This is one for people who like activism, occupied spaces, historical architecture and solidarity.
The city of Bologna has three nicknames; La Dotta (the learned one - so-called for its famous university; La Grassa (the fat one - its cuisine is widely considered the best in Italy), and La Rossa (the red one - a reference its left-wing politics and also the red colour of the buildings in the city). Bologna is also famous for its intellectuals - Umberto Eco was a professor emeritus at the university - and for its left-wing and working class roots. With all this in mind, it came as no surprise to us to discover one of the best run solidarity led occupied sites we have encountered in all our time in this crisis.
We had heard on the Italian grapevine that a protest had been planned in the city centre against the revocation of “emergency accomodation” for refugees and migrants. Basically, the municipality of Bologna had decided to close down the shelters opened during winter time to house people and kick them out onto the streets.
At the demonstration we meet a group of young men from central Africa. One, Musa (not his real name) was seventeen years old from Gambia. He had been in Italy for three months now, sleeping on the streets of Bologna and in the train station. He told me how his main reason for coming to Europe was to go to university; a dream he has almost given up on now since he cannot even find a safe place to sleep, never mind a job or a place in a school. He wants to learn Italian as he feels that learning the language of a country is the best way to integrate, but he is frustrated by the lack of official support to do so.
The story of Musa’s journey to Europe is harrowing. He left Gambia with his brother due to political upheaval and their inability to attend university at home. Musa spoke of the horrendous mistreatment of those traveling north through Africa. He said no man can make the journey without being beaten and no woman can make the journey without being raped. Musa himself was twice detained against his will by people smugglers, who treated him appallingly. He was lucky as he managed to escape. Many were not so fortunate. Their father was against them leaving as he thought it was too dangerous, a worry that was vindicated when Musa’s brother drowned during the crossing. Musa’s family call him every day to see how he is. They ask if he has enrolled in a school, got a job or found a home to stay in. He says he rarely answers these days as he cannot bring himself to tell his mother he is sleeping on the street.
So, alone and underage with no official papers or legal protection Musa is losing hope. He says he is not the same person he was when he left home; sometimes he simply collapses in the street and often cries. He has seen many who make the journey lose their mind and knows of several suicides amongst the refugee community here.
Downbeat after hearing this very tragic story, we spoke to one of the organisers of the protest, which several groups organised. They were members of a group called Accoglienza Degna, an association doing crucial humanitarian for migrants and refugees in Bologna. Accoglienza Degna roughly translates as “reception with dignity”, a knowing play on the word “reception” as so many of Italy’s migrant and reception centres are not fit for purpose. They told us they were based in the Làbas project which is situated on the edge of the old city of Bologna and consists of a huge collection of disused buildings in the west of the city which have been occupied. They offered to show us around later that evening.
We met our very friendly guides who explained the story of ex-Caserma Masini, the structure which Làbas occupies. The history of the building is as interesting as the projects that now take place there; anti-fascist patriots fighting against Mussolini were imprisoned here, one escaped but several did not and were killed within the walls. In more recent years it was a training facility for the police and military. In the cellar we came across several discarded military uniforms which we realised we had seen before in donations to refugees in Greece. For the last 20 years, the huge complex has been completely abandoned until activists occupied it four years ago. The building comprises of a veritable maze of colourfully graffitied basements, halls, stairwells, porticos, bathrooms, dormitories and offices spread out across assorted sized buildings surrounding a large courtyard.
The space is huge and although much of it still lies empty, there is still so much activity going on within the compound. Currently there are five houses worth of people living and working here on an amazing array of projects – a pizzeria, the Schiumarell Brewery, a carpentry workshop, a bicycle repair workshop, the ‘Place la Bimbi’ - a children’s play area and a community garden. We were lucky enough to turn up on a Wednesday when the space is opened to the general public for a local market with farmers selling food and drink, bookstalls, art and crafts, a bar, and a wide variety of fantastic live music. The money from selling drinks at the bar goes to fund Labas’ activities in the building. The event was well attended by Bologna’s young student population and many refugees and migrants in the city - we would definitely recommend a visit if you’re in the city during the week.
But the main project we were there to see was Accoglienza Degna. AD runs a free dormitory which currently houses 14 migrants/refugees, 13 of them men and one woman. They focus on smaller numbers so they can maintain the living standards that they do. Though with more volunteers, who knows how many people could be housed - there is certainly space within Làbas. The dormitory is open from 6 pm to 10 am as due to the building’s occupied nature, it is not normally open all day long unless there are enough volunteers to man the main gate at all times. Residents cook and clean together and as well as living quarters, AD’s section of Làbas also includes a well stocked library in many different languages, which is also used for conference space.
One of the problems with the way Italy structures its asylum centres is that people whose papers have expired - often through no fault of their own - are not allowed to stay in ‘official camps/spaces”. AD does not discriminate like this and as well as taking care of its 14 residents, it also offers a variety of other services. There are regular Italian classes which are offered two days a week at beginner, intermediate and advanced levels for both men and women and also a thrift shop where clothes, after being offered to the residents and others in need, are sold to the public at knockdown prices to help fund the project. Many of the clothes in AD’s storage were donated to victims of the earthquake in Italy last year. But perhaps most importantly, AD run a ‘Migrants’ Desk’ which is open to give help and advice about getting official documentation, health issues, job searches and more generally to help migrants with any practical issues whether they wish to move on from Bologna or begin a new life in the city.
But the future of Labas and AD is under threat. Last year, the local government who previously owned the building, sold it onto a cassa depositi e prestiti, an organisation which buys buildings and sells them onto private corporations. No one knows how long they could all be there; it could be one year, it could be ten years. This impacts on the way the building can be used. Members of AD and Labas would like to open the building for more days than just Wednesday, but it’s hard if they don’t have enough boots on the ground to ensure the security of the front gate and more importantly, enough volunteers to make sure the services offered run at a high standard. There are many rooms in good condition which could potentially be cleaned up, repaired and used to house more refugees and migrants or open up more projects for Italians and migrants alike, but uncertainty quells ambition.
One thing that is certain is the fantastic work that AD are doing to provide dignity to refugees and migrants in Bologna. The wider Làbas project is fascinating and one of the most well run ‘occupied’ buildings in all of Europe. Donations here are very well spent, which is why we gave them one. You can do to by using the following bank account to help them carry on doing what they do so well:
C/C Ya Basta Bologna, reference "Accoglienza Degna"
Banca Popolare Etica
IBAN: IT75 Z050 1802 4000 0000 0109 427
They may be in a position to take on volunteers in very near future - please contact their Facebook page for more information.
This is a fantastic project which deserves to survive and thrive - as well as supporting humanitarianism and refugee and migrant welfare, it’s also a fascinating showcase for collective entrepreneurship and social cohesion. We need more of it in the world.
If you want to donate to our trip, please do so by my PayPal email@example.com and/or our crowdfunder