BERETTYOUJFALU, Hungary (Reuters) - In a classroom in this impoverished corner of eastern Hungary, children draw pictures of an imaginary village filled with colorful houses where Roma and non-Roma families live in harmony and people have enough money to get by.
When the class ends in the town of Berettyoujfalu, some 270 km east of the Hungarian capital, pupils go home to their real-life village, Told, where houses have no running water or sewage and illiteracy is often a problem among the mostly Roma families who live there.
A small art class brings little change to the dire poverty that plagues hundreds of thousands of people in Hungary, but that does not stop a few activists from trying such programs in the most destitute areas of the country.
A lucky few children do end up better off as a result.
Istvan Otvos, 15, started drawing four years ago. Last year he and another pupil had a chance to go to Portugal where they won a prize at an international art contest.
From September he hopes to enroll at one of Hungary’s best secondary schools, run by the Catholic church.
“This is a fantasy bird, a kind of fairytale bird,” Otvos said, showing off his painting of a huge golden peacock-like bird depicted against a bright blue sky.
“I’d like to make something better with my life through drawing,” he said with a timid smile.
The Igazgyongy (Pearl) art education foundation, which teaches the art classes, tries to give Roma children like Otvos a chance to break out of hopeless poverty in families where generations grow up without seeing their parents work.
In Told only 12 of the 354 local residents have jobs, and about 30 more are on state-run public works programs.
In all, there are 670 children who learn to draw and paint in classes run by the Pearl foundation from two dozen nearby villages, including Told and the village of Hencida, where Otvos lives. More than two thirds come from underprivileged families.
In the last census two years ago, 315,000 people in Hungary declared themselves Roma. But the actual size of the minority group is estimated at 700,000 in a population of 10 million.
Most of them live in poverty-stricken areas of eastern and southern Hungary. Prejudice and resentment against the Roma is widespread in the central European country and has been exacerbated by a Europe-wide economic crisis.
“The biggest problem is that poverty has been accumulating for generations in these isolated pockets,” said Nora Ritok, who set up the foundation more than a decade ago.
“We don’t want all 670 kids to become artists, that’s not our primary goal. The most important is whether we can help them develop their personalities in a way that builds self-esteem... and could strengthen their will and give them a goal in life.”
Helena Szabo, 11, is one of six children in Told who receive a monthly grant of 10,000 forints ($45.60) from the foundation, which their families get in the last week of each month, providing the children attend school and the parents agree to cooperate with the foundation.
By then, even buying basic foodstuffs is often a problem. Social workers help these families decide what the money could be best used for - food, clothing, or books.
Besides the immediate financial help, the main goal is to help parents understand that going to school and studying is important and can be a way out of misery.
“I will be a good student... and may become a florist, or a shop owner,” Szabo says, proudly showing her drawings.
She lives in a house in Told which has no glass windows and the door is covered with a piece of cloth. The house had been so badly infested with rats that the foundation had to step in to help eradicate them.
Ritok says for some time, she believed a good school could help work off some of the enormous disadvantages for children like Szabo. But she says a much more complex solution is needed to tackle the problems.
The foundation is doing social work besides art education, and keeps in close contact with the children’s families.
They collect and distribute charity aid, help families to get to the doctor if needed and have created a community house and garden where locals grow vegetables.
Using the children’s drawings, local women make embroidered pillowcases and bags that are on sale in the shop of Budapest’s Museum of Ethnography.
The children win hundreds of prizes in art contests at home and internationally each year, Ritok says.
But she believes it would be a mistake to declare it a success if one or two Roma manage to get into higher education.
“I’d say the real success is when it’s a case of 100 or 200 children...achieving some kind of positive change,” she said.
($1 = 219.2816 Hungarian forints)
Reporting by Krisztina Than, editing by Paul Casciato