Roma in Berlin 'I've Lived in a Car Since I Was Two'

Thousands of economic refugees flood into Berlin every year, including many Roma. Some end up homeless, many are insulted or spat upon. Now a new program aims to help them find jobs and apartments -- and begin a new life.
Von Lena Reich

Marietta is sitting in the trunk of a car with the tailgate wide open, her wailing child in her arms. She's lived in this Renault parked in front of St. Stephen's Church in Berlin's Wedding district since April. She is 25 years old; her child just 10 days, after being born in the city's Virchow Clinic. Marietta was already pregnant when she made the journey from Romania to Germany.

She needs help. A Roma , she already had two kids, aged four and six, but cannot now breastfeed properly. Her breasts are inflamed and swollen. She could seek assistance from the local authorities, but she's afraid they would take away her baby.

Marietta's family are among the thousands of people who come to Germany from Eastern Europe, driven by the promise of a better life. People like Marietta are often called migrant workers, but the term doesn't really fit. They have actually come to Germany as economic refugees, to stay.

Around 8,000 Romanians and 14,000 Bulgarians are currently living in Berlin , of which some 1,800 and 3,000 respectively came last year alone. Most have apartments, but many end up living in cars, camping in parks or finding alternative accommodation -- with relatives or friends, or in emergency shelters. There are believed to be dozens of families in cellars and attics, especially in the Neukölln district.

Marietta knows no life other than that of poverty. "I've lived in a car since I was two years old," she says. And so, when she set off from Bucharest for Germany in April with her parents, husband and children, she had nothing to lose.

Berlin Launches Ambitious 'Action Plan'

Her husband found work with a demolition company that pays him €4 ($5.41) an hour, mostly at night. Before she gave birth, Marietta had begged for money in the city's upscale Mitte district. It was not a regular income, but the family has had more luck than most of their "colleagues," as she calls others who live in the row of cars: In a few days, they will get their own apartment.

To try and help people like Marietta and her family, the Berlin city government adopted an "Action Plan for the Integration of Foreign Roma" in July. It should improve conditions for them: Better access to education, healthcare and to the jobs market. If and how Berlin can actually afford to finance such noble goals, however, is still unclear.

As part of the plan, pregnant women will have healthcare costs, including childbirth, covered by an emergency fund if they have no money of their own. As Marietta's Romanian insurance company refused to cover the costs of her most recent birth, she paid the Virchow Clinic the €2,000 ($2,700) herself.

A small part of that she had saved up, the rest came from a man who considers himself to be the leader of the Roma group. How he came by the money is not clear. "There are also Romanians who have money. But you do not see them on the streets," this leader said. It was he who found the apartment for Marietta and her family. He speaks German and paid the €1,000 deposit. They will pay him back in installments.

These families have arrived at a time of rising rents, which have made affordable housing scarce and left shelters always full. For people like Marietta, escape from poverty only seems to lead to more poverty and no prospects.

Roma Children Suffer Discrimination

But Marietta is determined. If only because of her children, she does not want to go back to Romania. "Here, they have fewer worries." According to estimates by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), between 300,000 and 400,000 Roma children do not attend school in Romania. The ones who do frequently suffer discrimination from teachers, and, according to UNICEF, schools with a high proportion of Roma  students are often poorly equipped. The 2013 Amnesty International Report also criticized the fact that Roma children were being placed in schools for the disabled.

While Marietta is not entitled to a nursery place for her two youngest children, her 6-year-old daughter was enrolled in mid-September.

Marietta's 13-year-old niece Alessandra, meanwhile, is already in the sixth grade at the neighborhood's elementary school. When she came to Berlin from Bucharest five years ago, she did not speak a word of German. But she learned the language in a program supported by her school, alongside predominantly Turkish-speaking children.

Here, too, Berlin's "Action Plan" will play a part: For the next two years, the city government wants to run additional "study groups for new arrivals without knowledge of German" in the first and second grades in schools.

Alessandra's case shows how useful this approach can be. Today, she speaks fluent German. Nevertheless, she, her sister and her parents lived in a car for two years, until 2011. Then they found a three-room apartment, but when the costs of living there rose, they could not afford it and ended up back in the car.

Alessandra now looks exhausted. Her face is swollen from the damp cold and her limbs ache. The teacher repeatedly makes fun of her living situation in front of the class. Alessandra talks of a 10-year-old who could only look on as his mother was hit in the face by a passerby. Why was she attacked? "Because she is a Romanian ."

'Banish Them from the Cities'

Marietta herself speaks of local residents who always look at her angrily and who bark "German words" at her that she does not understand. Young people have spat on her.

Antiziganism  is widespread. In a long-term study two years ago, more than 40 percent of respondents said that they would have a problem if Sinti and Roma were staying in their neighborhood. About a quarter of participants expressed the view that Sinti and Roma should be "banished from the inner cities."

Michael Kraft of the Southeast Europe Cultural Association complained that none of the parties from the political center made the integration of economic refugees a discussion point during the recent election campaign. The association assists refugees, Roma and migrant workers. Wherever they come across families, workers from the association try to engage them in conversation, whether on the street or in their homes. They offer social integration guidance and legal advice on initial consultations, accompany the people to the local authority office.

Occasionally, Kraft and his colleagues are met with refusal. "It can take years for families to trust us and accept our help," said one co-worker. "But we want to and need to reach these families who have often had traumatic experiences of war or being on the run. This can only work together." Kraft knows only too well of the resentment with which these people are often exposed to in Germany. "I fear that our society does not have the willingness and openness to want to deal appropriately with the issue of immigration  and its various manifestations."

Soon after, Marietta is living in her new apartment. The walls are missing wallpaper, the windows are leaking. The rent is being paid by the job center. Marietta lays her sleeping baby down on the travel cot with her other two children on the couch next to it. There is not that much room here for the family of seven, who live in two rooms. Thick blankets hang in front of the windows. Marietta smiles happily. Nonetheless, the fear remains that if the building is renovated in the next year, the rent will go up and the housing benefits will no longer be sufficient to pay for it. Then the search will begin all over again.

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