Trip to the Promised Land: Balkan Roma Dream of Life in Germany

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Since the European Union began allowing visa-free travel for Serbs and Macedonians, there has been a sharp increase in Roma from the Balkans applying for asylum. Despite the difficulties, Germany remains the promised land for those in the slums of Skopje and Belgrade.

For Orhan, the road to Germany begins in an Internet café on a side street in Shutka, the Roma neighborhood in the northern part of the Macedonian capital, Skopje. Electric cables hang from the ceiling, a white fluorescent tube illuminates dusty computer screens and a plastic tarp serves as a divider. Orhan, 27, is standing nervously behind the tarp as he lights a cigarette. His sister Fatima is sitting in front of one of the monitors, about to have her first date with Germany.

While Fatima waits on a wooden chair in Shutka, her future husband is sitting on a leather couch in Düsseldorf, looking at his webcam. They are seeing each other for the first time today. Fatima's ticket to Germany is 19, he's wearing a hoodie and he's rather fat. Fatima's mother and some women from the neighborhood are chaperoning the meeting. They all want to know whether Fatima will like the young man from Germany. They hope that if she does, her family could get out of Shutka, the unofficial capital of the Roma community in Europe.

When you walk through the streets of Shutka, you hear people cursing, saying things like "Shitty Shutka," "everyone makes fun of us here" and "we don't have any money." They say these things in German.

Some of Shutka's Roma worked as day laborers in German cities in the 1990s. Many were war refugees who had sought asylum in Germany during the war in Yugoslavia, only to be deported after the conflict ended. They still have friends and relatives in Germany, and the country is always on their minds, as a promise of prosperity and a better life.

Orhan says that if the arranged marriage goes well, the stranger will come to Shutka and take Fatima with him to Düsseldorf. The new son-in-law, he explains, will then pay for bus tickets for the rest of the family. And once all seven family members are in Germany, he will file the asylum applications for them. Orhan says that one always needs a helper, someone who is familiar with German law, an asylum guide, so to speak, so that everything works out well for a new beginning in Germany. People who try to do it on their own, he adds, make too many mistakes.

Serbia Closer, and Farther Away

The Roma neighborhoods of the Serbian capital, Belgrade, are 450 kilometers (280 miles) closer to Germany, but for the people there, Germany seems much farther away. In Antena, an illegal settlement at the end of the No. 75 bus line, there is no Internet and no Skype, and none of the residents have relatives in Germany. For that reason, there is no one to show people the best way to get there. There are only people like Asim, 25, who is standing behind a burning pile of garbage, warming his hands. He has no identification documents and no birth certificate, which means no work, no welfare and no child benefits. Car tires support the cardboard roof of his corrugated metal hut. Inside, Asim's wife is nursing their six-month-old daughter, who is wearing diapers made of napkins Asim has collected from the garbage of Belgrade residents. The adults use holes in the ground as their toilets. The air is filled with the smell of moldy food and the acrid stench of burning plastic.

Asim says it's a good day in Antena when the gravediggers at the adjacent cemetery don't turn off the water, so that residents of the shantytown can fill up their plastic bottles. They count themselves lucky when the power is on in the nearby residential neighborhood so they can illegally siphon off electricity. They're happy when they manage to protect their daughter's face from rat bites at night. Asim asks: "When, if not now, should I get out of this miserable place?"

Since the end of 2009, citizens of Macedonia and Serbia no longer need visas to enter Germany. The European Union wants to show its goodwill to the two countries, which are candidates for accession to the bloc. But for the poorest of the poor in Macedonia and Serbia, visa-free travel represents the freedom to get away.

Less than 1 percent of asylum applications from Serbia and Macedonia are accepted. People suspect that they too will be unsuccessful, but they don't understand why. They still go to Germany, and they want to stay. Everyone has their own approach to obtaining the better life he or she expects to find in Germany. Orhan from Macedonia wants to send his sister in advance. Asim from Serbia simply plans to set out into the unknown. Some are poor and without prospects, and they go to Germany because they know what a rich country it is. Others go there because they can no longer stand their current lives.

By October of this year, about 4,000 people from Macedonia had filed an application for asylum in Germany -- about five times as many as last year. Only Serbia has produced more asylum applicants since this summer, a total of about 7,000. Most are Roma.

Dreams of Welfare

The current offers are displayed in the window of a travel agency on the market square in Shutka. A bus ticket from Macedonia to France costs €27 ($34), while the trip to Düsseldorf goes for €120, even though it's a shorter distance. Orhan explains that demand determines the prices here, and that Germany happens to have the better reputation among the 40,000 people in Shutka.

Their mayor is the only mayor in Macedonia who is also Roma. Nevertheless, Shutka doesn't feel like home to many of its residents. The people on the market square dream of a life in Western Europe, with most hoping to go to Germany. Unlike residents of the Belgrade neighborhood, the people in Shutka are well informed about Germany's social welfare system. They talk about "job centers," and some even use German slang terms. They know how generous the child benefits are, and they have heard about the hospitals and schools. They also know that asylum applicants have been receiving more money since August.

Young men like Orhan are mainly responsible for Germany's good reputation in Shutka. They tell nostalgic stories of the paradise between Fürth in Bavaria and Osnabrück in the north, of the country they remember from their childhood. Orhan's parents fled from Albania to Paderborn in northwestern Germany in 1986. The Roma family applied for asylum there, Orhan went to elementary school and learned the language. The family's German dream lasted six years.

It ended in the early 1990s, when the government in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia decided it wanted to get rid of the Roma. But instead of simply deporting them, the Social Democrats came up with a so-called reintegration program. The idea was to help the deportees once they had returned to their native countries. Orhan's father accepted the Germans' repatriation offer, for which he received 300 deutschmarks for travel expenses, as well as 400 deutschmarks a month for six months to help him settle in Shutka.

The family lived in a 60-square-meter (645-square-foot) house in Shutka, paid for by the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, in a place with no sewer system, running water or garbage collection. No one there had a real chance at finding work. Most of those who were reintegrated had never been to Shutka before. The aid workers stayed for a few years, and then left. Orhan points to the now-abandoned Red Cross building and to the pile of rubble where the Caritas relief agency had its offices.

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