Paris slum the Samaritan has become a battleground for Roma

In a suburb north of Paris is the shantytown known as Samaritan. The council wants to knock it down within days but will not rehouse the 80 mostly Roma families who live there. Amelia Jenne reports from La Courneuve

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The Independent Online

Nestling behind a motorway that cuts through the Paris suburb La Courneuve, the Roma residents of France’s oldest shantytown, Samaritan, are fighting for their existence. Again.

At the end of the camp, on a pathway divided by walls of rubbish, a seven-year-old boy shoos a group of large black rats away with a broom, laughing as some of them run over his feet. There is no drinking water and the people living here have to wash in plastic tubs with water siphoned from a nearby pipe.

Still, the residents of Samaritan want to remain. The mayor of La Courneuve wants to raze the camp. The slum has become a battleground, and those who want it demolished could get their way this week.

Samaritan, named after the chapel that sits beside its entrance, is home to 80 families, most of them Roma,  living in dwellings made of wood and sheet metal, sheltered by corrugated roofs.

La Courneuve’s Communist Party mayor, Gilles Poux, ordered the camp’s evacuation in 2013 during a campaign to rid the neighbourhood of its slums: 11 in total, of which Samaritan is the last. Then, 10 days ago, a policeman arrived to notify its founder, the Pentecostal pastor Ioan Titel, that the camp he built in 2008 would be cleared on an unspecified date this month. With no provisions made to rehouse them, the Samaritans will become homeless.

 

“We’re so nervous we can’t sleep any more”, says Mr Titel, in the slum’s “main square”.  Barefoot children scamper past along walkways covered with carpets and lino, and in the chapel behind him, decorated with plastic flowers, the lights are not working.

Some of the houses in Samaritan, or the “platz” as its resident like to call it, have working televisions, cookers and fridges – although with up to 12 families sharing a generator between them, power can be intermittent.

“We’re very frightened,” says Sorin Civrar Nutu, who moved his family in two years ago and makes a living selling scrap metal. “My wife just had a caesarean section and I’m afraid she won’t be able to go to her next check-up.” Beside him, his wife Daniella coos over their two-month-old girl, Ana.

Joszef Farkas, 17, with the help of the Roma advocacy group La Voix des Rroms (Voice of the Roma), launched a petition on Change.org to keep Samaritan open, which last night had gained more than 35,000 signatures. “I think the next few weeks are going to be very hard”, he says.

But not everyone wants to stay in Samaritan. Tabita Larisa Covaciu, who is three months pregnant, says in broken English: “They say we want to live here, they say is cultural but is not.” She adds: “I like France. I like here but I want to change life. Is better in house where we can shower. Here we can’t wash.”

La Voix des Rroms says the decision to dismantle the camp made by Mr Poux, who has been La Courneuve’s mayor since 1996, is illegal. The organisation brought a case against the Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls last year for inciting racial hatred after comments he made during his tenure as Interior Minister.

In 2013 Mr Valls said Roma migrants had “no interest in integrating into French society for cultural reasons … or because they are in the hands of begging or prostitution rackets”. The case was dropped in December but Pierre Chopinaud, a spokesman for La Voix des Rroms, hopes to take it to the European Courts of Human Rights.

He says: ““[The Mayor] can only expel people if he proves there is no alternative to improve lodging. He says that’s the case but it’s completely false.”

A number of organisations, including Médecins du Monde (MDM) and the Abbé Pierre Foundation, have submitted plans to improve sanitation, while an architectural school has offered to reinforce the houses and improve security.

But speaking for Mr Poux, who is on holiday, La Courneuve’s council cabinet head Jean-Luc Vienne says the proposals are “unviable”.

In his office at La Courneuve’s Town Hall, he says: “I have the greatest respect for the work these charities do, but they want people to stay in the slum. While they say because Samaritan is so old it should stay open, we say that’s precisely why it needs to be shut.”

When pressed on why no plans have been made to rehouse the Roma, Mr Vienne closes his eyes. “We don’t have the resources,” he tells The Independent. “We have the lowest revenues in the county and 55 per cent of our population live in social housing already.”

The council has been asking the state for a contingency plan to deal with the rising Roma population living in its shantytowns for the past five years. According to the European Roma Rights Centre, almost 150 Roma people have been evicted each week in France since the start of 2015. They say that in only 13 of 37 cases were Roma communities offered other accommodation.

“It’s unbelievable hypocrisy”, says Mehdi Bouteghmes, an independent councillor who opposes the decision to raze the camp. “I’m in a political partnership with the local government and even I can’t understand. They’re blaming the state to absolve themselves of responsibility.”

La Voix des Rroms says the local government is actively involved in barring Samaritan’s residents from a right without which it is impossible to apply for a job, a bank account or even enrol children in local schools. This is denied by the council.

The right to domiciliation is open to all homeless people in France, but requires a written dossier. “The Town Hall more often than not rejects the Roma dossiers,” says Pierre Chopinaud. “It’s a clear sign of institutional racism”.

Last week, the council derailed a case bought against it by MDM for refusing three files from the Samaritan camp, by fast-tracking and approving them at the last minute.

Miruna Popescu, an MDM sanitation co-ordinator, submitted 11 more files on Friday. With continuous expulsions she says helping La Courneuve’s Roma community is almost impossible. “We have to do things little by little,” she adds.

“I’m staying put,” says Mariana, 58, in Samaritan. “I like it here. The police can come but I’m not moving.”

That may change later this week.

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