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Germany

Berlin outreach program puts Roma kids in school, parents in jobs

Community outreach workers in Berlin are involved in a project that looks after Roma families. They help them find jobs, schools and kindergartens.

Children play on a slide

In kindergarten Roma children can play - and learn German

Cristina Nastase stands in the dirty courtyard of a run-down grey tenement building in Berlin's Tiergarten district at eight o'clock in the morning, softly calling out two names under an open window. Curtains and clothing hung out to dry on clotheslines flap in the breeze. Many of the tenants here are Roma from Romania who entered Germany with a tourist visa and would like to stay.

Cristina Nastase, 32, is also Romanian, an education welfare officer who helps Roma and migrant workers.

Angela and her two-year-old son, David, appear at the door, Cristina greets them, and they all walk to the boy's new kindergarten.

It's a completely new experience for mother and son. Only the other day, they were out on the streets begging, like many of the Roma here.

A chance for the children

"Attending kindergarten is important," Cristina says. "It gives David a chance to have an untroubled childhood, and he can learn German."

Cristina, seated, with several women standing in front of her

Cristina works on the streets of Berlin, offering help

Cristina comforts the cranky child on the 20-minute walk to the kindergarten, she listens to Angela's problems and they discuss the cleaning job Cristina has gotten her in her son's kindergarten, which gives the single mother a chance to earn a little money and learn a bit German.

Once they get to the kindergarten, David immediately runs off to play with the other children. Moved to tears, Cristina watches him.

"In the streets, I often encounter families with children," she says. "It is really touching when a child gets the chance to enjoy his childhood."

Cultural mediators

Many Roma are illiterate and speak little German. They are not in a position to fill in school applications, proper rental contracts or health insurance forms - things they need to be able to stay in Germany, even as EU citizens. Often, they end up on the streets, cleaning car windshields or begging for money.

But outreach workers may be able to help. Cristina Nastase and one other co-worker were sent by the Berlin-based organization "Southeast Europe Culture" to do community outreach. Funding comes from local government.

Kindergarten teacher Barbara Thorm accepted David under the condition that Cristina accompanied mother and son during the first week, helping with translations and explaining, for instance, the importance of punctuality.

"Things go wrong so often not because of the people involved but because there is no concept as to how to interact," Thorm says.

beggar with child

Begging may be a thing of the past for some Roma children in Berlin

Photos to send home

While David and his mother spend the day in the kindergarten, Cristina's next stop takes her to the city's cathedral, a spot that not only draws many tourists, but beggars from Romania as well. Cristina asks a Roma woman carrying a small child whether she needs help. In next to no time, the outreach worker is surrounded by Roma women.

"They are very open," Cristina says. "You only need to show an interest in their concerns."

Today the women clamor to have their pictures taken so they can send them home to Romania. For the next 15 minutes or so, they have fun taking photos - a regular part of Cristina's job.

But the regular requests for money, a job or an apartment are not as easy for Cristina to fulfill - for lack of funds and time. The project is scheduled to end in December, but she is hopeful that Berlin's Roma outreach project will be extended.

Author: Svenja Pelzel, Berlin (db)
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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