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Looking for the Kreuzberg Romani

Ben Knight · 8 Jul 2009, 10:36

Published: 08 Jul 2009 10:36 GMT+02:00

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All the while newspapers published semi-racist stories about “beggar Romanians” and “children with little dirty hands asking Berliners for money”. Ben Knight for Exberliner finds out how the story developed – and what issues lay behind it.

“The men are particularly massively built,” says Reverend Olaf Polossek of the St.Marien-Liebfrauen church a little nervously. “And when they're in the room, the women and children don't say anything. Can't say anything.”

The portrait he paints of the 50 Romani who stayed in his church for a night at the end of May is not particularly kind. “They were full of demands and they were good at applying moral pressure. They complained about the food. If we denied them something, they abused us; if we brought them what they wanted, suddenly we were the greatest.”

Polossek is still a little exasperated at the situation that developed so dramatically around him a few weeks ago. It culminated with his church appearing on TV amid paranoid media debates about immigration and EU expansion. Polossek is suspicious about how it happened, too.

“I'll tell you one thing: the Roma would never have got the idea of coming to us for help on their own. The whole thing was staged by those leftists from Bethanien. They knew we wouldn't call the police,” he said.

St. Marien-Liebfrauen is a deceptively large Catholic church packed incongruously in the middle of one of Kreuzberg's most colourful streets, Wrangelstraße, on whose sidewalks Germans mix vigorously with tourists and multi-ethnic communities. The church also houses a well-known soup kitchen serving up to 200 guests a day.

Bethanien, meanwhile, is a colony of left wingers just down the road on Mariannenplatz. The residents here engage in various protest campaigns and their squatter status was made legal at the beginning of this year with a rental contract. Polossek gives a withering evaluation of Bethanien's involvement in the Roma story.

“The situation just grew over their heads,” he said.

But their initial intervention, unlike that of his church, was clearly vital and humanitarian. It began when the police threatened to take away the children from a small camp of around 20 Roma in Görlitzer Park unless they could name a fixed address where they lived. According to Bethanien, sympathetic passers-by then organised emergency homes for them in the commune. But in the following days, the group swelled from 20 to more than 90 and the plan of moving them to the popular church, where homeless Romanian families had been taken in before, was conceived.

One thing soon became clear: these people were in a desperate situation. Few could speak German; many, Polossek says, were “chronically ill.” According to Miman, a Roma from the Bethanien house who translated for them, most of the 50 who first arrived had Hepatitis B, and there was a three-month-old baby with bronchitis “coughing like a 40-year-old smoker.” He was able to bring some of them to doctors who treated them for free. They were all hungry. They had come to Berlin from Romania out of desperation, fleeing the unofficial but open persecution that Roma and Sinti suffer there.

This, indeed, has been the focus of the response of the German National Association of Roma and Sinti to the Kreuzberg crisis. Its chairwoman Petra Rosenberg has refrained from criticising their treatment in Germany and instead called on Angela Merkel to put pressure on the Romanian government to improve the living conditions of Roma. She says: “The debate about the Roma in Berlin throws a spotlight on the flawed minority politics of the Romanian government, which has caused the exodus of the Roma.”

But this arrival en masse in Berlin also highlighted a second awkward fact about the Roma: they had stepped into a bureaucratic blind spot that some had predicted, but no one could easily solve.

The Roma had travelled to Berlin as EU tourists, thanks to the second phase of the eastern expansion of the EU, which took in Bulgaria and Romania in 2007. But the expansion is phased over a long period and citizens of these countries will only have a right to work in Germany from 2011. At the same time, being EU citizens meant the Roma automatically had no right to consideration as asylum-seekers.

“We have to make clear - they are not refugees,” said a spokeswoman for the Berlin Senate Office for Integration, Work and Society, under whose remit the case fell. “The oppression of the Roma community in Romania is not considered to be an official xenophobic policy in a dictatorship.”

So when the exasperated Polossek asked them (in the middle of a rainstorm) to leave, his church having sprung its capacity for helping the homeless, the newly-arrived Kreuzberg Romani were left neither with the right to find work, nor the entitlement to apply for asylum.

“We found that many of them were not aware of this,” the Senate Office spokeswoman said. “They came here expecting shelter and rights. There were a lot of misunderstandings.” She went on to point out that the Berlin government was always against the long phasing-in of the EU expansion and that the Roma should have been given the right to find work.

A few tense days of crisis meetings between public officials, church leaders and the Bethanien campaigners followed, until the Senate finally allowed the Roma two weeks' stay in an asylum-seekers home in Spandau. Here they were given individual rooms, doctors, three meals a day and legal advice. Though not exactly comfortable, these homes did not warrant the comparisons with Nazi concentration camps (where half a million Roma and Sinti were murdered) that many of the leftists made. The Roma were free to leave at any time and many did. But, as the Senate spokeswoman admitted, “the legal advice consisted of being told they had no legal entitlements in Germany.”

After their two weeks in Spandau elapsed, the Roma were again turned out. No one seems to know where they have gone. They neither returned to the church on Wrangelstraße or the Bethanien house. It seems that the group, which eventually numbered over a hundred, has dispersed to blend into Europe's uncounted Gypsy community.

A culture forced to be Nomadic

Roma and Sinti (offshoots of the Romani people) are not by nature a nomadic people. In fact, they are a people that history has condemned to a perennial diaspora. Historians believe that the Roma culture formed among slaves brought from India between 500 and 1000AD. They have been exiled and persecuted in every country they have settled in since. With unemployment in the Roma community in Romania at over 50 percent, begging - preferably in wealthier countries - is for many the only option.

Keeping track

Statistics vary wildly on the number of Roma and Sinti in Europe – partly because many do not acknowledge their heritage – but it is thought that between two and 10 million live in Europe, mostly in the southeastern countries. The Berlin government estimates that some 20,000 live in the city.

Click here for more from Berlin's leading monthly magazine in English.

Ben Knight (ben.knight@thelocal.de)

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