How one German city is opening doors to Roma

The Roma earned the right to travel across Western Europe this year. And in Mannheim, locals are helping them overcome the social obstacles they encounter.

Angelo Carconi/AP/File
A man carries his belongings and his dog as he leaves a Gypsy camp to be evacuated and demolished in Rome, in September 2010.

Jungbusch, an industrial neighborhood in the city of Mannheim is no stranger to foreign immigrants. Indeed, it is known as "arrival city" and, like few other places in Germany, has mastered the art of getting 80 different cultures to live together, peacefully.

First to arrive were Turkish and Italian guest workers in the 1960s and '70s. Then came refugees from Iran and Iraq in the 1990s, along with those escaping the war in the former Yugoslavia. It was the Jungbusch Community Center, an initiative supported by the city and various non-profits, that helped bind those groups through music and sports.

Now the latest set of arrivals is bringing to Mannheim one of the oldest challenges in Europe: accommodating the Roma, or as they are often derogatorily called Gypsies. When Bulgaria and Romania acceded to the European Union, members of the Bulgaria's Roma minority, Europe's poorest citizens fleeing poverty and discrimination in their home cities of Veliko Tarnovo and Dobrich, began arriving by bus.

But instead of repeating mistakes of the past – to think, for example, that Turks would go back to Turkey – or compartmentalizing the Roma as "criminals," as many European politicians still do to this day, Mannheim is trying a new tactic: integrating the Roma. The city is spending hundreds of thousand of euros in integration measures for its southeastern immigrants, to help the newly arrived Bulgarians make a home in Jungbusch as immigrants prior have done.

“When the new and the old meet there are tensions,” says Marija Krstanovic, a Serbian Bosnian social worker helping the Roma settle in Mannheim at the Jungbusch Center. “It's a process that needs time.”

Europe's Roma

Tanja Wunderlich, an integration expert at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin, says that the Roma represent a sort of “magnifying glass” that focuses people's fears. How the city deals with the Roma becomes a test “about European solidarity and social justice.”

“The fate of the Roma in the European Union is a yardstick for European integration,” Ms. Wunderlich says.

An heterogeneous group that traces its lineage to India more than 1,000 years ago, ethnic Roma are at the bottom of most accepted socio-economic fields. They are the poorest, the most welfare-dependent, and the most segregated, and in Bulgaria and Romania they are often evicted from city centers and relegated to living literally on top of garbage dumps. They often raise suspicion, mostly because of the “otherness” of their lifestyle and values, experts say.

“In modern Europe, 'anti-Gypsyism' has become the last acceptable prejudice,” says Aidan McGarry, an expert on southeastern immigration at the University of Brighton.

For a longtime the world didn't care. In Eastern Europe, communism guaranteed the Roma work, housing, and welfare. Assimilation policies kept a lid on hate attacks. But after Romania's Ceausescu regime collapsed in 1989, the poverty and discrimination suffered by the Roma burst out in the open.

It wasn't until Europe’s enlargement in 2004 and 2007 – when 4.5 million more ethnic Roma became EU citizens and started moving about – that Europeans realized that the issue “could no longer be contained within the new Central and Eastern European states,” says Bernard Rorke, head of the “Roma Initiatives Office” at the Open Society Foundations in Budapest. Although numbers are hard to trace – many Roma do not register – some 10,000 Bulgarian and Romanian Roma have moved to Germany since 2007 according to official estimates, and the Jan. 1 lifting of travel restrictions against Bulgarians and Romanians could raise numbers even further.

Over the past few years, Roma communities have come under fire from politicians in countries including Italy, Hungary, Germany, Britain, and France – the last most noticeably in 2010 when former French President Nicolas Sarkozy expelled 2,000 Roma back to Romania as part of his “war on crime,” a policy the Hollande government has more or less continued.

But at the same time, the EU began to pay closer attention to the exclusion of Roma in Europe, says Mr. Rorke. “We saw the EU Roma summit, a task force on Roma inclusion, the emergence of a EU framework,” he says. The EU signed a plan of action on Roma inclusion in education, health, housing, and employment, committing several billion Euros for Roma inclusion projects.

“What drives people to the West is the lack of any hope of a better future, and yes, it is a problem when desperately poor people see no future in their own country,” says Rorke in Budapest. Instead of populist tough-on-them calls, European governments should put on the pressure on those governments to better handle their Roma citizens: “We need to find effective measures to tackle the problem that drives the migration – poverty, social exclusion,” says Rorke.

Fighting isolation

Jungbusch in Mannheim presents an ideal test for a more accommodating approach to the Roma. Before 2007, only 60 Bulgarians arrived annually in the neighborhood. Now, some 200 Bulgarians settle in Jungbusch every month.

Ms. Krstanovic and her team have been able to offer them a lifeline, helping fight the social exclusion felt by the Bulgarians she meets, many of whom are ethnic Roma, both by breaking down stereotypes and simply getting people to talk to her. “Bulgarians are afraid of authorities because they have made such negative experiences, and when they move to another country they take it for granted that nonprofits won't help,” she says.

But Krstanovic has won many of them over for several reasons: First and most practically because her Serbo-Croatian language is similar to Bulgarian, so she can speak with the newcomers and help them through the maze of German bureaucracy.

More importantly, she knows what they are going through, being a stigmatized immigrant herself. “It is easy to crush people when they are already on the ground,” says Krstanovic, whose family fled from Mostar, Bosnia, to Mannheim to escape the war in Yugoslavia 20 years ago. She knows what it means to have a label sticking on you. When she arrived, Serbs like her were seen as the war's aggressors. “A 12-year-old girl in my class told me that I committed a crime.”

That she managed to win the trust of many Bulgarians is one of her biggest successes. Three years ago, she had to go out on the streets and knock on people's doors. Today families stand in line to see her. Two years ago, she started offering German classes to Roma families, on a voluntary basis. Now the city of Mannheim understands the importance of the language issue and offers free German language courses to Roma families.

“Every day some 25 Bulgarian families stop by, seek advice on language, apartments, schools, how to fill out forms, get a foot in the door of Germany," she says. "There are myriad problems to deal with. No running water. More than 20 families living in the same place. German companies hiring Roma illegally, at 2 euros per hour, which only deepens the cycle of illegality.... Those people are in desperate need and I try to help them out.”

A key, she says, is not to look at the people she deals with as members of a minority.

“That's why I try to see every person as an individual,” she says. “Whether the person had the chance to be born in Germany, or whether she was born in Eritrea, I don't care."

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