Two RGPP Alumnae, One Successful Legal Team
Vivien Brassói from Hungary (RGPP 2016, Human Rights LLM, CEU 2019) and Senada Sali from North Macedonia (RGPP 2013, IRES MA, CEU 2014) are two strong and successful RGPP alumnae. Several years ago, both applied to RGPP with the strong intention to continue their studies and become legal professionals. Today they are co-workers at ERRC. They are full of energy, are loyal colleagues, and make a great team.
They both hoped that spending 10 months as an RGPP student and taking English and tutorial classes would improve their chances of securing a place in graduate education by providing them with the essential skills and
supporting them throughout the application process. This is precisely what RGPP gave them – and a few other things.
Q.: Why did you apply to RGPP and later to an MA/LLM program at CEU?
Vivien B.: I applied in 2015 to RGPP. At that time, I was working at the Hungarian Romaversitas as a coordinator, and I heard a lot about the program from those Romaversitas students who had already enrolled. I got curious because I could see their improvement and hear their enthusiasm. I encouraged students to submit their application. The reason why I decided to apply is rather difficult to explain, even to myself. I really wanted to believe that I could earn an MA/LLM at CEU. My whole application to RGPP and the Human Rights LLM at CEU felt almost like a test to prove myself as a competent candidate for both RGPP and a prestigious graduate program. At the same time, I really wanted to master English to a proficient level. At that time this was important to me because I was very self-conscious about my English. I knew that I wanted to a get a master’s degree in Public Policy or earn an LLM at CEU or elsewhere, but I thought that I was not ready yet to apply directly to an international graduate program. I needed better English and tutorial in the subject area. I thought, RGPP could help me with these.
The other thing I knew for sure was that I had to step out from the Hungarian education system. While the Hungarian legal programs are strong, the university environment constantly made me feel that I did not belong there. I was the only Roma law student at the Faculty of Law throughout my studies. It was a very difficult and depressing time. However, I felt that RGPP and CEU could be different. Indeed, they were. It was an incredibly liberating experience. It was the first time when I didn’t feel inferior, I realized that I was as competent as anyone else in the group, and nobody looked at me as if I were less of a person. I felt free to speak and let myself participate in the classes. Empowerment is not my favorite expression but being empowered to speak was what I felt.
Senada S.: I applied to RGPP in 2013 because I was determined to continue my studies. I applied right after my BA graduation. I was raised by a single mom, and since she could not afford financing my MA studies, I had two choices: I either go to work to save some money for an MA, or I try to find some scholarship abroad. I tried the latter one and I got accepted to an LLM program in Slovenia. However, it did not work out because of the amount of the scholarship. Then I thought, RGPP might improve my chances of getting admitted and receiving a full scholarship at the CEU LLM program, and it could also help me stay in an academic environment. In addition, I found RGPP interesting because similarly to Vivi, I had not met young Roma during my BA studies. The idea that I could be among young Roma people for a year attracted me.
When I started the program, I did not worry about my English. My mother had thought that English would be important for my future, and she had sent me to private English classes. To me RGPP was about studying. I got accepted and I was one of the 5 Macedonian Roma students who enrolled in 2013. During the year I took tutorial classes in IRES and Human Rights, and I was accepted to both MA programs at CEU. I hesitated a lot about which MA offer to accept, but I decided to go for IRES because I wanted to challenge myself and to learn something new. IRES in fact was a big challenge: topics such as diplomacy and politics were new to me. When I returned to Macedonia, I knew that I would still need an LLM, so I eventually got it Constitutional Law.
Q.: Senada, tell us about the USAID Civic Engagement Award you won in 2018.
Senada S: My supervisor at ERRC nominated me for the USAID Civic Engagement Award. I was the first Roma woman to win this award in Macedonia. What is also great is that this year another Roma woman got this award.
In 2018 I found out that a Roma girl in the Macedonian state care had disappeared and had been sexually abused. I was the one who broke this news and brought media attention to this case of human trafficking. It was difficult and risky to take steps because I had to understand what was going on. I kept meeting with communities because people knew some bits and pieces. It was very important that I handled this case with special care and sensitivity. I got to the point when I had to bring it to the attention of the ERRC president. Thankfully, he immediately understood that this case was very important and supported me to go public with the information. I did it. The first journalist who covered it in the media was also very supportive, and the case got huge media attention. Very quickly the entire child protection system in Macedonia underwent a public investigation, and this case changed the entire system.
Q: How do you see yourself in your professional community? Why does this field interest you?
Vivien B: The way I imagined my future as a legal professional never centered around opening a private practice or doing governmental work. I had this idea of helping and assisting people who suffer from human right violations. Of course, at the beginning, financial stability that a legal career might provide also pushed me towards law school. When I had a hard time at the legal department, the hope of a more secure future was one of my biggest motivators. However, I soon discovered that I was not interested in the legal areas where I could make real money. Neither was I in a situation in which I could have afforded a three-year-legal apprenticeship in an office that was close to my interest but offered no or only symbolic salary. I was battling with myself over this choice because I didn’t have family support, I had to work to cover my living costs. Yet, I did not want to give up my dreams of fighting human rights violations. After RGPP, I was a trainee at ERRC and I did my master’s at the same time. Later I got promoted to be a lawyer and then a legal manager along with Senada. I am happy that back then I decided about the direction of my future the way I did. Because of the structural inequalities, and because of what I said about the realities of the legal profession, my story is not a typical story of Hungarian Roma who decide to become lawyers. Only a few of us manage to become legal professionals, and I am incredibly proud when I see the success of other young Roma. This is the reason why I was so I happy when I learnt that a couple of months ago one of our RGPP alumni opened their private law office. The idea of being able to reach out to other young Roma professionals and collaborate with them on cases is so exciting because the lens we bring in our work is so much needed.
Q.: What is your most vivid memory about the Program?
Vivien B.: While that period of my life was very difficult, I felt a tremendous amount of support from the management and the classmates throughout the whole year. The level of understanding and support was high, everybody went above and beyond to make sure that I was holding up. Being able to talk honestly about my issues to the staff and management – Sebi, Gina, and Prem - was very valuable to me.
Of course, there were lots of funny and great moments, I miss so many people from the RGPP community! I am still in touch with some of the friends from the Program, and I am so happy to see their success, for example Aida’s, who is building a great career at the Council of Europe. I learnt a lot professionally and personally from those people. Of course, sometimes things were uncomfortable, but I felt like we were a family. While at RGPP, I connected with so many people, including RGPP alumni. One of the greatest things about the alumni is that you can approach each of them, even if you personally do not know them.
Senada S.: Emotionally it is very hard when I revisit my RGPP memories. One year at RGPP was better than any university or high school year. For all of us who finished the Program, I am sure, it is a unique part of our lives, and a completely new experience. I also am very emotional because of the challenges I faced: RGPP helped a lot with my Roma identity and studying in a new place with a group of diverse people might be challenging for those who have not traveled that much before.
One of the happiest memories was the friendships within the Roma group. I had male friends for the first time in my life, Liviu and Nasko. It was an interesting and challenging experience; I discovered how men can become real friend of females. I keep many precious memories about our trip to Monor, the CEU intercultural event, the April 8th celebration, graduation day, and all those events where we represented our RGPP community. All those moments were special; none of us could have experienced those moments had we attended other university programs. These are special experiences that no one else, not even other CEU students, can understand.
Q.: Can you say a few words about your thoughts about Roma women in the legal profession, and what are your plans?
Senada S.: I think in every field there is a need for Roma women. But in the legal field it is especially important that we bring our experiences. The legal field is inspired by the struggle for justice and equality, therefore, if Roma women are not among legal professionals, the whole legal community loses from their legitimacy. I don’t say that every Roma woman struggles. However, most certainly, their mother or their grandmother did. This gives skilled Roma women a special authenticity and credibility.
I am very busy, but I am very appreciative of the work environment we co-created with Vivien at ERRC. We support each other and we treat each other with high respect. I hope that when I leave ERRC, another Roma woman takes my position, and this person will be granted with the same flexibility and freedom in taking on cases.
Regarding my legal career, as a short-term goal, I am preparing for the bar exam. In the long term, I have a big goal, which might be ambitious, but I believe we, Roma should have big ambitions. When the time comes, I would like to become a judge at the Macedonian Constitutional Court. Currently there are nine judges there but only one of them is a woman. The whole system could benefit from a stronger representation of women - not to mention Roma representation - and from fresh ideas and new ways of thinking.
In my personal life, I have started a small business, a nail salon, to practice my creativity and artistic skills outside the legal arena. I try to grow there as well and offer novel services.
Vivien B.: It is already difficult to be a Roma legal professional but being a Roma woman in our field is even more difficult. However, our contribution is very important. I believe that Roma people experience transgenerational trauma, and this understanding guides us in our everyday work. When we work on cases, Senada and I see in the same way the delicacies of the cases that involve Roma women. Articulating intersectional dimensions is our priority. Many of our cases focus on women’s rights, and we work for truly and meaningfully helping litigants. I am grateful because the leadership also trusts our skills and our positions at ERRC are not due to tokenism. I feel lucky that I have a colleague like Senada to walk this road together and we make a respectful and supportive team.
When I think about my success, I know that working hard is not enough. Many things must align for Roma students to have a successful life. Navigating law school as a Roma student sometimes can be difficult, and it is not easy to remain dignified and positive. We all need systematic help, including affirmative action to get some of these heavy burdens off our shoulders and to see that we are equally capable and smart people.
As to my future, I really enjoy my job at ERRC. At times, the workload is very demanding, but it is a very exciting chapter of my life. I am looking forward to seeing through cases that we manage, and I want to keep developing my skills there.
Previously, I never really thought of academia as a career path. However, with my recent accomplishments behind me, the way I think about myself and my capacities has changed a lot. I can imagine going back to study at some point and pursue a professional development or a PhD program on strategic litigation. I am starting to realize that all the things I thought would be unachievable to me - prestigious scholarships, US education – are not beyond the realms of possibility.