“A little bit of money makes a real difference”

The slums are in blocks of former army buildings in the Ferentári quarter of Bucharest, deserted after the fall of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu in 1989 and now inhabited by Roma squatters from rural areas. The walls are bare, and there are no doors, no amenities - simply nothing. There is a putrid stench in the air from heaps of rubbish. Children are playing in the dirt, with used intravenous needles lying all around.

More Roma live nearby in makeshift shacks around the water pipelines which provide some heat. Very few of the 800 or 900 has a regular job. Nobody has any legal title to live either in the barracks or in the shacks. Some children go to the local school, others do not. Many are entirely undocumented.

“Welcome to Ferentári. Welcome to a part of the European Union,” says Valeriu Nicolae, a human rights activist and himself a Roma, who in 2009 initiated the only social project in the slum and who is one of the founders of the European Roma Grassroots Organizations.

As recently as six years ago, this “community” was only poor, struggling to survive in the informal sector. Drugs were not really an issue. Since then, however, the use and sale of dangerous intravenous drugs has radically transformed the character of the slum.

“If the authorities and legitimate businesses don’t give desperately poor people a chance, they leave them at the mercy of organized crime which will fill the vacuum,” explains Valeriu. “That’s what happened in Latin American favelas, and that’s what’s happening here. The drug lords have become the de facto power in the slum.”

According to Valeriu’s estimates, about half of the adults in the slum are on intravenous drugs. Many young adults have died of health complications linked to drug use. Many others have left for West European countries, leaving children in the inadequate care of their grandparents or older siblings.
“This is a zone of total despair,” says Valeriu. “Kids have only two possible careers here, selling drugs and selling sex. Many do both, already at the age of 11 or 12.”

Valeriu’s project aims at empowering youngsters in the ghetto. “We don’t do a ‘war on drugs’ – we ignore drugs, offering these children something else,” says Valeriu. “And we have a number of success stories.”

OHCHR Regional Representative for Europe Jan Jařab is urging support for programmes similar to those being run by Valeriu in the Ferentári slum.

On a recent visit to the project, he met teenagers who just a few years or months ago were using and selling drugs. Now they have kicked the habit, and are doing well in school – often with the help of adult volunteers who have themselves learned to read and write only recently, with the assistance of the project.

A boy’s football team from Ferentári has been successful in national competitions. Others have developed their skills in dancing and music, performing and competing on a national level.

Valeriu’s project received the 2012 UNICEF award for best sports and education project.

“This is an exemplary project because it reaches out to some of the most disadvantaged youngsters, who would be otherwise entirely without perspectives,” says Jařab who chairs the Roma Task Force of the Geneva-based UN Regional Directors Team.
The project employs a number of part-time workers and volunteers while Valeriu himself acts as project leader, social worker and funder. Most of the project activities are paid from his own resources.

Valeriu grew up in Romania, but he later studied in Canada, before becoming involved with the international Romani movement. After a few years of lobbying the European Union in Brussels, as the head of the European Roma Information Office, he grew impatient with the “detachment from reality” he says he observed in the European institutions as well as among Roma international civil society leaders. He decided to go back to the grassroots level.

Valeriu participated recently at an OHCHR’s panel discussion on the right to participate in public life on the occasion of Human Rights Day.

Despite positive media attention, there is no official funding for the project. “Football stars and popular musicians have come to the ghetto to show their support,” Valeriu says. ”But on the level of the authorities, nobody cares.”

International or regional organizations with Roma-focused programmes are, according to Valeriu, “too top-down” for the needs of the Ferentári slum, with their logic of pre-established targets which cannot be met in the constant flux of development in the slum.

”By the time it all gets approved by the bureaucracies, everything has changed,” says Valeriu. “When you work in a ghetto, you simply can’t report on activities as planned two years before. Rather than being constrained by the rigidity of funders, the project needs to be flexible and respond to the immediate needs.”

“Unfortunately, the number of such ghettoes in Eastern Europe is growing,” says Jařab. “And the authorities often contribute to the establishment of such zones of despair through their inaction, or even through deliberate policies such as forced evictions. This is a serious problem which needs to be addressed vigorously.”

“I am a well-known troublemaker,” admits Valeriu. “I have made many enemies because I have criticized the anti-Gypsyism of mainstream politicians, but also because I have pointed out the lack of accountability of many old-style Roma NGOs.”

“Now I am making myself unpopular by drawing attention to taboo subjects such as these drug-ridden ghettoes. I find it obscene how much are governments and international organizations willing to spend on Roma conferencing and four-star-hotel accommodation for participants, compared to work with real people on the ground,” Valeriu says.

“You see,” he ends with a weary smile, “here a little money can really achieve a lot of difference.”

12 June 2013

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