Nearly 70 families are currently living in a gymnasium in a Paris suburb after their Roma camps were dismantled, the community are pushing for a long-term solution for the homeless families but for now they face an uncertain future.
As of Monday, approximately 70 Roma have been waiting for several days in the Joliot-Curie gymnasium in Choisy-le-Roi, a suburb of Paris. Among them are around thirty children, as well as elderly and sick people. Mattresses – one per family – are set up against the walls, while carts of belongings are clustered in football goals. The town hall is expected to provide two microwave ovens and extra mattresses by Tuesday evening.
The Roma, all originally from Timisoara in western Romania, were expelled last Thursday morning from their campsite along a nearby highway. “We had to leave very quickly. I didn’t even have time to take our clothes”, recounted Nadia Hamza, a mother of two who arrived in France 11 years ago. “They took our caravans. I don’t know where they are”.
Echoes of 2002
IN PICTURES: ROMA MOVED TO GYM
Since their expulsion on 12 August from a campsite in the Parisian suburb of Choisy-le-Roi, approximately 70 Roma have been staying in the local gymnasium that city authorities made available to them. (Photo: Perrine Mouterde)
Mattresses line the walls of the gymnasium. Immigrant-rights groups have brought shampoo, detergent, blankets and food. (Photo: Perrine Mouterde)
Some of the Roma only had time to grab a few things before being expelled from their caravans. Many of them are musicians, making a living by performing under the Eiffel Tower. (Photo: Perrine Mouterde)
Among the 70 people housed in the gymnasium are around 30 children and many elderly Roma. Some of the families arrived in France a decade ago. All come from the western city of Timisoara in Romania. (Photo: Perrine Mouterde)
The mother of four-year-old Alin says she just wants a job and a place to stay with a shower, so that her son can live “like all children in France”. She says she has looked for work “every day”, in vain. (Photo: Perrine Mouterde)
Beniamin Boti, 14, arrived in France eight months ago. He is supposed to start school in September. “We’re not thieves,” he says. “Why do they want us to return to Romania? Over there, we die. We are European citizens”. (Photo: Perrine Mouterde)
Before living in Choisy, 20-year-old Codrut Sador lived in a campsite in another suburb of Paris. "Police came every day to tell us to leave," he says. "They even came here to the gymnasium at midnight. Why? We haven’t stolen anything!" (Photo: Perrine Mouterde)
Some of these Roma have been given one month to leave France, but local immigrant-rights associations are planning to take their cases to court. Their stay in the gymnasium, which is next to a school, is only temporary. (Photo: Perrine Mouterde)
The majority-Communist city council denounced the “cynicism” and “negligence” of the government, and proposed “for humanitarian reasons” to temporarily house the families in the gymnasium. “We cannot leave these people like that, in the street, while it’s raining”, said Patrice Diguet, a local politician.
Eight years ago, the Roma of Choisy had already become a hot political topic. In 2002, Nicolas Sarkozy, then interior minister, visited the suburb and announced his “commitment to addressing the issue of Roma camps”, promising to launch a humanitarian initiative in collaboration with Romania.
At the time, more than 600 Roma had been living for two years on abandon plots of land in the region. Some had set up camp along a highway, while others slept in caravans. On December 3, 2002, the camp was evacuated by the authorities in an early-morning operation. The next day, renowned French priest Abbé Pierre came to Choisy to protest against Sarkozy’s security policies, which were intended to penalise squats and aggressive begging.
‘Roma on one side, Romanians on the other’
Today, no one knows how long the Roma of Choisy will stay in the Joliot-Curie gymnasium. An assessment of the number of people under legal obligation to leave French territory within a month is underway. “Are they going to find us a new place to stay, a lodging in a house or a hotel room?” wondered Rodika Novakovitch. “We don’t have any answers”.
After losing her parents and her house in Romania, Novakovitch arrived in France in 2002. Like all of the Roma in the gymnasium, she is sure of one thing: she does not want to return to her native country. “Over there, I have no home, no work, no money, no food. How can one manage with three or four children?” she said. “In Romania, there are the Roma on one side and Romanians on the other. The government is very racist”.
Without a visa and an address, Novakovitch has not been able to find work in France. She earns some money by begging or selling flowers with other women from her community. As for the men, some are musicians, while others sell scrap metal. “When we manage to collect 200 kilos in a day, it’s not bad”, explained 20-year-old Codrut Sador. “With that we can make about 10 euros, which means 5 for gas and 5 for food”.
Sador has spent half of his life in France. “I just want a house and a job, like everyone else. I can do any job, even cleaning toilets”, he said. “If they put me on a plane to Romania, I’ll come back to France the next day”.
Local reinsertion program bears fruit
Other Roma have more stable situations. Toma Crisca, who also comes from Timisoara, is one of the beneficiaries of a reinsertion program set up by the city; he lives with his wife and son in a house. Still, he comes regularly to visit his fellow Roma in the gymnasium.
People like Crisca have been aided by a collaboration between the department of Val-de-Marne and local associations intended to find solutions to the Roma community’s housing problem and to eradicate slums. The project has resulted in more than twenty families being lodged in houses or buildings in the area. In one nearby suburb, nearly 35 Roma are housed in a former police station.
“These are buildings that have been abandoned”, explained Michel Fèvre, a member of an association called RomEurope. “The idea was to break from useless expulsion policies and to give these families shelter.” Fèvre explained that the process of reinsertion is not seamless. “When someone has lived for 10 or 15 years in a slum, it takes time to get back on track”, he noted.
Still, according to another member of the association, Laurence Alimi, the initiative helps bring stability to turbulent lives. “We have at least one person who has a visa and is employed”, Alimi said. “And of course, the kids go to school”.
Alimi said the reinsertion project is the fruit of strong political will on the local level, but that bigger and more institutional efforts are needed from the federal government: “So long as the government doesn’t want to solve this, the situation won’t improve”.
Date created : 2010-08-17