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Denmark - Romania: a poverty round trip

 Hus Forbi (Denmark) 01 November 2019

They are Roma and come from the same poor village in Romania. Now they are in Copenhagen playing the harmonica to passers-by. Catalin Tudorache and Puiu Toader do what they can to scrape enough money together for their families back home. (1540 Words) - By Simon Ankjaergaard

Hus Forbi_Denmark - Romania: a poverty round trip

A Roma man lies on a cot in his house in Alsozsolca, 200km (124 miles) northeast of Budapest. Increasing numbers of Roma move out of Eastern Europe to escape poverty and try their luck in Western European countries like Denmark. Photo: REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh

Like for many other Roma, life in Romania has always been a struggle for Catalin and Puiu. An average job is not closely enough to sustain a family. As a Roma, you are automatically lowest in the social hierarchy. The choice between an unstable job as a labourer for 3 or 4 pounds an hour or the lowest social benefit of around £1.70 a day is far from enough to cover expenses for food, clothes, gas and electricity. It is also not enough to pay for education, crucial for Roma children to break the negative spiral and build a better life for themselves.

Six years ago, Catalin and Puiu decided to leave the neglected houses in the village of Mârgineanu, 50 kilometres north-east of Bucharest, to try their luck outside Romania. With their last bit of money they bought a bus ticket with destination Copenhagen.

Since then, they have travelled back and forwards between the Danish capital and Bucharest. Three or four months in Denmark, one month in Romania. And they are not the only ones. Their bus back is always filled with poor Roma people. Some have scraped together just about enough cash for the ticket. Others have put themselves in debt to local loan sharks with orders to not show up in Romania again until they have earned enough money to clear their debt.

Illegal pay

"For six years, we have lived this way, but it has not become any easier. Every day is still a struggle", says 30-year-old Catalin, who has left a wife and a three-year-old son behind in Romania.

He places his harmonica on his lap and lights a cigarette. In the dim lights underneath the Noerrebro Station bridge people pass him by in an even stream. He inhales and smiles to as many people as he can. Customer service. Maybe they will drop a coin or two in the unfolded jacket on the ground next time they walk past. Today, he has earned 55 kroner (£6.20). Further out Frederikssundvej, where 43-year-old Puiu lets the tunes of 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow' meet the supermarket's customers, the income of the day is 30 kroner (£3.40).

"Our income depends on both the weather and the season", says Puiu. "When it rains, we earn next to nothing as people are too busy trying to escape the rain." Playing the harmonica is the two friends' main occupation, but they are happier when they get an occasional labouring job offered.

"They pay us illegally, so I can't say who I work for. It would mean I won't get a job with them again", says Puiu, who needs to scrape money together for his wife and three sons. "Sometimes it is other Romanians who recommend us. Other times, the trade bosses meet us in the street and ask us if we want to help them. Sometimes they are Danes, sometimes foreigners", he says.

Then, all of a sudden Puiu stops talking and waves enthusiastically to a man in jogging clothes on the other side of the street. "That's the Arab", he says with a big smile.

"He is my friend. He has hired both Catalin and me several times. We built a wall for him and some other things as well. Sometimes he pays us a lot, because he knows our money goes to our family. And he gave me this. For free." Puiu pads the harmonica.

The Arab zig-zags across the street and shakes Puiu's hand heartily. Puiu inquires about the work prospects. The man gazes thoughtfully and looks like he cannot promise too much. In the end he shrugs his shoulders. "Maybe. I've got your mobile number, Puiu. I'll call you."

" He is my friend", Puiu repeats and follows him with his eyes as he jogs back across the heavily trafficked street. "He is one of the reasons we are able to get the bus to Copenhagen and back."

Apart from working as bricklayers, Catalin and Puiu have also put up plaster ceilings and have done cleaning jobs. The pay is always cash-in-hand. The pair do not have bank accounts and trade bosses are not willing to inform the tax authorities. Salaries vary from a few hundred kroner to a few thousand, depending on the amount of work. They know perfectly well that they only get selected for jobs because they are cheap labourers. But they don't mind: even an amount far below the Danish minimum wage can work wonders for the families in Mârgineanu.

Puiu packs up the harmonica, lights another cigarette and swallows a pill for stomach ulcers. He rattles with the small dirty pill can. "It costs me 500 kroner (£56.20) a month. I must take six pills a day. The ulcer is worse than my kidney stones", he says. He shrugs his shoulders and and starts walking towards Catalin's pitch. It is a distance of two and a half kilometres. A bus ticket is too expensive.

No roof

Catalin welcomes Puiu with a smile. He knows the routine. The job now, like every day, is to figure out where they are going to spend the night. Last night they slept at a Romanian friend's, but he has not got any space tonight. There are 50 men from the village back home staying in Copenhagen, so they begin phoning to try and find a roof above their head before darkness sets in. Often the answer is negative - as today. Others have got in before them.

Puiu and Catalin stick together. They tend to stay isolated from the rest of the Roma population as much as possible. They do not want join the big groups of Roma people accommodating themselves in camps or in empty factories. They fear to end up in a mass arrest like the one in Copenhagen last July, when the police cleared a camp and a factory. 23 Roma people ended up being deported.

Instead they travel towards the area of Amager - on the subway, but without a ticket. They ascend from the subway and walk into a small park. This is where they sleep when there is no luck to find accommodation with friends. They have chosen a small shrubbery, which is hidden away from the graffiti painted park benches and the pot holed paths. With the heads resting on their small black sports bags, they speak quietly with each other until the vibration of Catalin's phone interrupts. It is his wife on the phone. She needs money now. Catalin lets her down. He has only got 400 kroner (£45), so it will take a long time before he can return home. If possible, Puiu has an even longer way to go before returning home. He pulls out 80 kroner (£9) from his pocket. That is all he has got.

"We can't go home until we've got a minimum of 2000 kroner (£225) in cash for the family", Catalin says with a sigh. "During a good month, we can earn up to 2500 kroner (£280), but of thay we need 1000 kroner (£110) for food and cigarettes. And we need to take into consideration that the ticket for the bus back costs 1000 kroner."

It often takes three or four months until the pair have got enough to return home to their families. Following that, it then takes a month to earn money for a new bus trip back to Copenhagen. They usually try to get work as labourers, but often the jobs have been taken by cheap labour from countries even further east.

The final solution is the loan sharks. And with them, the debt spiral starts. "I have had to loan money for the bus ticket several times", Catalin says. "That debt must be paid and that it why I must earn even more money when I am in Denmark. And then it takes even longer before I can see my son and wife again", he sighs.

He feels he is neglecting his family with his long absence, but Puiu disagrees. It may be that their hearts belongs in Mârgineanu, but it is necessity that has brought them to Denmark. Puiu ask the rhetoric question: "What else should we do? We can't earn enough in Romania to provide for our families and pay our children's education. That is not neglect. That is a necessity."

He smacks his right hand's index finger into his left palm to emphasize the argument. "If I had the choice, I would of course stay in Romania. But that is impossible. As long as Romania remains poor, we will travel to richer countries to make our money. It is as simple as that."

Originally published by Hus Forbi, Denmark. ©



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