick Costello. Roxana Pop for Al Jazeera America

Costello and his grandfather had very different beginnings in life. While Costello grew up in his grandparents’ house in a gated community on the outskirts of Wichita and never had to work a day in his life, Marks’ was a different story.

His parents, Louie and Swanie Marks, rented a unit on the first floor of a hotel in downtown Wichita. In front of the store, the family told fortunes, sold popcorn and shined shoes. They lived in the back of the room, separated by a curtain. Louie Marks and his brothers would find work cleaning furnaces and stoves or fixing boilers. The family sometimes struggled to make ends meet. Some evenings, Louie Marks would take Michael to the trash bins behind a produce house, where employees threw away vegetables and stale bread. He would help the boy into the bins, and Michael would scavenge the family’s dinner.

The children would play outside — drawing tic-tac-toe on the sidewalk, putting coins on the railroad tracks for trains to flatten, climbing fire escapes.

Michael married Dorothy when he was 12, and she moved in with the family. With his earnings from selling popcorn, flowers and newspapers and from shining shoes, he would buy ice cream floats with two straws to share with Dorothy or pressed-ham sandwiches to share with his friends. (Once he gave a spit shine to a returning soldier, who tipped him $20.)

He went to school until third grade. From then on, his education came from the TV. He watched “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” “Leave It to Beaver,” “Dennis the Menace” and “Father Knows Best.” The shows portraying the suburban life of postwar America enthralled and puzzled him.

He realized most people outside his home had lives like the characters in “Leave It to Beaver,” with nice families and white picket fences.

“I wanted to be like those people,” Marks said. “And I said to myself, you know, how come we’re so different? We’re like the Addams family.”

The Marks family watches a Champions League soccer final at home. Roxana Pop for Al Jazeera America
Michael Marks washes a Jaguar that he hopes to sell. Roxana Pop for Al Jazeera America

He started questioning his parents’ decision to have him get married when he was so young. After he had children of his own, he decided he didn’t want to teach them the old Roma ways. He wanted to get away.

“And I say, ‘Hey, Louie Marks, Swanie Marks. I’ll eat your pork chops. I’ll eat your chicken stew. I’ll eat your sarme, your bacro. I’ll eat all of that, but I’m going to start me a little business, and I’m going to start doing the right thing.”

A later realization was that shunning non-Roma society didn’t make much sense. If the gadje made the sodas he was drinking and the sandwiches he was eating, how come the gadje weren’t allowed to enter his house? Working and living with everyone might be beneficial, he thought.

Many Roma are afraid of authority, of being told what to do, said Randy Marks, Michael Marks’ younger brother. “Where other Gypsies, including myself, would run, would say, ‘Oh, no, the gadje. Let’s just go now. It’s their world. Let’s just get what we can from them and go.’ Mike wanted a piece of it, and he got it. And he’s getting it, and he’s working.”

One morning in early spring, Michael and Dorothy Marks drove to southeastern Wichita for a work meeting at a horse farm.

As soon as they parked their car, they could see a miniature horse in an open-air stable. Right by its side, a large metal barn was lacking its roof, which had collapsed under a load of wet, heavy snow. Every time the wind blew, a loose sheet of metal hit one of the walls, causing the miniature horse to flinch. The farm owner wanted to rebuild the barn altogether and needed someone to demolish the current one and carry the metal away.

Michael Marks took his measuring wheel out of the trunk and did the rounds. He looked at the roof and the walls and touched the metal. His estimate: $2,000 to tear it down and carry the metal away. The farm owner was not convinced. She said she had hoped to find someone willing to do the job for just the metal’s value. She said she would do some more looking around. A farmworker told Marks to take down his email address and send an offer as soon as he got back to the office. Marks took out a small square piece of paper, which fit in the palm of his hand, scribbled something on it and put it in his chest pocket.

On the piece of paper, which Marks has held onto, is a row of lines and characters. The first resembles a J, followed by a succession of broken and curved lines. There is nothing to read on that piece of paper because the king never learned how to write. But he eventually got the contract anyway.

Michael Marks wears a T-shirt celebrating Wichita State's 2013 trip to NCAA men's basketball Final Four tournament. Roxana Pop for Al Jazeera America

A tough semester

Patrick Costello, 20, looks forward to going back to school in the fall. Roxana Pop for Al Jazeera America

Costello enjoyed his first semester of college, though it was more challenging than he had expected. Class material was more difficult to assimilate, and friendships were harder to develop than in high school. He spent most of his time with people from his high school, but interactions with other students were colder.

At one point he considered joining a fraternity, but felt he didn’t click with the young men there.

He chose an entrepreneurship major, with some law classes. He had lunch with business professors, who told him about their classes and suggested he take them in his junior or senior year, after completing his general education. He became excited about all the possibilities.

But in the spring he took a semester off to work at the scrapyard and save some money. “The prices of tuition … have gone up a little bit from previous years, and at the scrapyard our prices of the metal have gone down,” Costello said. “So Dad [Marks] is kind of struggling with the payments on that.”

Figuring out how to pay for college has made Marks think about starting a foundation to support first-generation Roma students.

In late spring, Costello fell ill with stomach bacteria and missed enrollment for summer classes. But he’s looking forward to going back to school in the fall. His grandfather considers looking into a smaller institution such as Friends University, a Christian school. He liked the treatment Costello got at his Catholic high school, where everyone, from teachers to the principal, knew he was the first in his family to go through high school and were rooting for him.

Costello believes college offers new experiences and perspectives that will make him a different businessman from his grandfather, though not necessarily a better leader. He hopes he’ll inspire other Roma to follow his path, though he’s uncertain where exactly it will lead.

“I haven’t gone through enough of it to really change me,” he said.

This story was produced with support of a O.O. McIntyre Fellowship from the Missouri School of Journalism

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