By Sharee Turpin
Photos by Ana Gil-Taylor
Art lives within Selma Selman.
As a child in Bosnia, she used to sell her drawings for lunch money. One teacher noticed her gift and created opportunities for her to experience the world. Receiving a scholarship to attend school in Budapest, Selman knew she would never return home. She received her master’s degree in fine arts from Syracuse University last year.
But Selman has never forgotten the discrimination she faced growing up in Bosnia. Children in her home village are dropping out of school as early as the third grade and being married off to flee poverty.
That’s the reason she started her non-profit organization “Get the Heck to School.” She wants to instill an appreciation for education in as many children, especially girls, as possible. The effort is focused on Ruzica, the village where she grew up in Bosnia. Her first phase is to eliminate prejudice that keeps kids from going to school. Selman and many other residents of her village are members of the Romani people, or Roma, a traditionally migratory ethnic group that has faced tremendous persecution throughout its history.
“Regardless of how you look, people are going to put you in a cage,” she said. “The best way to fight that is knowledge.”
Selman aims to help people achieve that knowledge with Get the Heck to School. Knowing she needed support to make this happen, she partnered with an organization based in Washington, D.C., “BHeart,” in 2017. Together they raised over $9,000, resulting in five scholarships which allowed 35 children the ability to pay for school lunch.
At the moment, Selman is handling the fundraising for her organization solo, and it’s proving to be successful. Without aid, only 15 percent of children in her village would finish their primary education prior. But since she started Get the Heck to School two years ago, that number has gone up to 95 percent. Two girls in high school are following her footsteps; one is applying for college and another just started college majoring in art.
Selman said there are a few major hurdles keeping Roma people from sending their children to school — all of them economic. First, due to high levels of poverty, parents believe it’s better for children to work instead to make more money. Arranged marriages amongst young girls is also very common. Families believe if their daughter gets married at an early age, she’ll have a better life. Selman had to fight against these stereotypes to get where she is today.
“This is why you have to work at all three problems at the same time… economic reasons are one of the biggest reasons,” she said. “If you just give them a little bit of support, like financial support, you believe a little bit in them, you can make a miracle.”
And having broken those barriers, Selman has made quite a name for herself. Whenever she visits her hometown, there’s an excitement that follows her as young girls run up to greet their hero. They all want to be her when they grow up.
While she’s touched by their admiration, Selman encourages the girls to find their individuality and to be better than she can.
“You have to become yourself,” she said. “My path was my path; you have to create your path.”
The first of its kind in Europe, Get the Heck to School is the only non-profit organization that focuses on primary school, according to Selman. There are many organizations that give scholarships for high school and college, but no one is fixing the problem from the roots. Selman also noted the lack of focus on the individual versus collectively.
“Education especially for girls is one of the most important factors in order to become independent, in order to fight sexism,” she said.
Education is the foundation of her message, but not the only layer. Eventually she’ll also incorporate self-defense classes for girls.
While she fights for all youth in Ruzica, she has one specific wish for girls everywhere.
“That no one will ever take their place,” she says. “I want every girl to have their own place in the best way. Each of them deserves a fair life… and to be proud of that.”
Destroying the cycle of poverty, unfairness and child marriages is her main objective but her art gives it breath. She’s nominated for the Power of Excellence award in Bosnia and has shows coming up in Italy, Slovenia and New York City. Adding to the list, she got funding to publish her first photo book, comic book style, in which she’ll put stories about her and her mom and advice on how to overcome poverty.
Selman clarifies she is an artist before anything else. Avoiding any additional names and accepting she can be anything, art makes her who she is.
“Regardless of my nationality and everything… I’m an artist,” she says. “That’s how I would like to be perceived and respected… because I truly believe in art.”
To donate to her organization, email Selma at [email protected]