The Roma Conundrum Looking for Clues in a Romanian Village

Large numbers of Roma immigrants from southeastern Europe are proving to be a serious integration problem for many cities, including Berlin. A local politician recently traveled to Romania to learn more about the challenge.


Franziska Giffey is sitting at a wooden table in Romania and trying to grasp what is happening in her neighborhood back in Berlin. Giffey, 35, is a member of the local council in the Berlin district of Neukölln. She's traveled 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) in the hope of finding an answer to her question: Why do people in Romania leave their home country to come to Neukölln, one of the poorest city districts in Germany?

She's sitting in the office of the mayor of Fântânele, 35 kilometers (22 miles) from the Romanian capital of Bucharest. The town once had 3,000 residents, all of them Roma, but a third of them no longer live here. They've moved elsewhere in Europe, and a majority of them have come to Neukölln in Berlin. There are many villages like Fântânele throughout southeastern Europe and most of them now have an outpost in Germany.

Fântânele's mayor is excited. He's wearing a sash in the colors of the Romanian flag and his shirt is neatly ironed. It's clear he wants everything to be perfect for Giffey, the politician and Ph.D. from Germany. He presses a packet of informational materials into her hand and serves peanuts, as well as espresso in paper cups. A European Union flag stands in one corner of the room. The mayor has called all city administrators here, as well as the town's two priests, and the school principal, who has lost 300 of her students to other countries around Europe.

Giffey stands up and introduces herself, and then she talks about her district. Berlin's Neukölln district has 300,000 residents of 160 nationalities, and there are 65 schools, of which nearly half offer "welcome classes" for children -- many of them Roma -- with no knowledge of German. "I open a new school class every month," she tells the town administrators gathered before her. "You must be missing those children here, aren't you?" There is laughter. Then a priest answers: "Go ahead and set up a couple more classes."

Challenges Ahead

Since Romania joined the EU in 2007, the number of Romanians in Germany has nearly tripled, to 205,000. This includes both highly skilled workers and the poorest of the poor. They enter the country legally, as free citizens of the EU, and represent the greatest challenge for German integration policies. German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich of the center-right Christian Social Union (CSU) recently threatened to expel at least those who are unlawfully receiving public assistance benefits.

Giffey has observed firsthand what happens when large Roma families move en masse from one village in Romania to Neukölln and fill up an entire street. They form closed microcosms, many miniature Fântâneles, which go unnoticed by politicians until it's too late.

Giffey doesn't want to arrive too late. She wants to understand how things are for people in Romania. She says it's the piece of the puzzle she needs in order to be able to make the right decisions back in Berlin. This is why she's traveled here and why she's now sitting in the mayor's office.

"At some point the limit is reached in Germany, too," she says and casts a friendly smile around the table. No one reacts. Her problems aren't of interest here. Instead, the mayor explains that he has great hopes for German investors in the region.

Giffey is wearing her blonde hair up, a string of pearls around her neck and a gold-colored Esprit watch with small, glittering stones on her wrist. She has a calm voice and a patient manner. For the people gathered around this table, she represents Germany.

'Take Note of These Faces'

The mayor takes Giffey on a tour of his new cultural center, an unused room financed by the EU, as well as a daycare center that still smells of fresh paint. The bathrooms were sponsored by Britain, but haven't been used in the last six months. The mayor asks if Giffey could send €400 ($530) a month to cover operating costs for the center, as if he sees a German politician primarily as a traveling salesperson with a fat checkbook. Then he shows Giffey around each of the classes at the local school and comments drily, "Take note of these faces. They'll be sitting in your schools in Neukölln soon, too."

He offers to come, too, and to teach in the Roma language. "In Germany, the children need to learn German first," Giffey replies.

Their walk back to Giffey's car takes them past a grocery store that's having a clearance sale because its proprietors are moving to Berlin. Before Giffey leaves, the deputy mayor has one last question. He wears patent leather shoes and Ray-Ban sunglasses, and drives a BMW X5. He wants to know how to go about opening a restaurant in Berlin. Giffey will later comment that she isn't here to recruit workers. She doesn't understand the expectations here. And after three hours in Fântânele, she is angry. "I feel like a development aid worker," she says, as she drives past cornfields, a Penny Markt discount supermarket and a sign bearing the EU's circle of stars, a symbol of the freedom of movement that here has come to stand for the freedom to escape.

'Rotating Europeans'

When Giffey first joined Neukölln's district council, she was in charge of EU matters. She wrote funding proposals and brought in millions for the district. She knows both the good and the bad sides of the EU.

In 2010, when she took over responsibility for education in Neukölln, Giffey toured the schools and discovered that there were many pupils from southeastern Europe who spoke no German. She had these children counted, requested more teachers from Berlin's city government, and received funding for 11 new positions.

Giffey has heard a number of statements recently that aggravate her, for example one from a Bulgarian diplomat who suggested that anyone who truly wants to come to Germany has come already, and these new immigrants from southeastern Europe are just "rotating Europeans," immigrants who shuttle back in forth, not settling in Germany but eventually returning to their home countries instead.

Next Giffey visits the national Roma authority in Bucharest to find out how the experts here appraise this emigration trend. The two bored-looking women across from her call to mind the Weather Girls. They suggest Giffey should hire Roma women, because blonde women, they say, don't stand a chance within the Roma community. Giffey asks why the children who arrive in Berlin haven't received immunizations. "If they're at home and their parents are willing, then we immunize them," the women say. Then they tell stories of parents who oppose vaccination and of Roma children with AIDS and tuberculosis. The women sound as if they have given up.

How can it be, Giffey wants to know, that some of the Roma children in Neukölln reach the age of 15 without ever having seen the inside of a school? Education is compulsory in Romania, but this is not enforced, officials at the Education Ministry explain. They could perhaps send teachers to Germany, they suggest, so that the children there could be taught in Romanian, just in case they eventually return to Romania 20 or 30 years from now.

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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spon-facebook-10000061525 06/14/2013
I don't fully agree with the statement that Romania is the "drunken wife". Maybe if we look at this statement from history's perspective, it can be stated that the Russians provided the "vodka" in the form of communism. Of course Romania was invaded by the Russians after WW2, following the agreement between Churchill and Stalin, colloquially know as the percentages agreement
rumpumpel1 06/14/2013
2. Roma?
Romanian gipsies are not Roma. In fact, they don't like it at all to be called Roma.
nedhamson 06/14/2013
3. Roma immigration
It is quite common that people from one city or village will move to the same town in the new country because families and friends are going to where they have family and friends. The children under 7 are the key, since they learn the new language the fastest and can then help their relatives. They come for opportunities and a secure life out of desperation and inspiration. Ask the leaders in the community in Germany how to best involve people in the community in "fitting" in while still being Roma. 06/14/2013
I have no problem with immigrants in America, my wife is an immigrant from China. My problem is when immigrants come here and want to live exactly like they did in their old country while taking advantage of our benefits. I have a strong dislike of people who come here and then voice their displeasure of how women dress, our advertising images and so own. The question arises in my mind "Why did you come here?" I wonder how many people are here like those who bombed the Boston marathon. They and their mother benefited from our welfare system. If immigrants do not have a guarantor of their support or a much better than minimum wage job waiting for them they should not be allowed in them.
andre79799 06/15/2013
5. optional
Ms. Franziska Giffey's approach is truly commendable. She has enough courage to recognize and face the problem, to go to the source directly and try to see herself firsthand and understand what is going on with East, Southeast European swept under the rug, often denied Roma conundrum puzzle that slowly invades West Europe and threatens the demographic map and Europe's future if nothing is done about it.
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