From another time and place

Fellows Fall 2002

By Travis Fox

June 05, 2009

(Travis Fox, an award-winning photographer and video journalist with WashingtonPost.com, traveled to France to produce a documentary on Roma migrants in Western Europe. Here is an excerpt from his reporting.)

The music sounds like it's coming from an old record player. The crackles and pops of the campfire are the scratches. The music from the battered accordions is from another time and place. A half moon rests above the covered heads of the dancing women, their skirts swinging precariously close to the flames. The onlookers clap their hands and when they smile their gold teeth mirror the glow of the fire. Children run back and forth between the campfire and the always-open doors of the caravans. "Enough! Turn the camera off. That's all, please," Florean Marin tells me through the open door of his caravan.

A family around their campfire in the Roma (or Gypsy) settlement of Vaulx-en-Velin, France. The Romanian Roma arrived in France to seek asylum and live in a shantytown outside Lyon.

Florean was one of the musicians who lived in the Roma (or Gypsy) camp outside Lyon, France. I had spent the day with him as he played accordion on the subway, his 12-year-old daughter, Oana, going person-to-person asking for money. It had been a bad day for the pair. Subway officials caught them earlier than usual and they were forced to return to the camp with only $10 to show for their efforts.

I came to France to investigate the migration of Roma from Eastern to Western Europe. The Roma say they are fleeing persecution in the east; right-wingers say they come to lie, cheat and steal.

I was warned not to trust Roma, but I trusted Florean and his family. They were open with me from the beginning. They dressed nicely and the children were all well behaved. They looked out of place in the Roma camp with its endless flow of dirty kids harassing every visitor, especially those with cameras.

Others at the camp fit the description of the right-wingers. The quintessential Balkan gangsters lived on the opposite side of the camp. They proudly showed me the shirts and jackets they stole, all of which had a small hole in the collar where the security device had been removed. These guys continued to steal even as some of their family members were serving jail sentences for theft.

Two girls look out the open door of a makeshift house in the Roma (or Gyspy) settlement of Vaulx-en-Velin, France

But I also met people like Onofrei Lazar. After surviving a racially motivated shooting, he fled Romania with his family to seek asylum in France and wound up living in the middle of the camp, between the gangsters and Florean. In the end, most of the Roma in France were neither bad guys the gangsters nor good guys like Onofrei. They were like Florean. They came to France for the same reasons most immigrants travel to the West- to make money.

As the fire starts to burn out, the shouts and hollers from the celebration around the campfire drift all the way to the open door of Florean's caravan. He's loading his meager possessions into his van. Although he doesn't want to tell me, he's about to move his family again, to Italy, in hopes of a better life. The other Roma stand with their back to the remains of the campfire. They wave to the small convoy of vehicles, Florean's van at the end, as it makes its way through the darkness of the camp toward the exit.

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