Last goodbyes in a Roma slum
Last hours in the camp
The celebrations are over now. A week ago, the shantytown was buzzing with Roma parting revelry, merry-making and beer-drinking. Today, husband and wife Constantin Drezaliu and Pauline Visan are sitting quietly in front of a soggy shed, waiting for the housing agency's van that will take their belongings to new lodgings. "Do you know when they are coming?", they ask with a mixture of anxiety and anticipation.
The Drezaliu family is one of the 24 Roma families - approximately 80 people - chosen among the 600-strong population of a shantytown in the northern Parisian town of Saint-Ouen to join an integration scheme. Conditions in the slum are dire. There is no running water, no electricity, and no proper lavatories. "I want to be like other French people; I want to learn French, live normally, get a job and send my children to school," confides Drezaliu, an unemployed man and jack of all trades who grew up in Romania before moving to France two years ago. His wife Pauline is also relieved she will leave the shanty town. "I want to stay in France. I want to work." Her nine-year-old son, Alex, a name she proudly tattooed on her arm, suffered a bad fall on his back when he was a child. In France, he can obtain medical treatment the family could not afford in Romania. "In Romania, when you send your child to school, the others hit him and say they don't want any gypsies around," she says.
The rest of the shantytown is quiet. About 220 residents have already left for Romania in flights organized by the French state. According to the Saint-Denis sub-prefect, Olivier Dubaut, police will evacuate the site "soon". The remaining residents of the slum will be deported to Romania, though many swear they will return.
It's time to go. Staff members from the prefecture and a local housing NGO Pact Arim 93 are waiting for them. Amid last-minute bickering over the luggage, the Drezaliu family rush towards an extremity of the camp and join a growing crowd of Roma men and women. "It's a bit chaotic," comments Constantine Drezaliu as the staff, armed with clip-boards, call out the names. Isabelle Riem, an educator and Saint Ouen resident, has come along to show her support for the Roma families. She explains that many of her fellow neighbours reject the Roma people. "They think the Roma are thieves, and don't approve of the women begging with their children. But if they take them with them it's because they don't have babysitters." Today, the children are excited, shouting out, "proyecto, proyecto!" referring to the integration scheme. They chant "Thank Yous" in falsetto, not quite so sincere, voices. Nobody wants to offend the local authorities. "Can't you ride?" shouts a heavy employee as she throws a disapproving look at Drezaliu's bicycle. It's a fifteen-minute walk to the new site, and the Roma families march proudly through the town of Saint Ouen, raising eyebrows on their way.
A first glimpse into their new abode
"Oh look, it's great, we’re going to have lights and television," says Drezaliu, grinning at the electricity wires hanging around the new caravan site. The workmen are adding the finishing touches to the site while the families wait huddled at the gate.
First, they must sign up. The Roma families must agree to send their children to school, seek work. The caravan site is guarded to deter strangers, and families from the shanty-town who would like to join them. Their social workers Nathalie Bouscal and Hélène Mardé, who already work on two similar projects around Paris, explain that health and schooling are their initial priorities. "Many of them have had no medical attention, they have teeth problems, and no help during pregnancies," explains Bouscal. Impatiently, Drezaliu circles the site to find his caravan. It's at the back. "It's big," he says leaning against the second-hand home. A curly-haired young man joins him, "how luxurious," he exclaims, before adding "how many are you?" with a hint of jealousy. As they unload their luggage, the members of the Drezaliu family are glad but tired. They say they want to stay forever, but according to their social workers, the caravan site is only temporary. They want to move the Roma into council flats within three years. "So far, the integration process seems to be working," Bouscal added.
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