United World Project


Palermo: “going beyond borders”

14 April 2020   |   , Coronavirus,

Everything is closed. Doors and shutters firmly sealed by the pandemic. What about the city’s Rom families?

The Corona virus pandemic is forcing us to look at so many things differently, as people die alone while grieving families are locked-down at home, unable to be close to their loved ones in their final hours. This may be one of the harshest effects generated by the virus. Then there are other, perhaps more subtle, effects in the daily struggle to cope with the economic and social consequences which hit hardest at those already marginalized in our societies.

Carla Mazzola is a teacher and Educational Psychologist. She is currently the Rom community’s contact person for school attendance monitoring by the Sicilian Regional Education Office. She lives in Palermo, one of the Italian cities where social unrest is growing every day. At the same time there are many examples of good practice, of inclusiveness and care, which help keep the social fabric from shredding, particularly at the edges where marginalization is at its most damaging. Carla is accompanying some Rom families whose lives during the Corona outbreak have taken a dramatic turn.

Carla, please explain where you’re working at the moment

«I must admit it’s a very difficult environment. Most of the families I’m working with come from Kosovo. They escaped from the war twenty years ago. So actually they’re no longer used to a nomadic existence. Once they arrived in Palermo, they settled and stopped travelling».

How have they integrated?

«These are people who can’t go back to their homeland, for many reasons. In the late 1990s Palermo Council allocated a section of the city park, Parco della Favorita, for a Rom camp, which closed in 2019. We teachers knew from the start that true integration really starts from the schools. So we got involved with the families, encouraging them to send their children to school. At that time there was no integration at all with Palermo families. There was a lot of fear and prejudice among local residents, real division. Thanks to the creation of a network of schools, together with our efforts to accompany the families with all their problems, many children and young people have been able to study and achieve good results.

Obviously, I couldn’t get a child into school and remain ignorant of their living conditions. For example, the camp contained large quantities of asbestos and other dangers. Families were living in shacks with no official electrical supply. I remember the so-called “Christmas tree”, a single lamppost to which everyone attached their own cables in order to get some electricity into their homes. Just to say how, even today, there can be no real right to education without the right to health, to life, to an improvement of daily life in these circumstances. We had to work on educational integration which also included the resident families in Palermo, so they could get to know each other. Over the years, this involved volunteer teachers who did an exceptional job providing after-school programs in the camp».

With the pandemic, what has changed for these families?

«So, last year the camp was dismantled and the families dispersed to different parts of the city, no longer living in a Rom ghetto. One of the motives was to place the “person” before his or her ethnicity. But the parents continue to live off their wits, often as unlicensed street vendors. This is largely due to the fact that they haven’t been able to obtain residency permits which would allow them to take on different kinds of employment, with more security and dignity. These people become the least of the least, invisible to the rest of society».

How are they living through this current situation?

«With a lot of fear and anguish. Too often, they’re not able to get food to eat. They’re too afraid to go outside because they don’t have the right documents.  They don’t have bank accounts. They live day by day, mainly through casual jobs. This precarious situation opens them up to the serious risk of slipping into criminality, as the only way to provide food».

You got involved …

«I couldn’t sleep at night thinking about all this. Then it struck me: it’s true we can’t leave our homes, but there are associations like Caritas who are still able to act in these situations. They’ll be able to supply what’s needed if we make a bank transfer to Caritas in aid of the Rom families, providing names and addresses and outlining the difficulties they are facing. We got things moving with Caritas, in partnership with the Legal Rights department of Palermo Council, and by 19 March the first support reached these families, thanks to the generosity of many local donors».

But do all the families have the same needs?

«A map has been drawn up showing where all the families are now living, with details of the number and ages of family members. By telephone we volunteers act as “navigators” for the Caritas team, explaining the different situations and needs. They’ve delivered basic essentials to all, and then have tried to meet the specific needs of each family, so that they feel they are being listened to and loved in a special way. While this distribution is continuing, we’re now actively trying to register these families with the Council, so they can be eligible for the bonus promised by central government, when that scheme becomes operational».

But the children are no longer going to school …

«This is one of the biggest problems. Because education, going to school, brings with it integration and new opportunities. For many of them it’s the only way of salvation, of a better future emerging from the hard times they’ve been through. We must never forget what a famous footballer of Rom origin has said: you can take the child out of the ghetto but you can never take the ghetto out of the child’s heart. We know legality, learned from an early age, is the only sure way of obtaining a job and a home. So we’ve partnered with the “In Medias Res” association to provide tablet computers for these children, so we can continue to accompany them from home and help them keep on making progress».

As well as material help, how valuable is a personal relationship with the families?

«Relationship is all. We’re constantly in touch with the children and their families. It’s important for them to feel someone is thinking about them and to know that someone is on their side. Since the camp was closed down, I’m definitely happier to think of them settled in stable housing. But it’s our ongoing relationship that brings real change».

What is fraternity for you?

«For me, fraternity means going beyond our own borders, being ready to take a step outside to discover how every person shares in my own humanity. It means to draw out the dreams of those who are suffering and give them a chance to fly. You need perseverance for this, and constancy in every relationship. A relationship can’t be just one-way, it has to be reciprocal. The Rom families have a lot to give. Every time I’m with them, I’m enormously enriched, by their faith, by their capacity to put their problems in perspective, and by their smiles and welcome. For me, this is fraternity, even in the time of Corona Virus».