Photo by Jeroen Adriansens

Stability, the key to Roma inclusion in Ghent

In Ghent, as often all over Europe, Roma people have faced complex living conditions, poverty and a lack of inclusion. But the city is committed to being inclusive for all.

The municipality offered Roma families to participate in a personalised project for inclusion. The selected Roma community was particularly suffering adverse conditions, so Ghent offered them a possibility to move out of their camps into more comfortable container units.

Three years to bring stability

Maaike Buyst, Vice-Chair of the Eurocities Roma inclusion working group and member of Ghent Department of Welfare and Living Together, talks about the nomad nature of the community. “They used to go back and forth to Romania through France, perhaps the UK, Belgium,” she says. The project means three years of stability for people who change places every three months due to temporary jobs. Now, “they have a roof above their heads for their children. It gives them some peace,” Buyst adds.

Decent living conditions and stability for three years give the people the opportunity to focus on their future. Buyst explains, “the purpose is to have a better life after three years, a better life that suits them all,” for example, through finding a job, living in the country legally, or speaking the language.  A stable home address sparks the rest: it guarantees better living conditions and improves the chances of getting a decent legal job.

We take steps little by little
— Hannes Schotte

Orientation sessions came first. Mediators had discussions with the families to know where they were coming from, what they wanted to achieve in three years and defining what was reachable to work towards. “We take steps little by little,” explains Hannes Schotte, the Project Coordinator. He meets each family every three months to follow up on the achievable small steps into which the road to long-term goals was previously broken down.

Containers surrounded by snow
Area where the families live now. Photo by Jeroen Adriansens

How to build trust and overcome language barriers

Mediators got involved in the trajectory with the families, trying to focus on long-term stable targets. “Especially people who only have survival modes and have a short-term vision,” explains Buyst. Helping implies tools and information to move forward. “If they want to rent a house, then you have all the steps for renting,” she adds.

A mediator in one of the containers
A mediator in one of the containers. Photo by Jeroen Adriansens

To provide guidance and services, the council works with several organisations. Some of them already supported the Roma community back when living in the camps. Counting on a more extended connection facilitates gaining trust and confidence. Ghent went the extra mile by working with someone that knew the community for over 10-15 years. He went accompanied the people through the projects and also advised the guidance team.

Sessions with mediators cover anything the families may need — health, employment, clothes, or language skills. Cultural mediators and Romanian translators are present to overcome the language barrier since most of the Roma people in this pilot speak Romanian. Some know some French, but only a few are Dutch speakers.

To work on their language skills, Dutch lessons are organised. For some Roma people, who are not used to taking classes and struggle to see the practicality of learning the language, the start entailed a challenge. Also, “going to the class doesn’t bring them money. Work is much more important than learning a language,” admits Schotte.

However, the coordinator admits that after almost one and a half years, some start to understand the importance of Dutch in finding a decent job, and results are visible.

Finding a job

Getting a stable job may require learning Dutch. However, it’s a challenge for the families and takes some time when they could be working to ensure income. For Buyst, it all comes to finding the balance and rearranging priorities for a more long-term goal.

“People are really motivated to work,” says Schotte. But the jobs they can find are hard jobs. Many of them find work in agriculture and horticulture in September, October, and November. If they are employed for three months, they can ask for the residents’ permits. All of these things help them to go forward in the process.

Now they have a roof above their heads for their children. It gives them some peace
— Maaike Buyst

“The real challenge is now to make the shift to more durable work,” adds Buyst. Their motivation for a more stable income drives their efforts to find better jobs instead of seasonable ones. Regular payments will maintain decent living conditions after the three years of the project. Some think of running a business or renting a house.

After one year and two months in the housing project, Schotte confirms that the team made progress and observed results.

A generational change

The initiative includes another central player: the education mediator. They support parents and children in their education journey and act as a link with the school.

Since kids learn the language faster, the main barrier is the parents’ trust in educational institutions. Adults, who have lived in precarious conditions their whole life and may have never been to school, are not familiar with its methodologies and practicality. In addition, achieving continuity has been proven difficult, especially in the last year due to interruptions caused by the covid safety measures.

When adults are working and wake up at dawn, fewer kids make it to school since nobody can bring them. When they do, sitting on a chair the whole day is not something they are used to. “But we see progress,” claims Schotte.

After working with Roma communities for ten years, Buyst believes that two or three years are insufficient to ensure their full inclusion, but it improves their living conditions considerably. “It’s long term work, and perhaps we see changes for their children or their grandchildren. We can’t expect everyone to succeed on every level in three years. They are baby steps, and every progress is progress for them.”

With its commitment to reduce poverty and discrimination against Roma people, Eurocities supports integrated city plans for Roma inclusion. The working group on Roma gathers 57 cities from across Europe to work together towards improving local policies on their inclusion, in line with the needs of Roma people.

Ghent holds the Vice-Chair of the Eurocities Roma inclusion working group.

Marta Buces Eurocities Writer