By Mihaela Rodina (AFP)
FRANCESTI, Romania — The Roma minority are targets of a security crackdown in France, but an EU-funded project has given two dozen members of the community new jobs and new hope at a troubled time for gypsies.
"We want to prove that we too can work hard," Robert Apostolache, 37, told AFP, who is one of 19 Roma men and four women who have been employed since June in a double-glazing workshop in the village of Francesti, west of Bucharest.
"Usually, when people see us they think all we want to do is steal," he said, but now the father of four who used to make a living as an occasional mason, has the opportunity to beat the stereotypes.
So far local Romanian authorities have submitted 26 programmes aimed at Roma inclusion to the European Union, which has unblocked 85 million euros (110 million dollars) of funding.
On Tuesday the European Parliament will debate the subject of the Roma minority in the wake of France's controversial deportation of hundreds of gypsies.
Dressed in purple overalls, the workers in Francesti, a village where more than 40 percent of the 5,800 inhabitants are Roma, move around like real professionals, cutting the glass sheets and assembling the metallic frameworks.
"All of them are putting a lot of soul in what they are doing," Meda Badita-Zarnesti, the project manager, said.
The French government blames Romania for not using more EU funds to improve the plight of its 2 million Roma, but "money has been very slow in coming", Badita-Zarnesti said, complaining about the large amount of red tape.
Out of a total of 360,000 euros (464,000 dollars) promised for the workshop, an instalment of barely 30,000 euros was disbursed last week.
The Romanian government, which should come up with 15 percent of the total, has not delivered either.
This means the workers must wait four months for their 260-euro monthly wages, while the windows and doors will continue to be loaded onto a horse-drawn cart instead of a pick-up truck.
The average salary in Romania is 350 euros, or 450 dollars.
"I could work day and night for a week only to see this programme on track," the 45-year-old mayor of Francesti Daniel Nicolaescu said.
The former army officer has been battling hard to secure EU funds to modernize the local infrastructures and create jobs, especially for the Roma.
Apart from the workshop, he has also created an activity centre, a day nursery and plans to open a sports complex, a furniture workshop and a brick plant, both of which which will capitalize on the Roma's traditional skills.
"Many of the Roma here have been making bricks in their backyard. If I can open this plant, they will be able to work in a more organized way," Nicolaescu said.
However, of the 15 or so projects he has submitted to the EU, only a couple have got the green light.
But while Nicolaescu said he would not give up whatever the obstacles, Florian Vatafu, mayor of the nearby village of Voicesti, is ready to throw in the towel.
"It's terribly hard to make things work," said the Vatafu, who planned to set up a workshop employing 18 Roma. "If I were to start all over again I wouldn't do it."