Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Hard times for Roma who fled Belfast

Less than a month after more than 100 Romanians left Northern Ireland amid fear of more racist attacks, the BBC's Nick Thorpe meets some of the families who made the journey from the city of Belfast back to the village of Batar.

The heavens open in Batar, just as we arrive. But the rain doesn't deter the women and children by the village tap, scrubbing their carpets.

Just beyond the village limits, the Crisul river winds through fields of maize and sunflowers, woods of acacia.

A ramshackle road turns from dust to mud in seconds, and barefoot children run laughing and screaming for cover.

Ioan Fechete, 36, offers us shelter in his house - but he's only joking. There's no roof.

A neighbour had warned him it was about to fall in on the heads of his wife and children, so he began stripping the tiles and the rotten beams.

To finish off the job, he set out for Northern Ireland to earn enough money to complete the repairs.

He had saved almost £600 in two months when the attacks happened. He didn't witness them himself, but when his fellow Roma described what happened, they made a common decision to leave.

"All I can get here is a day's work in the fields, but very rarely," he says.

He never went to school, can neither read nor write, and says his own children aged 11 and 12 years rarely attend school.

They would feel ashamed, he says, that they don't have proper shoes or clothes, or sandwiches to eat for lunch while non-Roma eat theirs.

“ Other Roma in the street in Batar say they tried their luck in other countries - France, Italy, Belgium - but they say people were kinder to them in Northern Ireland ”

We're sheltering from the rain in a neighbour's yard, under a mulberry tree.

As the rain eases, a horse and cart, loaded with firewood, lumbers down the lane.

It's not all hopeless here.

Marcel Lakatos, the Baptist priest, and also a Roma, proudly shows us the new kindergarten he has built using money donated by Christian communities across Romania.

He is as pleased with the canteen and the toilets, as much as the classrooms.

Roma children here rarely attend kindergarten. They arrive at school never having sat still in a chair, knowing little of elementary hygiene, under-fed.

But with a year of kindergarten, or even spending just a month there before they start school, they can learn a lot, he says.

It means they won't start school at such a disadvantage, he says, because if they do, there's a good chance they'll never catch up.

Pastor Lakatos hopes the kindergarten will be ready by September. The floor tiles are already down but the stairs are just concrete.


Further down the same street, Iosif Fechete is one of the Roma who personally witnessed the attacks in Belfast.

"We were frightened, terrified," he says.

He was asleep with his wife, his children in the other room, when a petrol bomb smashed through the window.

"There were throwing them into every window they found," he says.

A Roma who spoke English called the police. And their journey from Belfast back to Batar began.

"Now I don't know what to do," he says.

He has already completely rebuilt his house with money he saved in Belfast, but the floor and the fittings are still missing.

Outside, his wife peels potatoes fresh from the garden. Two of their six children run round the yard.

"There are very few chances for the adults to learn a new profession," says Marian Caragiu, chairman of the Ruhama Foundation, which has helped disadvantaged people locally for the past 12 years.

"But there are chances for the young - our first priority is not to lose another generation."

Other Roma in the street in Batar say they tried their luck in other countries - France, Italy, Belgium - but they say people were kinder to them in Northern Ireland and they were able to find better work than elsewhere.

Now they're waiting to hear from those who stayed in Belfast if it's safe to come back.

Story from BBC NEWS:

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