France has always been a land of immigration and most French people have ancestors who came from elsewhere. Nevertheless, each wave of immigration still gives rise to surprise, questioning and – even more so in times of crisis: hostility. That is the case for the people who have come from eastern Europe (Romania, Moldavia, Bulgaria…) and particularly for the “Romas”, a people used to living in trailers or caravans.
The “Romas” represent about 10 million people in Europe. In certain States they have national minority status. In many countries they are subjected to policies of enforced settlement, and strong discrimination, particularly in central and eastern Europe. So they try to find a better future elsewhere, and their migration has been facilitated by the integration of Romania into the European Union. Officially in France they number 15000, but probably more, and that number remains the same despite being subject to numerous deportations: over 8000 per year. The annual cost to the French budget of escorting Romanians back to the borders is estimated at between 200 and 250 million euros. But they leave and return, even to the same places as they were before. The policy towards them is very harsh, including the destruction of their precarious dwellings.
A sister of the Infant Jesus, Josette, has been in Romania for many years ...
...and two sisters from France devote their time and their heart to this area.
Sr Micheline M in Roubaix
The migrants from the East have pitched their caravans on wastelands in a neighbourhood where the inhabitants themselves suffer from an accumulation of deprivations. It is hard for them to welcome the migrants. These shanty towns with no water and no electricity are health hazards, rats come to live there … “our neighbourhood becomes a dump”.
The Bulgarian families build cabins for themselves from recycled materials and gather wood from demolition and building sites to warm themselves outside around the fire. It is they and the Romas who are the most discredited by the environment of the neighbourhood and the camp itself.
An outpost of solidarity has been created in the neighbourhood in order to confront this situation. We are a group of volunteers and have the services of a paid interpreter. Such misery is inhuman, unacceptable.
Sr Micheline is a member of this group. She goes regularly to the camps and brings some comfort and sustenance and, despite the obstacle of the language, she is received as a member of the family.
One of the challenges, led by Micheline and the volunteers, is that of the children’s schooling. Some are 9, 10 and 11 years of age and have never attended school. It requires great effort from the teachers because the special classes for migrants were discontinued in our sector! And for the families, sending them to school represents often insurmountable difficulties. The children are sometimes cruel among themselves towards these “different” pupils. And how could they pay for the copy books, pencils? How could they keep the children clean when there is nothing to wash the clothes, nowhere to arrange them, and so little space to live? We would need sponsorship but have not enough volunteers to follow that up. But what a thrill when a child is integrated in a class, attends regularly, and shows that he can read a few lines!
During visits to the camps the requests are numerous: would you have nappies for my baby? And, in the caravan, a newborn wrapped in a blanket… children crying: clothes for school! So we launch an appeal in the churches, seek help from the organization Caritas and from nearby richer towns, because there is already so much poverty in our area. In order to avoid tension, rivalry or jealousy between families, when I bring something, I park my car a little bit away and I go in search of the mothers one by one to help in order of priority according to what we have received.
People of good will respond to our appeal: a hairdresser undertakes to do the children’s hair to go to school. A teacher launches an appeal for rubber boots, which will remain at the school so that the children can get out of their muddy shoes during the day and avoid being mocked by their companions. And the parents respond generously.
When we look at our identity card and our house-key, do we recognize our riches, our happiness?
Sr Brigitte L, Rosny sous Bois
Brigitte meets every week with the children of an “integration village” situated near a rubbish dump on the outskirts of Paris. It is an encampment of about 50 dilapidated caravans in an enclosed terrain. The families who are gathered in these caravans, given by the town council, have agreed to enter into an “integration project”. They are accompanied by two teachers and a mediator of Romanian origin, who helps them with different administrative issues and if possible with finding a job…
The situation for these families is better than for those with no rights in Roubaix. Nevertheless, everything continues to be difficult when you have no money, no way to express yourself in French, and for the children no decent clothes to go to school! That requires guts every day.
The children are schooled, but often in classes of their own age which is far from their level … They do go to school, but with lots of difficulties...
Caritas was asked to help them with their lessons, and Sr Brigitte is among the volunteers who responded to the appeal. It is a happy time for the children, which they would happily prolong: “I want to work a little longer, I like learning.” … and, despite their tiredness, the volunteers are happy to recognize their progress thanks to the time given to teaching them to read and write.
The children suffer from lack of space in the caravans where the whole family lives. “I sleep on the floor, my parents are in the bed, my brother on the seat. My limbs are always cramped, I can’t stretch myself, there’s no room, and I’m afraid of the cockroaches which run around at night, I’m afraid that they’ll go into my ears.”
At the end of 2012, the integration village is due to disappear to make way for the construction of a sports stadium. Some families will perhaps be given lodgings in different parts of the town … that causes fear to the inhabitants of the neighbourhood! What will become of all the families and the solidarity built up over several years?
There is still a long way to go before Europe welcomes and values the Romany culture. May we be able to bring to that task our modest contribution.