ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: A Choisy-le-Roi, les Roms sont logés à bonne enseigne
by Emilien Urbach
Translated Saturday 7 February 2015, by
Five years ago, in the town of Val-de-Marne, local authorities kickstarted an ‘integration initiative’ to benefit twenty families who had been turned out of a local slum. Now a significant success, it serves to show that social solutions based upon welcome, acceptance and respect of human dignity are not merely a utopian dream.
On Tuesday morning, Gérard Chambon, deputy mayor of Chiosy-le-Roi (Val-de-Marne), pushes open a metal gate to reveal the garden of a three-storey stone house located at No. 4 of La Voie des Roses. “Nicoletta!” he calls, “Nicoletta!”. The door opens. Two or three years ago, there were plans to demolish the house, but today, two residents appear together: Alain, who has lived there for over thirty years, and Cosmin, Nicoletta’s husband, recently moved into the third-floor flat. “Come on in,” invites the smiling, moustached man, “Nicoletta’s at home. Alain will take you up.” Nicoletta is on sick leave, having just injured herself at work. Despite her strapped and bandaged arm, her face brightens when the men enter.
An integration project named ‘Permission to live’
Nicoletta is one of 70 Roma people whom the Choisy authorities have recently provided with temporary accommodation as part of their project called ‘Permission to Live’. In August 2010, Nicoletta’s slum, located on the outskirts of the A86 motorway, underwent a ‘forced clearance’. The local authorities immediately joined forces with La Fondation Abbé Pierre, a national homelessness charity, and ALJ93, an organisation to encourage social integration, and together they sought desperately to shift the sands of political opinion in favour of the acceptance of Roma people in the Paris region. Speaking from the sofa in her newly repainted living room, Nicoletta remembers the day clearly. “By 6am, you could see nothing but policemen in our slum. Within a matter of hours, we were all out in the road: men, women, children, the elderly, the ill….all evicted from our homes and knocked to the ground. But we were the lucky ones: we soon afterwards met with people who showed us kindness and humanity.” In the immediate aftermath of the eviction, Gérard Chambon convinced Daniel Davisse, Choisy’s socialist mayor at the time, to open up the local sports hall as a matter of urgency. The community group ‘Romeurop’ offered solidarity, and the local authorities began to consider integration solutions for these twenty families, all victims of the repressive policies of the Sarkozy era.
One month after the eviction, an emergency welcome centre was up and running. Twenty-two good-quality caravans were dispatched by the Fondation Abbé Pierre, and the departmental council provided two portacabins for cooking, washing and personal hygiene. An intermediary employed by the local authority was in daily attendance to support the families. In addition, ALJ93 developed an integration plan based around education of the forty evicted children, safe hygiene, French language classes and support in finding work.
“The users played an active role in rebuilding their homes”
The key players in this partnership also began very soon to focus their work upon the search for more permanent housing. They managed to convince Valophis Habitat, a provider of high-rise tower block style housing, to transfer them ownership of flats intended for demolition before plans took effect. The demolition was designed as part of a so-called ‘urban regeneration project’, but in fact the buildings would otherwise have remained empty and unused for several years. Not without a certain pride, Stéphane Mathiot, agency director at Valophis, explains that “we were obliged to change our plans, which doesn’t happen often. It wasn’t easy – it was as much a challenge for my colleagues to accept as for the local neighbours of these future homes, but we finally signed a two-year contract for a few homes. We extended this contract in the spring of 2014, and are convinced that there is more we can do.”
Little by little, the initial housing site grew emptier as the new temporary accommodation was gradually allocated to the familes. “We deliberately sought to shed the ‘aid worker identity’”, explains Gérard Chambon. “The families played an active role in rebuilding their homes’”. He turns towards Nicoletta, who is now unable to conceal her unhappy feelings when she casts her thoughts back firstly to her childhood in Romania, then to the series of slums in which she has lived since arriving in France. “In Romania”, she explains, “I was often hungry, and fell victim to racist comments. In France, every time we were evicted, we lost everything we had. It hurts to bring all this to the fore, but I don’t want to forget where I come from. I’ve tried hard to make things work here. Before my cleaning job, I sold flowers in the street. I juggled taking French lessons at ALJ, searching for work and bringing up my two daughters. There were days when I cried and cried, days where I didn’t eat, or when I couldn’t afford to heat my home to dry my clothes after a long day’s cleaning....But it’s vital to keep going and try to move forward in life. Even we Roma families have our values.”
Gérard takes us to another flat, two streets away, home to Georges, Borca and their daughter Julia. They share their home with Georges’ parents. “I’ve lived in France for ten years”, Georges says, “so I speak French better than Romanian. I’ve studied here from the final year of primary school almost until the end of secondary school, but up until now, I’ve always lived in slums.” The group bursts our laughing when Georges adds: ‘”For my current situation, I thank God – and Gérard Chambon!” He is relieved to know that his daughter, Julia, is guaranteed a different childhood from the one he knew. “I’d rather die than go back to life in a caravan”, he confesses in a low voice.
Last Friday, the families enjoyed an evening of celebrations to honour the success of the initiative. Dider Guillame, the current socialist mayor of Choisy-le-Roi, explained that: “All these families can now enjoy basic human rights. Everyone is now on the register for social housing, just like any other resident. It wasn’t easy, though. The formal permission passed by ministers in August 2012, which provided a legal framework for the evictions of the slums, helped, because the families then became officially homeless. But we had to get round the standard administrative procedures. Of course we have legal processes, but more than this, we have to consider what is morally right. It’s morally right that all the children should receive an education. Morally right that all families should benefit from health insurance, that they should pay taxes, use the job centre, open a bank account.....and morally right also that all the families should have a home.”
In Nicoletta’s home, the bedrooms, living room and corridors have now been renovated; the kitchen and bathroom remain to be tackled. For her family, though, everyday life has been transformed. “People look at us differently now that we have a home”, explains Nicoletta. “The people who lived on the land near where we used to park our caravans often used to complain about us being there. Now they say hello in the street.”
Nonetheless, all is not yet won. Nicoletta is worried about renewing her residence permit. She explains that: “I can still work with my Romanian ID. I can still earn a salary and look to obtain social housing, and I always keep it with me in case the police should ask me. However, employers are usually suspicious towards Roma people. It’s so much easier to do all these things with a French residence permit.” Nicoletta is close to tears when she refers to the past but her face brightens when she thinks about the future. “My wish now is that my daughters should obtain French nationality,” she explains. “I’m going to find out how to do this; they were both born here.” Taking a photo out of her wallet, she smiles; “Here is my younger daughter. She’s brilliant at math.”
3 destroyed slums – yet still no solution. On Tuesday morning, three slums in Noisiel and in Champs-sur-Marne, in the eastern suburbs of Paris, were destroyed by the authorities in Seine-et-Marne. The 120 residents, who received absolutely no offer of re-housing, decided to occupy the town hall annex in Noisiel to insist that the authorities find an immediate solution to save the families from the cold. The authorities simply instructed the police to evict the premises, in the process arresting two people, including a member of the Romeurop group. Little did they know, of course, that this group had played a key role in the integration initiative in Choisy.