Interview with Roland Ferkovics

The advocate and project manager talks about his Roma identity and problems with Hungarian higher education

February 16, 2023
Source: Roland Ferkovics

Roland Ferkovics is a project officer at the Central European University’s Democracy Institute in Budapest. He coordinates monitoring reports on Roma equality, participation and inclusion policies in European countries and helps design activities aimed at capacity building in Roma and pro-Roma civil society.

When and where were you born, and how has this shaped you?
I was born in 1988 in a city called Gyula. I grew up in a nearby village in the south-eastern part of Hungary, very close to Romania, in a traditional Roma family. My ethnic background and origin largely define who I am and how my entire identity has been shaped, even today. My father was working all the time as he owned a company; my mother was mostly staying at home with my brothers and me. Our family house was not in a segregated area, but our family and three families from my mother’s side were living in the same neighbourhood. The first memory that comes to me is a family gathering.

What started your interest in politics and political science?
Even from my childhood I was interested in being a lawyer or advocate. For instance, you can find in the garage of our family house “Dr Roland Ferkovics” written on one of the cabinets. My aim has been to stand next to those people who are being excluded and to represent their interests. When I turned 18 and was choosing a university, I decided I might have a better chance to be an advocate for Roma people through political science.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
Very enthusiastic. Imagine you grew up with an aim to help people, and finally you can be at university where you can touch the feeling of knowledge, at a place that establishes you on the path you want to take. I had professors who were acknowledged for their role in the transition from communism to democracy in Hungary. I felt honoured to sit in these classes and listen to these people, who I can thank for Hungarian democracy.

Why did you want to become a Roma advocate?
Since my childhood I’ve faced discrimination just because of my skin colour. The main reasons that I wanted to be an advocate are injustice and the discrimination that I have faced. People see me as a “gypsy”, and I still experience discrimination even today. Nobody knows I have a master’s in political science; it’s not written on my forehead.

What’s the biggest misconception about Roma people?
The entire public image of Roma is based on misconceptions. Type “Roma” or “gypsy” into Google and check the results: these are Roma in poverty, a Roma woman as a fortune teller, Roma children barefoot in the snow. When I sit down with people and they ask me where I work, what I studied, the first reaction is not “Congrats” but: “You are not like the other Roma, so you are not Roma.” Roma is not a social category. Roma is not an economic category. Roma is not a way of behaviour. Roma people are human beings, citizens, belonging to an ethnic minority or nationality. Roma advocates, communities and also pro-Roma and other stakeholders are fighting to challenge the frames that are limiting Roma.

Are you optimistic that Europe can overcome Roma discrimination?
If I observe the tendencies all over Europe, such as the strengthening of nationalism, illiberalism, populism and the radical right, then I am concerned. Racism, antisemitism and anti-gypsyism are getting more popular. All these are well known by societies: hate speech, hate crimes and police brutality committed against Roma. However, on the level of societies these remain the problem of Roma: challenges or even rights violations of Roma are not considered as a common issue that needs an urgent and professional reaction, but rather perceived as a problem of “theirs” that has no effect on the society in general. However, such an approach is completely wrong as we are living in the same society, sharing the same rights and obligations. On the other hand, there are examples of Roma and non-Roma communities cooperating, reaching goals together and jointly implementing new programmes. Grass-roots efforts can be a driving force for Roma inclusion and challenge the public discourse about Roma communities.

If you were Hungarian universities minister for a day, what would you change?
Considering the current political influence on universities, I would depoliticise these educational institutions. Active politicians mostly from the ruling party are board members in most universities. When I consider basic democratic principles, I believe it is not a proper model to have such individuals as board members.

Do you live by any motto or philosophy?
Knock and it shall be opened for you. If you want to achieve something, do something for it and do not give up your dreams. Then there will be an opportunity, even if it is difficult.

What would you like to be remembered for?
I would like to be remembered as a person who was proud of his origins and showed how Roma people can challenge stereotypes and reach their goals. Once the walls of stereotypes are [demolished], Roma and non-Roma people can get closer to each other. Better to build a bridge together than a wall. For instance, when I talk about Hungarians, I talk about my own people, and when Hungarians talk about Roma, I want them to do the same.


2007-10 BA, political science, University of Szeged
2013-15 MA, political science, Central European University (CEU)
2015-16 researcher, Columbia University
2015-16 programme coordinator, CEU
2016-17 fellow, German Marshall Fund
2017-20 policy and advocacy officer, Roma Education Fund
2020 consultant, Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights
2021 consultant, European Roma Rights Centre
2021- co-manager and project officer CEU


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