The Roma children who languish at an abandoned factory

The plight of one Roma community in Romania

Across Europe a large proportion of Roma people live in poverty, on the margins of society. I visited a community in Baia Mare, northern Romania, to find out what life is like for them and why, after living in Europe for more than 700 years, Roma are still not accepted in the mainstream.

I first meet six-year-old Samuel Marcovici in the laboratory of an abandoned copper factory, on the outskirts of town.

Samuel lives in a single room with his grandparents and eight cousins.

Dark corners of the lab have become Samuel's playground.

Stray dogs rummage through rubbish in the stairwells of the four-storey building.

Young men sniffing paint thinner pace up and down the corridors past the children.

I ask Samuel if he feels safe here. He shakes his head. "No," he replies.

Eviction

Looming over Baia Mare is Cuprom's infamous chimney. This abandoned copper factory, once state-owned, was one of the most polluting in Romania. For decades, toxic chemicals were used and produced here.

Start Quote

The children got ill from the toxic fumes and I took them to the ambulance. They were nauseous and dizzy”

End Quote Olga Marcovici

It is now home to 116 Roma families, including 245 children, after their eviction from a nearby Roma settlement.

Life here is grim but the families say they have no other choice. They either stay here or they are on the streets.

Until last year, Samuel's grandfather Gheorghe Martocean, 61, and his wife were bringing up their nine grandchildren in the Roma settlement at Craica.

The community settled there 20 years ago, and Mr Martocean says he bought his house from another Roma family.

But the land was not theirs to buy.

Like Roma people across Europe, they claimed a right to settle on public land, but the homes are considered illegal.

With anti-Roma sentiment running high in Baia Mare, the families living in Craica were issued with eviction notices and the demolitions began.

Former copper factory Stray dogs roam the grounds of the old copper factory, which once produced toxic chemicals

Mr Martocean said: "It was painful, because I had the best house. It was made of bricks, it had a foundation, it was solid. And I got upset because I lost it."

Some Roma people in Craica resisted and the authorities have left them alone for now.

Those who did as they were told and had their houses demolished were sent to the former factory.

Roma charities claim that, when the families first moved in, the factory contained jars of toxic chemicals, including sulphuric acid.

Samuel's mother, Olga Marcovici, says: "The children got ill from the toxic fumes and I took them to the ambulance. They were nauseous and dizzy."

It is thought that 22 children were taken to hospital.

Hostility

The incident prompted protests in Bucharest, the capital, and the Roma claim the authorities then disposed of the chemicals.

The mayor of Baia Mare, Catalin Chereches, denies these allegations but made the demolition of Craica and other informal Roma settlements his number one campaign promise for re-election.

Mr Chereches said: "I am not talking of demolition in a brutal and abrupt manner. I am talking about moving them from there into an area where they have an environment with water, sewage, electricity."

He was re-elected with 86% of the vote.

Hostility to the Roma is widespread. One local man told me: "They don't fit in… they don't work, they steal. Very few of them work."

For centuries, they have faced persecution in Romania.

Homes in Craica Some families remain in Craica, while others were relocated to the copper factory

Arriving from northern India in the 14th century, they were enslaved for more than 500 years.

It was only in 1856 that they were finally given their freedom.

During World War II, under the pro-Nazi regime of Ion Antonescu, they were put into concentration camps and killed.

After the fall of communism in 1989 their conditions again worsened.

Now there are high levels of unemployment, and many Roma in Baia Mare sort scrap at the local rubbish dump to earn a bit of money.

Crumbling

Many of those who have formal employment are in low-paid jobs.

And the future is not looking brighter for the next generation.

Five minutes from the centre of Baia Mare is Horea, another Roma settlement.

The residents are effectively squatters, living in the kind of conditions that reminded me of a war zone - a crumbling building with no running water, no toilets and sporadic electricity.

On a weekday plenty of children are at home, playing.

As I make my way around the building, I meet Rebecca.

Although she is 10 years old, she is not going to school. Her grandmother, Maria Sabo, says she has tried to send her but was turned away.

"The school won't take them. I wanted to send her to school. I wanted the authorities to sort it out, but they did nothing. I don't know why," she says.

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I wanted to send her to school. I wanted the authorities to sort it out, but they did nothing. I don't know why”

End Quote Maria Sabo

Rebecca has high hopes. I ask her what she wants to be when she grows up. "A police officer," she tells me.

School attendance is low, with only 30% of the children in Craica going to school. In Cuprom it is just 25%.

Together for Them, a local non-governmental organisation, helps Roma parents access mainstream education, and a spokeswoman, Gabi Pop, tells me it is both the fault of the system and of the Roma community.

"The parents are at fault to a degree because they don't know to how fight for this right and don't have the knowledge of where to go to resolve these issues," she said.

In Cuprom, I meet Mr Martocean's daughter-in-law, Roxana, 17.

She was 12 when she dropped out of school.

"It's nobody's fault. It was my own fault because I wanted to take care of my niece so that their mother could go out and earn a living," she said.

I ask her what she will do in the future.

She looks at me blankly. "What future?" she replies. "I have no future."

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