Marianist lay woman works with Roma in Paris, France



entrance to the Roma camp; Cristian is wearing the baseball cap

Mary Harvan Gorgette is a Marianist lay woman living in Paris, France. She works as a  lay minister for social-justice and intercultural issues in a 5-parish area of the Diocese of Créteil. She coordinates a group that supports Roma families in the area.

Cristian spends most of his day on the road, in the southern suburbs of Paris, France. He rides his bike, stopping occasionally to pick up scrap metal and throw it in his makeshift trailer. Sometimes he loads up a larger appliance left curbside on trash day.

His trailer full, he pedals back to a small shantytown, located off an access road. In September 2010, five Romanian families built small homes around a central courtyard, using materials collected from trash bins. Cristian and Janina’s home has two rooms, a double bed for them and one for their three children. A concrete, wood-burning stove provides heat. A couple plastic chairs can be pulled out and covered with clean linens for visitors to the camp.

For cooking and washing, each family fills jerry cans from a roadside fire hydrant. Toilets are dug away from the camp. Janina and the other women cook on open fires in the courtyard.

A grassy field between the camp and the access road provides a workspace. There Cristian and other young men hammer the objects they have collected, separating the metal to be sold as scrap. The families survive this way because French law prohibits Romanian and Bulgarian citizens from working in any but a restricted number of fields, all requiring advanced degrees. It excludes the poorest Eastern Europeans from an otherwise open EU job market.

Many of the poorest belong to an ethnic group called Roma, long discriminated against in their home countries. There, they are excluded not only from the work force, but from schools, housing, and public services. This drives many to emigrate to the richer West. As Janina says, they live better off French trash: Romanians don’t throw much away.

The families’ resourcefulness cannot conquer all the challenges of their life here. Parents take turns keeping watch at night so that rats don’t bite the children in their sleep. When Cristian was feeling ill, a sympathetic French woman took him to the hospital. He was admitted immediately, found to be severely diabetic and suffering from an endocrine-related genetic disorder. He receives ongoing treatment for his condition.

The mayor recently won a lawsuit allowing him to evict the families from the municipally owned land. A group of parishioners and other citizens is seeking solutions for the families, whose homes will be razed in July, after the children have finished their first year of school.

Public housing already has long waiting lists, and none of it would provide the work space the families need to make their living. There are few open fields in the Paris area, even fewer where they could settle without threat of further eviction. It’s almost certain that they will end up far from the schools, medical centers, and French friends they have come to know. One young woman will be leaving when her baby is 2 months old. Evicted Roma families often end up in other shantytowns, most of which harbor dozens, sometimes hundreds, of people in dire conditions.

When these families learned of the court decision, each had to choose whether to return to Romania or stay in France. Cristian says for him the choice is simple. “If I go back, I’m dead.”







9 thoughts on “Marianist lay woman works with Roma in Paris, France

  1. Hi Ms. Gorgette,

    I am an university student (Princeton, now at Sorbonne-IV and ENS) in the Paris area, and am writing a research paper this semester on Roma living in France and particularly in Paris. Would you be willing to help me with my research? if so, you can leave a note on the website above with contact information. Thank you, and I hope to be able to speak to you.

    Best wishes,
    Sara Bojo

  2. Thanks, everyone, for your comments.

    Yes, Susan, the Roma are extremely resourceful. I am inspired by their creativity.

    Julie, I couldn’t agree more: How is it that public money flows so readily to those who need it least, with nothing left to give a boost to those climbing out of poverty?

    Marceta, your point is well-taken. Migrants will be regarded as criminals as long as we criminalize migration rather than recognizing it for what it most often is: people traveling in search of a better life. How many of us would do the same in their place? How many of our ancestors already have?

    Father Dave, I’m very interested to learn that Marianists are involved with Roma people in Spain. Are these SMs? MLCs?

    Marie-Paule and Richard, of course I remember you well! When are you coming back to Paris? I love the approach of Grubb, using the arts to communicate to the mind and the heart of the audience. A great way to break down preconceived notions and biases. Hmmm…. gets me thinking!


  3. Hello Mary; remember us from our visit to your home back in 2005? I’ve enjoyed so much reading about your work with the Romas in Paris. Here in Quebec, we have been introduced to them through Serge Denoncourt, who has directed a group of young Romas and has had many public appearances to let us know better their lives and their quest for a better world. Maybe you’ve heard of this, but if not, you will find the WEB site at the bottom.
    Thank You so much for all you do and hoping to meet again.
    Marie-Paule and Richard

  4. Mary, your article gives us a different perspective on the immigration questions in our world. It reminds us that immigration is more about families wanting a better life for themselves and their children than about a “criminal element” sneaking into our countries to do us harm. Thank you for giving us a window into your insights on this issue.

  5. Mary, thank you for your article on the Roma people in France, and their struggles just to survive. The photo gives us a visual look on what they call home, and how they live. I thought as I read your article that Governments world wide gave trillions of dollars to bail out the Banks during the financial crisis. But alas there’s very little given to the poor and needy world wide.

  6. Mary, thank you for your insight into the life of the Roma people in Paris. It is heart breaking to see how they are treated, yet they as a people are so resourceful. Thanks to you and people like you who give of your time and talents to make life better for the Roma people and people like them.. You are true example of living out Marianist mission.

  7. Wonderful to know of Mary’s work with the Roma people. Marianists are also very involved with groups of Roma people in Spain (Almería) and Albania (Lezhe). Congratulations and prayers for Mary in her efforts at being close to people “on the margins”……

    fr. Dave

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