Little Ambla and the big message she carries

Ivan Durgutov




If human rights and the treatment of marginalized citizens are a test of the civilizational achievement of some community, the little girl that is small in age but large in spirit, Ambla, once again proved to us that we, as a society, fail when we need to show ourselves the most.

The symbolically extended hand of the President, no matter how that might seem like a ‘one-off-act’, still signifies a gesture that alludes and leads to a message that will be powerful only if we all send it together - a big "Yes" for real inclusion and a loud "No" for illusion. The beauty of life is in the diversity, and we are morally obliged to provide to the future generations, as a minimum, life in an environment that will respect any differences that exist between us, as fellow citizens.

If human rights and the treatment of marginalized citizens are a test of the civilizational achievement of some community, the little girl that is small in age but large in spirit, Ambla, once again proved to us that we, as a society, fail when we need to show ourselves the most. The disagreement between the local self-government on the one hand and the non-governmental organizations and the parents of this girl, on the other hand, shows even more that we, as a collective, can not build a consensual position on the values that are most vulnerable for some of our fellow citizens.

An infamous start of the school year

The beginning of the second semester of the current school year 2021/2022 for the students and teachers, apart from its ten-days delay due to the peak of the omicron strain of the coronavirus, was marked with one extremely unfortunate incident. This day made us aware for a moment that the Macedonian society is "suffering" from many things, apart from the viral infection that has been spreading for three years at home and globally. In the city of Gostivar, which is an environment in which there is language diversity, a city in which you will hear Macedonian, Albanian, Turkish, and even other languages, we witnessed a disappointing event through which we found out, infamously, about a girl named Ambla.

That's the girl with Down Syndrome. This is the common stereotype that is commonly felt by Ambla and her parents, a stereotype expressed by the people living in this area. We should throw in here another weight they have been carrying on their shoulders for a long time - the unwillingness of the authorities (the line Ministry, education inspectors, education officials, education departments in the municipality, the school principals) to implement things they so much advocate for and provide a healthy and accepting environment for growth and development of all children.

Ironically, this incident is taking place in primary education, which is the first phase of education and a school-age that all educational experts describe as the pillar of knowledge building, but also building of the value system of individuals. The Macedonian eight-year schools have since become nine-year schools. We heard from them about the Cambridge program that turned out to be not-so-Cambridge-program, and the most recent thing we heard was a debate about the opposed standpoints on printed vs. electronic textbooks. However, things we least hear about and read about are what value attitudes or thinking matrices are offered to our primary school students. How can we ever forget that the schools are educational-upbringing institutions, not solely educational, in which the students acquire theoretical knowledge but they should also acquire life skills and manner of thinking that will make them more tolerable, open to friendships, and open towards people that are different from them in any characteristics.

It's time for real 21st century schools

Ambla, unfortunately, speaks a new sad story in terms of how much are we, as a community, ready to cooperate with those who are different from us, primarily within the schools. The student and her treatment in the Gostivar school showed most directly, and brought to light, all the shortcomings that our educational system is continuously producing.

The time we live is drawing a clear trajectory in which the theoretical knowledge is quickly surpassed and obsolete, and the practical, soft and social skills are getting much attention and are growing into a priority. While our society is hyper-producing masters and doctors of sciences and we notice an increase in the percentage share of highly educated people in the general structure of the population, we obviously fail the basic tests we have to pass informally. These are the tests outside the school desks that are taken in the name of humanity, solidarity, the inclusion of others. In that field, the Macedonian citizens and authorities, together, are continuously "lagging behind" the global world and fail to get involved in the mainstream.

Source: pretsedatel.mk

At the same time, on the other side of the world, for example, all universities that compete for high rankings on prestigious lists, do their best to include diversity in the widest range, meaning people with typical and atypical development, from this or that geographical origin, from one or other social status. Quite the opposite, the petition and the vicissitudes around are showing not only a general interpretation of health conditions and parenting priorities that have been incorrectly established, but they also tell how we all think and talk about atypical people. Where we have to fight the most for change (for example, in education), we saw a picture that does not look decent at all – it was not a picture of a school that strives to be the school of the new century.

Institutions remain silent if there is no public pressure

People with atypical development are facing countless challenges. The recent case of little Ambla shows another alarming situation, of which we are often unaware. It is the feeling that to sensitize the public and the government, to obtain their support which should be given to you anyway (it is said that the institutions should work best when the citizens do not know about it), we in the Macedonian context we are simply doomed to "screen-show" our daily lives.

To exercise some of the most basic human rights, such as the right to education, in a country where primary and even secondary education are mandatory by law, they must appear in the media. They should allow the general public to peek into their intimacy, and only then can the competent institutions step out of their comfortable office spaces and see how much of the inclusion that is declared by the government is actually (non)functional on the ground and outside of the comfort zone of the beautiful conference and plenary halls.

The situation that was happening at the beginning of February clearly showed all the systemic anomalies and strongly warns that we are probably using the opportunity that remains to reconsider the roles of institutions, parents, teachers, and school administrators in the educational process. The latter, as the first in line among equals, are required to understand and bear their objective responsibility for such traumas that are experienced by innocent children.

“Nine-day wonder?

The side effects in the education of Macedonian youth that are visible from many other angles, whether it was the consistently low ratings of domestic universities or the below average results of the Macedonian students according to the PISA tests, confirm the assumption that many of the previous reforms in the teaching process resulted in more deformations of that process. These changes simply failed to reach their objective and did not really bring us closer to what we have achieved - a system of education that is appropriate for the modern times in which we live and work. Let us not forget that inclusion in Macedonian education started more than 20 years ago but the results are missing.

One school does not deserve to be called "Edinstvo-Bashkimi" primary school when it shows in practice what disunity looks like. The reactions of some of the relevant institutions, although they usually come post-festum, are still welcome, including the voices that came from the Ombudsman, the Commission for Prevention and Protection against Discrimination, the Cabinet of the President. Let us remember that the role of the one we like to call the father of the nation is precisely in that - acting to unite the citizens, bridging the existing differences, and living with each other, instead of next to each other.

People with psycho-physical conditions or physiognomy different from ours are no less valuable. Many of them are our colleagues in the workplace, some of them were our colleagues in the school and at university in the past, and it is on us how much we managed to reach out to them. The rooted prejudices, stereotypes, and myths have been a tedious struggle for any progressive society, but they are not an impossible mission if there is a determination in the relevant institutions. Ordinary people are also keen to get to know better the seemingly different people and open up their minds.

Believing that the mind is like a parachute and works best when it is wide open, leads to the fact that it is time for each of us, at least in our micro world, to start to promote inclusion, instead of exclusion, to gradually grow into true admirers and embracers of diversity. At the end of the day, let us acknowledge and accept that individuals with disabilities or individuals with atypical development, do not deserve to be isolated and boycotted, because, in fact, they do not demand anything more than what is required in any decent country - a possibility for equal opportunities for their life and for their treatment.

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Ivan Durgutov

Ivan Durgutov is a Master of Laws at the Faculty of Law "Iustinianus Primus" at the University "St. Cyril and Methodius" in Skopje. His specialty is criminal law, and especially human rights issues, with a focus on hate speech and hate crime. He is an active member and part of the management of the European Association of Law Students (ELSA) - Republic of Macedonia.