Mati doesn’t want to leave Grenoble, France. “Why would I?” he asks with a bewildered expression on his face. “I already know all of the best trash dumps for finding food and clothes!”
That may seem like a bleak reason to call any place home, but for Mati and the community of more than 200 other gypsies living in Grenoble, that is the simple reality of life.
Mati is part of the Roma, an entire ethnic group of 8-10 million people with no place to call home. Their true origin lies in the Rajasthan region of India, but hundreds of years ago they began to leave that place, steadily spreading throughout Europe and eventually across the Atlantic into North and South America. Today, the Roma are most heavily concentrated in Romania, France, Spain, Brazil, Turkey and the U.S., none of which are truly home. In France, as in most other places, they are stigmatized. A law here bans any Roma people from employment, which tends to push many toward begging and stealing as a means of survival. In this way, the cruel vicious cycle of stigma and exclusion continues to spin.
One need only look at the small gypsy camp near the outskirts of Grenoble to witness the staggering disconnect between the Roma people and the world around them. A well-paved road, Boulevard de la Chantourne, passes by a fine-dining restaurant, a hotel, a quaint pastry shop, and an array of other nicely manicured plots of land before it reaches the muddy trailer park that is one of two gypsy camps in Grenoble. With just one step across the camp’s threshold, an affluent first-world city suddenly becomes a third-world slum, filled with copious quantities of litter, broken down trailers, and poorly constructed shanties. Some have even turned broken down vehicles into homes with a mattress protruding from the back of an open trunk. What few necessities these people have are housed inside these makeshift structures, which, at best, keep them dry during the frequent mountain rainstorms.
“It’s unbelievable, all of this,” says one man who recently arrived at the camp after leaving Romania with his wife. He kicks aside an empty can on the ground as he grunts and casts a deflated look around.
In the trailer next to Mati’s, there lives a man named Varga, along with his wife and 9 children. Despite the little they have, they usher visitors into their trailer with warm hospitality, offering coffee as they invite their guests to make themselves comfortable on a couch, or more likely a bed, in the corner. With so many young ones to care for, Varga is no stranger to the hardships of life in this place. “The biggest problem here is for all of the children,” Varga explains, holding his five-year-old daughter on his lap. “They get sick. It’s cold. They don’t have food.”
Despite these squalid and inequitable conditions, few in this camp want to leave. Many here, like Mati and Varga, come from Romania where they say life was far worse. “In Romania, I didn’t have clothes,” Mati says. “No money. No food.” Even if their belongings here do come from a dumpster, Mati is thankful for the life his family has in France.
In the midst of these hardships, a very real spiritual movement is growing among the gypsies of Grenoble, according to Matthew Glock, pastor of the local International Church of Grenoble (ICG). Over the past year, Glock and the ICG have begun to focus more on the needs of those right here in their community, and Glock says they have been encouraged by the spiritual fruit. In fact, a number of gypsies from a different, nearby community have recently become Christian believers and one man was even baptized. The ICG now helps in any way it can, distributing food, clothing, and tents among those in the camps. Glock also hopes to start an entrepreneurship program to help provide work for some of the men in the community. “We’ve heard of people getting a work permit through an exemption in the law for self-starters and entrepreneurs,” he explains. “Maybe we can reproduce that.” However, Glock says the most important thing is simply being with them. “Just sitting with them and praying with them. Those are the things that matter most.”
But the French government has grown increasingly hostile toward the Roma people and at this very moment, the gypsies of Grenoble are in a precarious situation. Three weeks ago, two separate communities of gypsies (the group of Christian believers being one of them) were forcefully kicked out of their trailer camps by the French police. With only minutes to react, most of the gypsies lost the majority of their possessions, including their trailers, which were completely destroyed.
Now those like Mati and Varga fear that their camp will soon be next. In fact, the unsubstantiated word buzzing about the camp at the moment is that the French authorities plan to move in tomorrow, June 26. That would leave roughly 200 individuals –men, women, and children –with no place to go, no hope of employment, and virtually no earthly belongings.
“Anything is possible here,” says Varga, sighing and shaking his head.
Glock hopes and prays that these gypsies will be allowed to stay. He also hopes that their story will prompt others to stop and realize the injustice in the world around them. “We live in an unjust world,” says Glock. “You have to wake up, see the injustice around you wherever you are, and ask yourself, what can I do? What can I say?” In the coming days, months, and years, Glock plans to continue to fight on behalf of the Roma people here in Grenoble, all the while realizing that the ultimate hope is not to be found in this world.
Varga too knows where his hope ultimately lies. Holding a tattered Romanian Bible, he reads from Psalms and prays with clasped hands pressed against his face. “I know that not even a sparrow falls to the ground without you knowing, Lord,” he prays. In those words, he takes comfort. And with the rest of the Roma community here, he braces himself for whatever tomorrow might bring.
Please pray that the Lord would stay the hand of the French government, even at the last minute, and allow these families to remain in their meager camp. Please also pray that the Lord would use these circumstances for His glory among that community and that their long term needs would be provided for, especially in regard to opportunities for employment.
For more pictures of life among the gypsies, see Portraits: Roma