Pope Francis defends Roma rights in Europe's largest Roma ghetto

You have to go to Luník IX, you don’t get there in passing. Three curves and a small bridge separate it from the rest of the city. No one here remembers exactly when or how it arrived. But most do not stop wondering when it will be possible to leave. From Lunik IX, the soldiers and policemen with whom the neighborhood was originally conceived left first, very close to a landfill in the city of Kosice, the second largest in Slovakia. Then the remaining Slovaks left. Also the school teachers. And, little by little, even half of the 8,000 gypsies who came to live here in extremely precarious conditions left. The rest survive today as best they can in a place where there are hardly any supplies of water and electricity. A place left from the hand of God that the Pope, as he did with the Villas Miseria of Buenos Aires when he was Archbishop, visited this Tuesday during his stay in Slovakia.

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Francisco, as he usually does on his travels, asked and looked for the disadvantaged. And this time he found them in the Lunik IX neighborhood, in the second most populous city and in the east of a country where 400,000 Roma people live (8% of the population). The place, a sort of settlement where 4,500 people are crowded together (double what was originally conceived), has become one of the largest gypsy ghettos in Europe. They welcomed him on the balconies, with flags and music. And rooftop police snipers.

The neighborhood is also a focus of conflict. Many of the homes do not even have heating in an area that can reach minus 15 degrees in winter. Some supplies run for only a few hours a day at prepaid rates. It was long before the country forgot about them and tried to build a three-meter wall, of which there are still some remains, to isolate them from the rest of the citizens. That is why many here have not understood that Francisco wanted to dedicate one of his days to visit them. For a few hours, the neighborhood went wild with joy when they saw that 84-year-old man dressed in white get out of the car who told them they were starters on his team. And that they did not let anyone tell them that they were less. The Pope, sometimes uncomfortable at palace receptions, smiled more than at any other stop on the trip.

Lunik IX was built in 1981 on the outskirts of the city. All of them left here except the gypsies and the Salesian brothers, who are trying to guarantee public education and who this Tuesday received the Pontiff. The stigma has not helped to overcome and has strongly persecuted this community in Slovakia, one of the European Union countries with the highest rates of racism towards Roma. According to a 2008 survey, 47% of Slovaks said they would not like to have Roma as neighbors. And the Pope addressed the issue from the beginning. “Dear brothers and sisters, too many times you have been subjected to prejudice and ruthless judgment, discriminatory stereotypes, defamatory words and gestures. In this way we have all become poorer, poor in humanity. What we need is to regain dignity and move from prejudice to dialogue, from closure to integration ”.

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Luník IX is isolated from the rest of the country. The wall was tried first. Then with the lack of supplies and, finally, leaving a single public transport connection between the neighborhood and the city of Kosice: line 11, in which drivers demand a risk bonus arguing the incidents suffered in the past. 80% of its inhabitants are unemployed and conflicts are part of the routine. “I invite all of you to go beyond your fears, beyond the wounds of the past, with confidence, one step after another: in honest work, in the dignity of earning your daily bread,” the Pope told them. They have not made it easy for them. In 1995, the official housing policy of the City Council included transferring to the neighborhood “delinquent, homeless and misfit citizens”. In case they had few problems. On Tuesday, leaning out on the chipped balconies, they forgot about some of them for a while.

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