Life for the Roma in France

entrance to a Roma camp: Cristian is on the right, wearing a baseball cap

This is a very special guest post, written by a dear friend in Paris, France. Mary Harvan Gorgette is a lay minister for social-justice and intercultural issues in a 5-parish area of the Diocese of Créteil, France. She coordinates a group that supports Roma families in the area.

Cristian spends most of his day on the road, in the southern suburbs of Paris, France. He rides his bike, stopping occasionally to pick up scrap metal and throw it in his makeshift trailer. Sometimes he loads up a larger appliance left curbside on trash day.

His trailer full, he pedals back to a small shantytown, located off an access road. In September 2010, five Romanian families built small homes around a central courtyard, using materials collected from trash bins. Cristian and Janina’s home has two rooms, a double bed for them and one for their three children. A concrete, wood-burning stove provides heat. A couple plastic chairs can be pulled out and covered with clean linens for visitors to the camp.

For cooking and washing, each family fills jerry cans from a roadside fire hydrant. Toilets are dug away from the camp. Janina and the other women cook on open fires in the courtyard.

A grassy field between the camp and the access road provides a workspace. There Cristian and other young men hammer the objects they have collected, separating the metal to be sold as scrap. The families survive this way because French law prohibits Romanian and Bulgarian citizens from working in any but a restricted number of fields, all requiring advanced degrees. It excludes the poorest Eastern Europeans from an otherwise open EU job market.

Many of the poorest belong to an ethnic group called Roma, long discriminated against in their home countries. There, they are excluded not only from the work force, but from schools, housing, and public services. This drives many to emigrate to the richer West. As Janina says, they live better off French trash: Romanians don’t throw much away.

The families’ resourcefulness cannot conquer all the challenges of their life here. Parents take turns keeping watch at night so that rats don’t bite the children in their sleep. When Cristian was feeling ill, a sympathetic French woman took him to the hospital. He was admitted immediately, found to be severely diabetic and suffering from an endocrine-related genetic disorder. He receives ongoing treatment for his condition.

The mayor recently won a lawsuit allowing him to evict the families from the municipally owned land. A group of parishioners and other citizens is seeking solutions for the families, whose homes will be razed in July, after the children have finished their first year of school.

Public housing already has long waiting lists, and none of it would provide the work space the families need to make their living. There are few open fields in the Paris area, even fewer where they could settle without threat of further eviction. It’s almost certain that they will end up far from the schools, medical centers, and French friends they have come to know. One young woman will be leaving when her baby is 2 months old. Evicted Roma families often end up in other shantytowns, most of which harbor dozens, sometimes hundreds, of people in dire conditions.

When these families learned of the court decision, each had to choose whether to return to Romania or stay in France. Cristian says for him the choice is simple. “If I go back, I’m dead.”

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