Over 600 Roma people from Bucharest will be housed in a newly renovated apartment complex in the German suburb of Neukoelln, Berlin.

The initiative, project managed by Benjamin Marx, hopes to integrate over 100 families into the city that was once host to plans of their mass genocide during the Second World War. The project is the work of a Catholic foundation that hopes to rid the Roma of their negative image in the eyes of the German public, a quarter of whom - when surveyed in 2008 - said they would feel uncomfortable having a Roma neighbour.

Mr. Marx stressed that the Roma families already lived in the area before Aachener SWG, the housing company funding the scheme, began their work. The aim was to sanitise and improve the building and its surrounding area in hope of providing better living conditions. “The Roma families are normal tenants paying their rent as any normal client”, Marx told us.

The Roma have endured a long history of discrimination in Berlin, especially so in the district of Neukoelln where many have settled following Romania’s acceptance into the EU. Although difficult to measure, Unicef estimates that there are approximately 120,000 Roma in Germany; 20,000 of whom are thought to live in Berlin. The Neukoelln district is said to hold the highest percentage of immigrants in Berlin with the largest Roma settlement in the city. According to Zitty Berlin, an estimated 7000 Roma live in Neukoelln alone.

The families being housed in the building come from a “dirt-poor” village near Bucharest, Romania’s capital. In Neukoelln, the formerly derelict and garbage-strewn building site is now being completely revamped and formed into 110 comfortable, refurbished apartments. With his team of architects, engineers and builders, Mr Marx has given the building a “new face” and incorporated workshops, playrooms and a small theatre. German artist Gerhard Bär was hired to run a recycled art workshop for the local Roma children.

The building has been renamed “Arnold Fortuin House” after the German-Catholic priest who fought for Sinti and Roma rights in World War II. Fortuin’s efforts saved the lives of many Sinti and Roma families during the Holocaust in Nazi Germany where, 70 years later, he is commemorated in this building symbolic of their prosperity. Bosnian artist Senad Alice was commissioned to paint a mural of Fontuin’s face onto the facade of the building.

The official opening of the complex on Harzer Street will be celebrated on the 14th of September this year in the presence of Klaus Wowereit, the Mayor of Berlin.

Although construction has not yet finished, some families have already moved in to their new homes and are showing their delight in living in better conditions.

The Roma are grateful for the help of Benjamin Marx who is spearheading the project to improve their quality of life both in the immediacy of their own homes, and by integrating them into the mainstream German society that has struggled to see them as fellow Berliners.

“The idea is to provide homes for people who have been excluded and discriminated against. We want to show Berliners that these people are completely normal and can integrate,” said Benjamin Marx.

While Serbia, France and Kosovo continue to ostracise and evict them, the housing scheme is a small yet promising step towards a healthier quality of life for the Roma in Europe.

Photography by Lucian Raul Spatariu, www.spatariu.com

A website dedicated to the memory of Arnold Fortuin: www.arnold-fortuin.de

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