David Karas
Bert Looij stands inside a classroom built by ProRoma Foundation volunteers for students who need special tutoring.

In slums of Romania, a Dutchman is drawn to help the Roma

Bert Looij aids ostracized Roma, who are also known as Gypsies – including those living at a rat-infested dump. 'I help them because nobody else is helping them,' he says.

When Bert Looij first set foot in the informal Roma settlement at the Pata Rât dumpsite more than two decades ago, he found deplorable conditions. “We saw children bitten by rats on their ears, people sleeping under plastic...,” he says.

There were no real streets. The close proximity of the makeshift homes and shelters meant that, in the event of a fire, many families lost everything – including in one case an infant left at home while the family had gone out to earn money.

Mr. Looij talks about the site as it is today with a different tone – one filled with hope.

In the beginning outsiders were hesitant to go into Pata Rât because they thought the Roma there “will kill us. They will rape us. They will steal from us,” Looij says. “But it is not that way.”

“Everybody calls it a ghetto, but we will make from this ghetto a [residential] district,” he says, “and it is happening now.”

As executive director of the ProRroma Foundation, Looij himself is responsible for a good part of the progress so far. Founded in 2003, ProRroma is dedicated to assisting the Roma – commonly known as Gypsies – in Romania who have many problems, among them malnutrition, lack of education, and poverty. They are often discriminated against and rejected by mainstream society as well.

Rooted in Christian principles, ProRroma operates throughout Romania, with offices based in Cluj-Napoca, a city of about 300,000 in northwestern Romania. Its work includes offering educational programs and assistance with shelter, medical, food, and hygiene needs.

Looij, who is Dutch, first visited Cluj-Napoca with his wife, Margriet, in 1992, not long after the nation’s turbulent communist revolution.

They returned to the Netherlands, “but something in my heart” stayed in Romania, he says. It wasn’t long before the couple decided to move to Romania. They worked for several nonprofit groups there, spending time in Pata Rât and elsewhere.

With ProRroma, Looij has focused his efforts on Roma settlements just outside Cluj – slums that stand in stark contrast to the nation’s second-largest city, which was named the 2015 European Youth Capital.

The four Roma camps – Dallas, also known as the Pata Rât district, with roughly 140 families; Costea, with 70; Cantonului, with 200; and the dumpsite itself, with 60 – include an estimated 1,100 children, Looij says. Families living at and around the dump historically had harvested glass or plastic bottles to recycle. But that modest source of income disappeared when the dump closed in 2015.

More than half of those who had worked there were able to find other jobs in the city – itself a miracle, Looij says, given the negative attitudes toward the Roma.

Courses and tutoring

Central to ProRroma’s efforts to improve the otherwise bleak prospects of the Roma are its schools and other education programs. More than 115 children attend courses and year-round tutoring at a school in Tinca, Romania, for example, which opened in 2000 with just a dozen pupils. Margriet plays a pivotal role in this work – teaching on a daily basis.

In Pata Rât Looij began by working alongside men harvesting bottles, his wife alongside women cleaning them.

Later a bathing program for children was expanded to include recreation, and then classes. Volunteers constructed a multipurpose building with classrooms and a kitchen. Improvements such as roads, sewers, and now nearly completed laundry facilities followed.

ProRroma has rehabbed some 70 percent of the houses at Dallas and expects to complete the rest within two years. Enhancements include improving foundations to keep rats out of the homes.

Looij has also worked relentlessly as an advocate for the Roma with local officials. He’s now working to make the settlement at Dallas officially recognized – a designation already extended to the surrounding camps. “If they refuse, we will [submit] papers again,” he says. “That ground will be accepted as official ground.”

On a recent dreary winter morning, Looij spoke with a reporter as they toured Pata Rât. Just outside ProRroma’s multipurpose building, he was immediately put to work – approached by a woman with a prescription from a doctor. He agreed to pick up her medication later in the day.

Later, as he wove his Volkswagen van through the narrow, uneven passageways, he received smiles and waves from almost everyone he passed, including a young girl who peeked out of the window of her home, tapping on the glass to get his attention.

When asked about the connection he’s made to the Roma, his answer is simple.

“I help them because nobody else is helping them,” he says.

A challenge for European countries

A 2006 report from the United Nations Development Program found that Roma in new European Union member countries “often face levels of exclusion and poverty equal to those found in developing countries,” and that addressing the needs of Roma and similar communities “is critically important” for cohesion among Southeast European countries.

The year 2015 also closed out “The Decade of Roma Inclusion,” a collaboration between European governments and nonprofit groups “to eliminate discrimination against Roma and close the unacceptable gaps between Roma and the rest of society.”

Despite some progress in education and health-related policies, however, the modest gains have been rolled back in recent years as anti-Roma sentiments spread – leading one report to refer to the title of the initiative as “a lost decade.”

In spite of this, ProRroma has had successes.

Loredana (who asked that only her first name be used) is a testament to that. She joined ProRroma six years ago and works with children in various classes. Having lived with her family in a Roma camp for more than 10 years, she is well aware of the challenges.

“When the children are learning, they learn to follow good examples,” she says. “Everything they need is supplied, without [them] having to pay.”

Inspired by her work with ProRroma, she is pursuing her high school diploma.

One member of the small ProRroma staff, Janos Guzman, has known Looij for 20 years. Orphaned at the age of 7, he found himself living on the streets at 19.

Meeting Looij was a pivotal moment for him, he says, and the pair has done much together. “We do complement each other,” he says. “He is the guy with the vision, and I am the guy to put the vision in place.”

Looij has made a profound difference in his life, Mr. Guzman says, and in the lives of those living in Pata Rât and the surrounding camps.

“They were living in cartons, sheds, and plastic, and [now] they live a little more like humans,” he says. “He is the one who brings the support. He uses his relationships with friends to get people involved.”

ProRroma, with only a three-person board, still has ambitious goals. Now others must join the cause to take the work even further, Looij says. “I have shown it is possible. It is happening. I see more people involved.”

Looij, a deeply religious Christian who is known as “Pastor Bert” among some in the camp because of his spiritual counseling and education work, attributes the success so far to divine guidance in their efforts.

“I am not a hero, but I have a hero in me,” he says.

How to take action

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