Liviu Caldalareu dropped out of school at the beginning of eighth grade. He is a gypsy, the kind that doesn’t need to declare it, with dark brown skin and a wide nose. We talked in a park in Craiova, with uncut weeds invading the path from both sides. He walked past them with a small swagger and a cigarette, bending his head almost parallel to the ground to take long and deep pulls, his elbow tucked into his chest. I was nervous at first that I wasn’t going to be able to get under his skin. In the ten minute car ride we’d shared, the conversation had barely got off baseline, bouncing between English and Spanish and hovering just below substance.
50 yards into the park, I switched to French; home run. He exploded in warmth with a celebration of Hollande’s ousting of Sarkozy. Liviu was a victim of one of the ex-president’s most controversial policies, which expelled thousands of Roma from France without trial. He ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. The 28 year old was living in the French outskirts of Geneva, working as a cook in a small restaurant. He had a six month work permit and proof of residence. “I was completely legal,” he spat. “I paid my rent every month, I had a declared job and paid my social security. They didn’t even look at it.” One weekend, Liviu went to visit friends living in a camp in the suburbs of Lyon. The police, unfortunately for him, had planned a visit for the same morning. “They came out of nowhere,” he remembers. The officials took down their identities, and gave all of them a notice of expulsion from the country. Liviu was forced to leave.
It was the fifth country in which he had sought work— Romania, Italy, Spain, and Britain preceding it. He first left the country at 15 to make a living, which is when he dropped out of school. His father supported Liviu and his three siblings by working odd jobs around town when he could; his mother was a day laborer. “Sometimes my father brought home bigger pieces of bread, sometimes smaller ones,” he recalls. “I ate whatever there was.” Liviu’s own history of employment has been equally unstable, a reality that forced his nomadic travels across Europe’s richer west. He came back to Romania, to live with his parents, because he has nowhere else to go. He ekes a living by collecting second hand clothes and preparing them for sale. It is a tough business. The work can bring him 20 to 30 leu on some days, (5-7 euros) but on others his hands are empty. The situation is getting increasingly desperate—his girlfriend is pregnant, and due soon.
Liviu is taking steps to improve the situation. He enrolled in the second chance program, which can take students to the tenth grade level, though he has two more years to go before he gets a certificate. T.R.U.S.T., the Craiova-based NGO for Roma advocacy, also accepted him into a job counseling program that may help him find work.
He doesn’t think it’ll make much a difference. The black gipsy talked about his predicament as a victim, with the rhetoric of the civil rights movement. “Every place that I apply for a job, they say ‘no, go away, you’re a gipsy,’” he recounts. “If you and I were to go to a café together right now, they would serve you, take care of you. But they would tell me to get out, because I am a gypsy.” He repeated that example five times over the course of our conversation. When asked about the high rates of theft by the Roma, he took an apologetic stance. “They rob because nobody will give them a job, because they have no choice. They have 5,6,7 children to feed, and they rob to bring them bread.”
Talking to Liviu, it was easy to get a sense of the desperation that moves school to the bottom of a family’s priorities. But his lack of interest in a diploma came from more than just the pressure of the rent and a groaning stomach. Liviu was never given the opportunity to believe in the middle class dream, that you could make it with hard work and a good education. He had almost no white friends when he was a kid, and the choicest of public positions were always barred to him. Now, he speaks of his dreams in the language of race. “If I can finish school, go to college, understand the way things work—if I can become a lawyer or a policeman—then I will be able to show people that we too can be accomplish.” He continued to frame the dream in a bigger context. “Before, the blacks were slaves. Now Obama is President…. Things will only change is this country when we have a gypsy president.”
For his future children, however, his dreams remain more simple. “I want my kids to have enough to eat, and to have a good education.”