The Samaritain slum in the northern Paris suburb of La Courneuve is home to some 80 Roma families, many of them from Romania or Hungary. Nestled between a rail track and the A86 highway, the eight-year-old settlement has been dubbed "France's oldest slum" by the charitable organizations that provide assistance to the roughly 300 people who live there.
Families in the slum have lately been living in fear of likely eviction, after local authorities warned residents that the slum could be torn down any day. During a visit to the slum on Wednesday, VICE News met several locals who said that officials had given them no housing alternatives. Once the slum is dismantled, they'll be homeless.
Jozsef Farkas, a 17-year-old from northern Romania, offered to give VICE News a tour of the Samaritain slum. An online petition he launched earlier this month against the expulsion of residents has already collected 37,000 signatures.
Farkas, who dreams of integration and hopes to pursue a career in music, has become a strong advocate for his community. He and other activists have been urging local authorities to consider an alternative solution for the settlement.
"This is the first street — we have three of them," Farkas said as he led us to one of the paths that runs from one end of the slum to the other. Covered in carpet and squares of linoleum, the path took us past makeshift homes and groups of playing children. More than a hundred children live in squalid conditions inside the settlement. The women keep the paths clean by sweeping them, but the ground is damp beneath the improvised layers. In a far corner of the slum, huge rats scurried around a heap of trash.
With no access to water or electricity, residents store their food in unplugged refrigerators — not to keep it cool, Farkas explained, but to protect it from "the rats and insects that eat everything." The teenager and his supporters have been working on a plan to clean up the slum and remove the mountain of garbage that lies at one end of the slum.
Farkas's father is Hungarian and his mother is Romanian. They are both Roma — Europe's largest minority and a long-persecuted community that continues to face many challenges, including discrimination and social exclusion.
Farkas didn't know a word of French before arriving in the country from Romania. He picked up the language at the markets where his parents sold salvaged and second-hand objects. His family came to France to flee harassment in Romania, he said.
He now speaks six languages, including French, English, Romani, and Hungarian. He has a basic grasp of German and can sing in Italian. "Because of that, I'm a translator and I'm currently a volunteer at les Enfants du Canal, an organization that helps the homeless," Farkas said. As he walked, he greeted neighbors who were sitting on the doorsteps of their makeshift homes.
Farkas is enthusiastic about the future. "I'm going to be on The Voice!" he exclaimed, referring to the French edition of the reality television singing competition. He explained that he made the cut as a contestant after posting a video online last year. While Farkas spends a lot of his day-to-day trying to securing the future of his community, his dreams go far beyond the slum's boundaries.
"I would like to go to New York to see Beyoncé in concert," he told VICE News. "A friend said I could meet her." Farkas hopes that when he appears on The Voice, he will be singled out by Mika, whom he called his "favorite judge."
Back in Romania, Farkas was a soloist and sang during religious ceremonies and weddings. "When I arrived in the village, I was already a bit of a star," he told us inside the church, an ornate room and one of the bigger shacks in the slum. "I still sing at church today."
The Samaritain slum was named after the pentecostal church, which the residents built as soon as they settled the area.
"We're not dogs"
La Courneuve's Communist Mayor Gilles Poux has been calling for the evacuation of the slum since 2013. "He's a Communist mayor who kicks people out," Farkas remarked. "There are people who work here, babies, people with disabilities. We're not dogs."
The housing charity Fondation Abbé Pierre and the humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières have pledged to help clean up the slum and provide access to clean water as part of a plan to gradually relocate residents to more suitable housing.
Among the many problems faced by residents of the slum is an inability to obtain a certificate of residence. "It's the document that gives access to all others," Pierre Chopinaud, a spokesman for Roma advocacy group La Voix des Roms (The Voice of the Roma), told VICE News. Without the certificate, he said, "Children are refused access to neighborhood schools and it's very difficult for families to access healthcare and public services."
According to Chopinaud, many residents of La Courneuve support the project. "Lots of people here are descended from immigrants," he explained. "They realize that some of their own relatives have lived in similar slums."
Local authorities seem determined to press on with their plan to dismantle the settlement, even though no official date has yet been communicated. "The prefecture is responsible for this case," a spokesperson for the town hall told VICE News on Wednesday. The official said the eviction was expected to happen "soon," but conceded that the slum's demise is not guaranteed.
When contacted by VICE News Wednesday, the prefecture was unable to confirm when and how residents would be evicted from the town-owned plot.
"It gives us no pleasure to do this," said the government spokesperson, "but it is out of the question for La Courneuve to help the slum endure on its land." When asked about Farkas's alternative plan for the residents — an initiative that will cost 400,000 euros ($445,000) — the spokesman said that the advocacy groups would not be able to foot the entire bill for the clean-up. "La Courneuve cannot afford to clean up this site," he said.
"If we are evicted, then we will take our belongings, of course, but we have nowhere to go," said Farkas. "We want to tell the mayor that we are not animals — we are human beings."
He is well-liked and respected by the other residents. He relayed some of their frustrations to VICE News. A 32-year-old named Stefan who works for a farmer near Paris said he was angry over anti-Roma "racism."
"Why do other [minorities] get welfare and not us?" he asked. "We also want to participate and pay taxes, but in order to do that, we need to be given a chance."
Farkas remains hopeful. "Every night we pray for the mayor to change his mind," he said. "I am going to write a romantic song for him and his wife."