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Fashionable integration

Kate BradyMarch 24, 2015

The German city of Duisburg is known for it's large population of Roma immigrants. DW's Kate Brady went to the Bruckhausen district to see how a Freeshop is helping to clothe the city's poorest and help integration.

Duisburg Freeshop
Image: DW/Kate Brady

Since Romania joined the European Union in 2007, the numbers of Romanians migrating across the continent has skyrocketed. According to statistics portal Statista, some 120,000 Romanians now live in Germany.

Among those many Romanians are also the ethnic Romany, or gypsy, population - a group faced with poverty and discrimination that has come to be associated with negative connotations of crime and mistrust, leading to difficulties in integration.

In the industrial city of Duisburg in northwestern Germany, however, one project has taken integration into its own hands to help support their Roma community.

Tucked away in the third floor of the "Kulturbunker" in the city's Bruckhausen district is an Aladdin's cave of second-hand clothing. The donations have been collected to help the area's needy immigrants, who account for over 90 percent of Bruckhausen's population - the highest in the whole of Duisburg, where 11,000 Roma citizens were listed as registered last year.

'Real shopping experience'

Director of Bruckhausen's "socio-culture" center, Michael Fröhling (pictured above, right), began collecting clothes for the local Roma citizens some six months ago. Since then, the project has developed into a full-scale retail experience that aims to promote integration and help those most in need of warm clothing - particularly through the bitter winter months.

"We began by starting a little clothes collection for the people who had arrived here with children who had no shoes or coats in winter ,and parents who were asking for clothes for their babies," Michael tells DW.

Duisburg Freeshop
In the winter months, many Roma immigrants would have been without warm clothingImage: DW/Kate Brady

Following the success of the clothes collections, Michael took inspiration from a Free Shop where his daughter was working in Tuscany, Italy, where customers would exchange clothes in a cashless system. At Bruckhausen's Freeshop, alterations to the concept mean that happy Roma customers can go home suited and booted, completely free of charge and with no exchange necessary.

"We took this idea and created a real little shop, where everything is organized according to size, where we can have good, clean clothes, and where people can get a good feeling - a bit like if they were shopping," Michael explains.

Peer pressure

The nature of the project is also helping to deter the Bruckhausen's Roma youth from resorting to crime.

"We have some girls who have come here from youth court services. They were previously caught stealing clothes from a shop because they had no money. But here they can simply shop and feel good about it."

Michael says, however, that for many of the teenagers who stop by, the need to integrate by looking trendy is their number one priority.

"We have many young people who get their clothes here simply because they want to look more fashionable, because they feel in competition with other youths.

"At that age they want to look cool. We want to help them because they should have the same chances as other young people."

Looking around the make-shift shop, it's clear to see why the Roma youth feel welcome here, where they can search between the huge rails of clothing - whether it's for something practical or a hidden gem in time for the Kulturbunker's next disco.

Duisburg Freeshop
Director Michael Fröhling wants Duisburg's Roma youth to have the same opportunities as othersImage: DW/Kate Brady

Ensuring education

As a result of running the Freeshop, Michael and his team of volunteers have also been able to deal with other issues facing the district's immigrant population.

"We noticed many other problems, such as access to healthcare. We also want to make sure that the children are being educated, so we've made lists of all the children who should be in school," Michael says.

Financial donations the shop receives are also often spent on covering the costs of school supplies or school trips if a child's family can't afford the fee.

Europe-wide problem

By helping to integrate Bruckhausen's Roma population in the district, Michael says he hopes the Freeshop will open the door to other social projects. Despite the efforts at a local level, Michael believes, however, that integration and poverty among immigrants must be tackled both by the state and the European Union (E).

"This is, of course, an issue across the EU," Michael says.

"We hope that in the future we'll receive some funding. Whether that'll be from the local authorities or from the state, we'll have to see."

But if we don't manage to integrate these people now, then in the future we'll be faced with higher costs," Michael warns.

In the meantime, the donations just keep coming, with bags of clothes arriving from Duisburg's wider community every day.

Duisburg Freeshop
The Freeshop is always looking for more donations of baby and children's clothes.Image: DW/Kate Brady

"We always check that the clothes are washed and sound. But we're always looking for more donations of baby and children's clothes," Michael says.

Great ambition

Helping out at the Freeshop is Dobrescu Gabriela who has been in living in Germany for nearly 5 years.

"The situation has improved since I arrived," Dobrescu tells DW. "But my boss has helped," she says, giving a smiling nod to Michael.

The 27-year-old explains that working in the shop is important to her so that Michael's work can continue.

"I want to bring my children to Germany ,too," she says. "There are so many things here that they don't have in Romania."

Alongside volunteering at the Freeshop, Dobrescu is also on the lookout for another job.

"I want to be a translator for Romanian and German," she says with great confidence as she begins to sort through the day's latest delivery of donations.