Matteo de Bellis, Amnesty International Campaigner on Italy, has just returned from the country where he visited La Barbuta, a Roma-only camp near Rome.
The bus ride
I met Ricky, a friendly 10-year-old boy, on the school bus from Tor de’ Cenci to La Barbuta, on the outskirts of Rome, Italy. We got chatting on the 40-minute journey.
“Do you like staying in La Barbuta?” I asked at some point.
“No, it’s too far from everything. Tor de’ Cenci was much better, everything was close.”
Indeed, the school bus is a special service for kids living in La Barbuta, a piece of land stretched next to the runway of Ciampino airport and a railway, in the middle of nowhere.
La Barbuta is a new camp built exclusively for Roma, like Ricky and his family, who used to live in Tor de’ Cenci, another camp set up by the municipal authorities in the 1990s. Tor de’ Cenci had its problems, but there were schools, doctors, public transport and other services in the area, which brought a sense of belonging to a wider community. However, in 2008 the new mayor of Rome started saying that Roma should leave. As soon as La Barbuta was completed – its fences put in place, its CCTV cameras turned on – the mayor closed the camp in Tor de’ Cenci and offered relocation to La Barbuta as the only available option to families like Ricky’s. So they moved to the new camp, although most kids still go to their schools in Tor de’ Cenci, commuting every day.
Friends outside the camp
“Do you get along well with your classmates?”
“Yes, they’re my friends, we have great fun playing together. Before, we could spend the afternoon together. After school, we used to play in the park. But now, since we live in La Barbuta, we have to take this bus straight after school, go to the camp, and don’t move from there. I can’t spend time with my classmates any more. In the camp there is nothing to do, we get bored.”
“If you could choose, would you stay in the camp or move to housing in the city?” I asked.
Ricky’s eyes sparked with happiness “If they gave us a house, I would jump for joy”.
Contrary to the hard-to-remove prejudice that Roma are nomadic, most Roma would like to live in houses, if they could afford to or if the system allowed it. But the authorities recently stated that families living in camps – who all happen to be Roma – cannot qualify for the points given to those in housing needs, in the municipality’s complicated scoring system to select candidates for social housing.
Hiding where you come from
In La Barbuta I met Noris, a young man with the same dream of leaving.
“We need work, so we can raise the money to rent a place out of here. I know it’s nice that we can stay together, but it’s important we get out of the camp, scrape a living, become part of society”.
Noris is just 20, but knows what he’s talking about. He has been working as an agent for a big company for a couple of years, selling products door-to-door. His earnings vary each month, and he needs a stable income to rent a place. Working alongside non-Roma also has its challenges.
“It’s bad not being able to explain who you really are. People have prejudices. Some colleagues give me a lift after work. For a long time I asked them to drop me in the town, then I would walk the last two kilometres to La Barbuta, because I didn’t want my colleagues to know I lived in a camp. They would never know, as I wear a suit every day. In the end I told my bosses that I wanted to leave the job, as I was living in a camp and didn’t want to hide it any longer. They told me they didn’t care who I was, that I was a very good agent, and convinced me to stay. A colleague has even come for dinner here and changed his opinion on Roma. But we need to change all people’s opinions, not just one.”
Breaking down barriers
Prejudice allows the authorities to implement discriminatory policies. Forced evictions, segregation in camps and discrimination in access to social housing are commonplace and continue unabated. It is only a few months ago that Rome’s deputy mayor said that “Roma should forget about social housing”.
Against all odds, Ricky and Noris keep dreaming about a different future, and working to achieve it. Their success shouldn’t be just up to them, but up to all of us.
Join us in our call to the European Union to step in and end discrimination against the Roma.