From the NY Times – Lens:- photography, video, and visual journalism:
That’s what Mugur Varzariu was often warned when he was growing up in Bucharest, Romania. Years later, working as a marketing strategist, he regularly heard — in “polite society,” no less — that the Roma people were lazy or criminals.
The Roma are often referred to as Gypsies, a term many consider offensive. Their ancestors, who came to Europe from India, have faced oppression and violence for centuries in Europe. They share language, culture and — until the 20th century — a nomadic way of life.
Mr. Varzariu, 42, knew very few Roma before he switched careers two years ago to become a photographer. In July 2011, after hearing that the mayor of Baia Mare, a small city in northern Romania, was building a 6-foot wall to separate a Roma community from its neighbors — creating a ghetto — Mr. Varzariu traveled there to see for himself.
The Roma he met were different from the racist stereotypes he was raised with.
The Roma of Baia Mare were impoverished. Although some worked as garbage collectors or in a furniture factory, the pay was so low that “you can barely raise one child, but certainly not six,” Mr. Varzariu said. Other Roma worked sporadically as day laborers or were unemployed. Yet the Roma he met were friendly and generous. “They shared their food with me even they had very little,” he said. Mr. Varzariu also discovered they faced many daunting barriers.
“They are discriminated against from the moment they are born,” he said.
The area being walled off consisted of public housing, some without running water or electricity, where families crowded into one-room apartments. About 1,000 Roma live within the wall.
Though detested by the Roma, the wall was quite popular among most of Baia Mare’s population. And it proved to be a smart political move for the mayor, Catalin Chereches, who was overwhelmingly re-elected this year.
After building the wall, the mayor forcibly evicted another community of Roma on the outskirts of Baia Mare in May and June of this year. They were moved into a former office building and laboratory that was part of an abandoned copper factory. Cyanide and other toxic chemicals lingered in the walls and floors, and many of the Roma fell ill.
Amnesty International released a report on this eviction in Baia Mare, and another report on other forced evictions of Roma elsewhere in Romania. Mr. Varzariu assisted them with both reports.
The new wall and creation of a ghetto, coming amid the rise of far right-wing parties in elections throughout Europe, raised an ominous specter.
During the Holocaust, hundreds of thousands of Roma were systematically killed by the Nazis in concentration camps and extermination camps. The Roma were the largest minority in Europe when many were expelled from France by then-President Nicolas Sarkozy, in 2010. (The current president, François Hollande, has continued the policy.)
Mr. Varzariu returned to Baia Mare this summer to document the effects of the recent evictions. Although his experiences have altered how he views the Roma, he says little has changed among other Romanians.
“There is no understanding of the real situation by the authorities or the general public,” he said. “We as Romanians want to have someone else to blame for our own mistakes, and the Roma people are our own scapegoats. If we blame them, maybe we will look better in our own eyes and in the eyes of the world community.”