Text and photography by Jonadav Apelblat and Christian Ernhede.
Bobbi came to France from Romania in 2006 to be able to support his family, and to look for a better life. Back in Romania things had gotten worse economically since the fall of Ceausescu, and it became increasingly difficult to find a job. He left his family in Romania to go to France initially by himself to try to find a job.
Bobbi is one of an estimated 15,000 Roma people of Romanian or Bulgarian descent currently living in France. The presence of Roma people is a contested and divisive issue across Europe, and oftentimes local authorities make the problem worse by destroying camps and pushing communities from one location to another, thereby stigmatising and reinforcing negative stereotypes of what is already a marginalised group. According to the BBC, the current french government is deporting thousands of illegal camp dwellers every year.
The media also plays a role in reinforcing negative stereotypes of Roma people. A study in Spain by Fundación Secretariado Gitano in 2009 found that in 188 of 688 cases of discrimination against Roma people, media had been the discriminatory party.
Historically the Roma communities in Europe can be traced back to northern India from where they migrated in the 11th century. Today, it is estimated that around 10 million Roma people live in Europe and it is one of the most discriminated and marginalised communities in Europe.
In recognising that Roma inclusion is an EU-wide issue, the European Commission has explicitly referred to the Structural Funds as an instrument to foster Roma inclusion. But EU funding alone cannot adress the issue, and unfortunately there is sometimes a reluctance on the part of local and national authorities to make use of EU financing for fear of becoming "magnets for squatters". Local authorities also lack direct access to EU financing and the ability to influence EU policy, and in turn national governments often lack expertise or political will to address local Roma integration issues.
As a consequence, some regions are overwhelmed by the recent stream of migrants from eastern Europe. In Ghent there are an estimated 10,000 migrants from Bulgaria and Slovakia; many of them of Roma origin. Local official Jan Balliu points to the additional costs of schooling and integration efforts that the city of Ghent face due to the migration, and they would like to see the creation of an EU compensation fund that redirects unused funds that are allocated to eastern European countries to regions facing immigration.
For Bobbi it was in the Paris suburb of Montreuil that he managed to establish an initial foothold. Montreuil is a neighbourhood with a rich Roma heritage dating back to the 19th century, and in the last decade it has seen an influx of Roma people from eastern Europe. Bobbi recalls that he would take whatever job he could find when he arrived. "It wasn't easy; you're unhappy until you learn to speak some french". His wife and four children joined him 5 months later, and they tried as best they could to find somewhere to live and to get the children to go to school. Bobbi taught his daughter Lamaita how to read and write.
Eventually the neighbours helped them to move into an abandoned medical clinic where they stayed for three years with other migrants. "We fixed it up so it was ok, and spoke to the commune and we set up an account so that we would have water and electricity. When you live outside there isn't any space to take a bath or do laundry so it's difficult. In the clinic we had that." Bobbi says that he was happy to live in the clinic but the Montreuil commune sought a more durable solution and in 2008 they launched a housing project co-financed with the French state and the EU for 20 Roma families.
Given the situation of many of these communities and the dire conditions in which they often live, the options are limited and the smaller well-integrated temporary homes that were built in Montreuil for Bobbi and 19 other families, seems to be a step in the right direction. The alternative, the long-term consequences of a generation of Roma people growing up in illegal camps in western European cities, is all the more palpable due to the permanence of much of the migration. As Balliu says in reference to eastern European migrants in Ghent "they are here to stay".
Building housing dedicated to Roma people is however sometimes controversial. As local official Claude Reznik says in reference to another larger housing project in Montreuil that was finished earlier this year: "the critique that we're building a ghetto isn't completely wrong".
They were migrants. And the hostility changed them, welded them, united them - hostility that made the little towns group and arm as though to repel an invader, squads with pick handles, clerks and storekeepers with shotguns guarding the world against their own people. In the West there was panic when the migrants multiplied on the highways.
John Steinbeck, "The Grapes of Wrath"
Sometimes there is also the issue of local opposition. In Montreuil the former major Jean-Pierre Brard has actively supported the efforts by a dozen local residents to sabotage the construction of Roma housing projects. Another project in Lille was halted due to the fierce opposition from local residents. The issue is amplified by the fact that local politicians might be wary of starting integration projects due to fear that there will be a negative reaction. In the end though Bobbi gets along fine with his new neighbours: "they are nice, and we help each other out if there is something".
In contrast to Montreuil, in Ghent there has been limited efforts to provide housing for Roma families, although the city has experimented with a short-term project for two families, and are currently working on another small-scale initiative. Balliu says that the city of Ghent is currently not interested in providing prefabricated housing projects similar to those in Montreuil, and he points out that the city's waiting list for social housing currently includes 8,000 local residents and that they are reluctant to prioritise migrants for permanent social housing. The local authorities in Ghent are however open to continue experimenting with providing temporary housing to Roma families for short-term periods of six months.
Bobbi has lived in the housing project in Montreuil for almost two years now and he has found a part-time job as a van driver. His wife works as a cleaning lady. He has also started studying french in order to find a better-paid job. Without speaking good french, you will not find a good job, he says. He would like to take a driving licence for heavy trucks. "Like everyone, I want to make a better future for myself and my family."
Bobbi's daughter Lamaita is 15 and still in school. She was six when she came to France with her family. She says that she likes school, and that when she grows up she wants to become a lawyer: "I want to stand up for people's rights". She likes it in the neighbourhood and has her friends there. "It's better than before. Now we have our own home." When asked if she feels french, she says that she does not know much about Romania. She has not been there since she left with her family as a six-year old. She speaks better french than Romani.
The integration projects in Montreuil can be deemed successful at least in that they give the families a stable place to live and a foothold upon which to build a future, but their continuation is uncertain. The projects were not meant to be permanent, and the financing is coming to an end this year. Reznik says that it is unlikely that there will be any new projects of a similar nature in Montreuil in the near future.
"Ain't you thinkin' what's it gonna be like when we get there? Ain't you scared it won't be nice like we thought?"
"No," she said quickly. "No, I ain't. You can't do that. I can't do that. It's too much—livin' too many lives. Up ahead they's a thousan' lives we might live, but when it comes, it'll on'y be one."
John Steinbeck, "The Grapes of Wrath"
For Bobbi and his family, they are unsure where they will be when the project finishes, but he is optimistic that things will work out. For others, the reality of life in western Europe involves moving from one illegal camp to another without much hope for the stability and opportunities that a temporary home might provide.