In late August, a Roma slum north of Paris was evacuated to make way for new council flats. Some families were re-housed in a resettlement camp. Some agreed to return to Romania on state-sponsored flights. Others simply disappeared.
The Roma children are back from school, playing in the bare yard, chasing after the older youths on bicycles. In her new caravan, little Nicoleta Covaci-Marghita proudly shows us her school books and explains that she goes to a local school in Saint-Ouen, a suburban town north of Paris. “At school, I learn to read, write and count,” she says, “but I prefer writing above all.”
Only two weeks ago, Covaci-Marghita lived in a rat-infested slum in Saint-Ouen before it was evacuated. She is one of the 96 Roma who were selected to join the town’s integration scheme. Today, she lives with her mother on a guarded site in Saint-Ouen, where residents share communal kitchens and bathrooms.
Back in June, when the authorities issued evacuation orders to the 600-odd residents of the slum, around 100 people agreed to return to Romania on state-sponsored flights, according to the local sub-prefect. Nearly 100 residents were selected for the integration scheme. It is not known what happened to the other 400-odd former residents of the slum.
Living conditions are much better in the caravan site than in the slum, says Constantin Drezaliu, who lives on the site with his wife and 9-year-old son, but the rules are very strict. “It’s much cleaner and bigger here,” he explains, “but we can’t trade scrap metal here, so we have no work.”
Site manager Nabil Bendami confirms that the residents have been banned from collecting scrap metal, one of their traditional sources of income. “We couldn’t allow them to bring metal into the camp because it would get out of control,” he explains, adding that the Roma have joined an employment scheme to find new jobs.
Bendami explains that in similar schemes, Roma people have learnt new skills and found jobs as cooks, construction workers or interpreters.
“The rules here are strict,” says Bendami, “residents are not allowed to receive visitors, they have to participate in the collective cleaning up sessions and they have to take care of their personal hygiene.” However, the Roma have reacted well to the new conditions. “So far, there have only been a few neighbourhood squabbles,” he says.
Nearby, Feri Ciurar, a jolly mechanic with a salt-and-pepper beard, laughs as he grabs a beer next to his deck chair. “The only reason I work is so that I can smoke and drink like a tramp,” he confides. Ciurar is glad he joined the integration scheme. “I get more respect here than in other countries,” he says, “I know a few things and it’s better here.”
Questioned about the fate of the other Roma families who were not selected to join the integration scheme, Ciurar frowns and says he does not want to talk about them.
Fleeing the authorities
In the town of Argenteuil, some 8 kilometers from the Saint-Ouen caravan site, we managed to track down a couple of Roma families who had fled the slum before it was demolished.
Below a noisy flyover, “Balcri” – who only provided us his nickname – now lives with his family in a disused bloc of flats, which used to house immigrant workers on the edge of Argenteuil. Here, the conditions are dire and the residents have no running water or electricity.
Sitting on a bench overlooking the River Seine, Balcri, a stocky Roma man, explains how he was forced to leave the slum. “Just when I registered my children at the local school, I learnt that they were going to tear down the slum.”
Two other men, who refused to be named, join him and show us the eviction papers they received from the police. The document states that they have to go back to Romania or they will be forcibly sent back. It’s a prospect Balcri does not look forward to.
“It’s difficult to send your children to school in Romania,” he explains, “there is no money, no work.”
All three men are bitter they were not chosen to join the Saint-Ouen integration scheme when the shanty was destroyed. “Two hundred or three hundred people applied to join the scheme, but there were only 90 places available. It’s not fair for the others,” adds another Roma mechanic who also refused to be named.
It’s a question that continues to baffle Balcri and his neighbours. In August 2007, Pact Arim 93, a French NGO working on housing issues, was asked to lead an inquiry into the resettlement of Roma and to select candidates for the integration scheme. State criteria for immigration include the ability to speak French, having children at school and the willingness to work in France, among other qualifications.
Date created : 2008-09-12