Chasing a Better Life: Roma Immigrants Find 'Paradise' in Troubled Berlin District

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The Berlin district of Neukölln is considered one of Germany's poorest and most troubled neighborhoods. But for hundreds of residents of a small village in Romania, it has become a welcome new home, a source of generous state benefits and a symbol of hope for those left behind.

The Pentecostal church in the town of Fântânele, at the end of a long village street, is a bleak-looking brick building. Plastic roses hang on the walls inside, and a stone oven keeps the roughly 60 people crowded together on the church benches warm.

The oldest person in Fântânele delivers the sermon, and then the worshippers pray together for their families living far away in Berlin's Neukölln district -- and for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. A man in a fur hat blows kisses and says, "Angela, you are the mother of Europe. We love you." "God bless Angela," he adds, because she is accepting the Roma and not "throwing them out," like French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

After the service, schoolchildren run through the streets greeting each other in German, shouting "tschüss" ("bye") and "Neukölln." They can hardly wait to get there in person.

In Germany, Neukölln is considered one of the country's poorest neighborhoods. But, in Fântânele, a Roma village 35 kilometers (22 miles) northwest of Bucharest, they call it paradise.

On another street corner, a woman in a bathrobe is petting her pigs. One of her sons was just in Berlin, where he stayed in an apartment building on Harzer Street. Many of their friends already live in the same building. The reports from paradise give them hope, and now the extended family is saving money for the move. They want to go to Neukölln along with their 10 children and possibly the grandfather. "Hopefully for good," the woman says.

Indeed, this village is in transit. About 500 people from Fântânele already live on Harzer Street, in Neukölln, while another 200 are scattered around in other parts of Berlin. A quarter of the village's residents have already succumbed to the siren call, and many more hope to follow. They want to take advantage of the promise of prosperity that came to their country when it joined the European Union, a promise of a better life for them and their children.

The miniature mass migration from Fântânele to Neukölln is a move to the German social welfare state, a world where child-care allowances and the Hartz IV benefits for the long-term unemployed are already bring in more money than pig farming in rural Romania. Since their country joined the EU in 2007, the number of Romanians living in Germany has almost doubled, to 127,000.

The Roots of an Exodus

The great trek of the hopeful began with Volker P., a recipient of Hartz IV benefits who is now 35. He moved to Berlin from a small village in the eastern German state of Saxony in the late 1990s. He worked as a bricklayer and tried to rake in his share of the wealth promised by the new, reunified Germany. He slaved away on several construction sites, working for various companies, but either the wages were poor or the employers cheated their workers out of their earnings. Frustrated and disillusioned, he spent a lot of time in a kebab shop in Neukölln, where he got to know a young man from Romania.

His new friend invited him to his hometown, Fântânele. In the village, which lacks sanitation and street lights, Volker met Roma who were sedentary rather than wanderers as well as devout Christians who had been members of a Pentecostal congregation for generations and lived according to strict rules: no begging, no stealing, no cursing and no spitting. They also don't believe in birth control. Some families have 10 children, and some have even more.

Volker liked the people in Fântânele -- especially his friend's sister. "It was love at first sight," he says. He married the young woman and took her back to Berlin with him.

When Romania became a member of the EU, Volker's family also grew. Marian, his oldest brother-in-law, came to Berlin first, followed by Volker's in-laws. Then came seven of his wife's other siblings and their children, followed in turn by cousins, neighbors, friends and acquaintances.

They were leaving behind an old village of musicians whose men used to travel around the country in bands, earning a living by playing at weddings. Then they sold their pigs and began dealing in used cars. Nowadays, most residents are unemployed.

Amazed by Generous Social Benefits

Hope returned to Fântânele when Romania joined the EU. With the freedom to travel came the freedom to get away.

Their new life began in a complicated world, one that was seductive and yet dismissive of Romanian citizens. It was difficult to obtain a work permit in this world, and the new arrivals were expected to leave again after three months.

But Volker, who was living with his wife in Berlin on social benefits, had learned a few things about the German social welfare state. He got some advice from a well-meaning social worker on how to help his new relatives by marriage. "She explained the little back doors to me," he says.

One of these back doors is the right of all EU citizens to work as a self-employed person in any member country. Volker registered his relatives as tradespeople, specifically as scrap dealers, which entitled them to a permanent residence permit.

As could probably be expected, their businesses didn't go well, and they didn't make enough money to support themselves. In Germany, such cases are subject to the parts of the Social Code dealing with statutory unemployment insurance and benefits that guarantee low-income self-employed people the right to receive basic benefits from the state.

The Roma were astonished. They had never heard of such acts of welfare in Fântânele. Many of them now live on support payments from the local job center as well as on child-care benefits, which are more than 20 times higher in Germany than they are in Romania. They don't know that a social welfare state comes up against its limits when there are too many people using its benefits. They haven't understood the German principle, or they just don't want to understand it.

Losing Control

News of the German social welfare laws reached Fântânele, prompting more and more families to make the long trip to Berlin. Volker, their guide through the German social welfare state, became very busy. While searching for accommodations, he eventually stumbled upon the building on Harzer Street. After two major fires, most of its apartments were empty.

Volker and the building's owner quickly figured out that they could do business together. The landlord had apartments with little appeal to the general market, while Volker could supply tenants with few demands. Before long, 90 percent of the apartments had been rented out to Roma. As a result, the Berlin-based satellite of Fântânele, a separate little world in the overwhelmingly immigrant district of Neukölln, came into being in a 7,500-square-meter (81,000-square-foot) apartment building. And, as anyone could have predicted, it soon developed into a new social "hotspot" that politicians would only notice and deplore once it was too late to fix it.

Indeed, the immigrants lived on Harzer Street as if they had never left their Romanian village. They beat their carpets in the courtyard, walked across the street in their bathrobes and kept their distance from their German neighbors. Some were sleeping on mattresses in the basement, and garbage began to pile up in the courtyard because no one knew what to do with it. The local press in Berlin soon dubbed Harzer Street the home of the "garbage children of Neukölln."

Volker had completed a course that allowed him to identify himself to authorities as an "integration guide." In reality, though, he had already lost control. "It was as if someone had pulled the plug from the bathtub," he says, describing the stampede of immigrants from Fântânele. He felt overwhelmed and withdrew from his role as an informal liaison for and adviser to the Roma on Harzer Street. Now, they were now left to their own devices.

The Landlord as Social Worker

But the Romanians enjoyed a second stroke of good luck. In August 2011, a building management company based in the western city of Aachen bought their apartment building in Neukölln. The company is owned by the Catholic Church and values social commitment. The project manager the new owners sent to Berlin was Benjamin Marx, a man who exudes both goodwill and authority in equal measure. The Roma treat him as their new village leader.

Marx, 57, is wearing a white scarf, polished leather shoes and Hugo Boss cologne. The Romanians practically stand at attention when he walks down Harzer Street. Marx had 750 cubic meters of garbage removed from the courtyard and the windows and heating systems repaired, and he had an exterminator come to take care of the rat problem. All residents received packages of tangerines and gift bags for Christmas. "If the city doesn't do any proper integration work, we have to step in," Marx says.

He and his colleagues do this work mainly during tenant office hours, when women in bathrobes and men sit in the waiting room outside the management company's office. Some say they haven't been able to sleep for days after mistaking the marketing materials from a telephone provider for deportation papers from the German authorities. Others have 10 children and have only registered five because they don't want to be too brazen and fear that they will be deported if they collect too much in child-care subsidies.

One of the tenants, 38-year-old Avram S., pulls out a hospital bill. His wife gave birth to twins in a local hospital. But his health-insurance company went out of business, and now he's afraid because he doesn't know how he'll pay the €3,000 bill. He doesn't speak any German.

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