PALERMO: A PLACE FOR EVERYONE
At some point in my life, I realized that I have to go on differently. I’ve never been a fan of all-inclusive or a bus-tour aficionado, but this time I wanted something completely different – to stay in one place, to become a “local” at least for a while, to study language, to get to know people, to understand their ways of life. In short – to sense life from the inside.
It was that wish that led me to Thailand in 2013, where I stayed for half a year. Of course, half a year wasn’t enough to learn the language any better than to enable me to order food with no problems, but I guess I succeeded quite well in communicating with people. I first got interested in gender issues in high school, where I participated in several projects, and then Thailand gave me a lot of new thoughts to reflect upon. Apart from the well-known problems of sex-tourism and the sexual exploitation of young women, I also got interested in the phenomena of migration and expatriation, an open men-versus-women conflict among the so-called “expats”, and many others, which I faced for the first time in Asia.
When I came back from Thailand, I already knew that I wouldn’t stay long in Kyiv. I wanted to get back to travelling, but this time I was looking for some social projects, preferably associated with migration or gender issues. This is how I discovered EVS (European Voluntary Service). Unfortunately, it’s almost unknown in Ukraine and that’s why many young people cannot take advantage of the chance to live in different countries and discover different cultures, languages and traditions.
I was extremely lucky – not only I was invited to the very first project I had signed up for, but the project itself also dealt with migration issues. This is how I got to Palermo – the capital of Sicily – a place where numerous nations, cultures and languages coexist happily. Of course, I couldn’t know that here, in the poorest part of the country I would find my second home, a community to live in, and a job I would dedicate several years of my life.
My project involved work with young migrants. Most of my colleagues worked at the international kindergartens and so-called “welcome centers”, but at the interview stage of the sign-up procedure, I and two other girls were offered positions in the office. Surprising it may be, but this was the job, that helped me realize what exactly all these centers do and the way they manage to cooperate, and what is even more important – how the city handles these constant population tides.
Sicily has always been and is still considered to be the Gates to Europe. This was exactly the place where the majority of the migrants would come and stay, after having followed the most dangerous migration route in the world – from Libya to the Italian island of Lampedusa – and finally, find shelter. Now adding to that the island’s long history, and the fact that it had been subject to colonization throughout centuries and had constantly been changing hands, you would get the general idea of how eclectic in its nature Sicily is today. Greek amphitheatres juxtapose Norman palaces, Byzantine frescoes and the remains of Phoenician temples, and couscous has long been a traditional dish and a matter of dispute between the contenders for the title of the “capital of couscous” – Messina and Trapani.
Central districts of Palermo are, too, home to many different cultures, traditions and festivals. Of course, intolerance and racism exist here still, and some of the programs just don’t work due to corruption, poor planning or other reasons. But many new initiatives are being supported today, and the way this city, so unlike any other, has learnt to live and cope with all its diversity, can serve as a good example for others.
Since I have come to Palermo for the first time as a volunteer, I always live, work or study in the neighborhood called Ballarò. It is a historical centre of the city, where the world-famous Ballarò market is located, as well as many historic sites and restaurants popular with tourists. But at the same time, Ballarò is one of the poorest neighborhoods of the city, it’s rather dirty and desolate. That’s why many social organizations, initiatives and migrant centers are being set right here.
Santa Chiara religious complex is one of such places. People come here not only to pray – it is a social heart of the whole neighborhood. Santa Chiara hosts a kindergarten for migrant children, several playgrounds, free legal aid box and “After-school” group where students are involved from the first to the last grade – first, to work on their home tasks, and later – to assist younger students. In Santa Chiara’s courtyard, numerous African communities can hold their traditional celebrations, and social organizations can arrange charity nights and creative projects which I tell more about below. And which is more important, once a week Santa Chiara provides its second floor to the Muslims from Senegal. Director of Santa Chiara, Fr. Enzo Volpe, explains, “There’s no mosque for them at the moment, but they still need a place to pray”. Protestants and Hindus come to the complex for the same reason, and they are always welcome. Representatives of the Palermo Pride and many LGBTQI organizations are also invited and participate in the general meetings on the neighborhood’s development, and all of them cooperate successfully.
It’s my second time that I come back to Palermo after my period of volunteer services: I worked as a couch when I came for the first time, and now I’m a Human Rights Ed. D. But my volunteering never ends: this time I became a part of the BaddarHome project almost right from the start (“Baddarò” is Sicilian name for Ballarò). This project’s background is quite simple: two of my friends who live and work near Ballarò gathered a group of teenagers aged 14-18 (predominantly of the ones who come to Santa Chiara after school) and asked them what they wanted this part of the town to look like. Soon, young volunteers from the Gambia and Senegal who also care about the neighborhood joined us, and volunteers from China, India and Nepal whose project deals with urban agriculture and ecology, as well as both local and foreign students. Together we have chosen our first object to make it into teenager’s favorite venue – a deserted football pitch, close to my dormitory.
In recent years, this pitch has been popular mostly with local kids from poor families aged 6-12, and has been turning into a flea market once a week for a whole day. That’s why putting our idea into practice wasn’t quite easy, but we didn’t give up: we had made a few attempts to plant some flowers there, but didn’t succeed much (the flowers didn’t last more than a week), had painted the benches and drawn a big sun in the centre of the pitch and launched several one-day football competitions. And soon it bore fruit.
Students from the nearby dormitory were the first who started coming to the pitch. Later an owner of a local café bought a goal net and helped to put the markings. Several newspapers have written about us and interviewed children, and now youths are gathering at the pitch, once so neglected, at least once a week and hold their own championships. And once again, this has made me believe, that if you really want something, you’ll find the way. Also, for both Santa Chiara teens and local children who played on the pitch, this was their very first productive collaboration with so many foreigners. Being involved in such collaboration gave them notion that we are all the same, and thus they started asking us about our countries, university, and languages. Now BaddarHome project has gone on hiatus, getting back to work in September-October. Who knows which project our kids will select next?
In addition, every two weeks Santa Chiara hosts events by Arte Migrante initiative, like cultural exchange nights. Arte Migrante initiative was launched in 2012 by Tommaso Carturan, a student anthropologist of the Universityof Bologna, and his friends. Since then it has been adopted across Italy and even beyond. The idea is this simple – on a pre-scheduled day, all those interested can get together and take part in what’s known as a house concert”. Anyone interested can come to that concert and participate: sing, dance, play musical instruments, read poetry or tell stories. Teenagers from BaddarHome often give theatrical performances, usually, parodies of the popular TV shows. Usually, they are very serious about what they’re doing and one rather don’t disturb them at least 5 hours before the show, because the only thing they could answer would be: “NO, not now! Don’t you see, we are rehearsing here!”
Every last Sunday of the month in the very heart of Ballarò, in the Piazza Mediterraneo, a group of activists of “SOS Ballarò”, who regularly gather at Santa Chiara, hold an Anima Ballarò Festival (“The Soul of Ballarò”), where musicians sort of “conquer” the Ballarò market: they walk through the market stalls, performing mini-concerts. When this happens, customers usually get excited, they dance and want to take pictures with musicians, and grim sellers, who rarely show any emotion, can soften and even treat them with a peach or an orange. Subsequently, everybody returns to the Piazza Mediterraneo to do a “social dinner” – everyone brings something to eat and simply puts it to the common table, be it spaghetti in a pot, a cake or just some olive bread. Someone can start grilling sausages; others pour home wine, members of different bands jam, and people from all over the neighborhood gather to spend this evening together. The idea of a block party isn’t new, but it’s the first time I see such an outcome – 9 festivals in a row were held in Palermo this June, and every time the numbers of people who came to join were just huge. I’d love a tradition like this to be adopted in Ukraine too, because getting to know your neighbors better and spending a whole day together can be such a pleasure.
Palermo Pride is an annual event that takes place in mid-June. It may be hard to believe, but Palermo Pride feels almost like a family holiday: people bring their children and elderly, their pets, everyone dances and parties throughout the day. A colorful crowd turns the city centre into a true celebration of unity and support. I still vividly remember this feeling of liberation and joy of my first Pride two years ago, but at the same time – I felt so sorry for Ukraine because we still had such a long way to go to achieve any of the real human rights support. But I’m feeling much better this year – this year’s March of Equality that has been successfully held in Kyiv, gives me hope for Ukraine’s peaceful future.
It’s no surprise that this year’s Palermo Pride was dedicated to victims of Orlando shooting, and was held under the motto: “We will survive”. There was a moment of silence, and one of the activists sang a song in memory of victims of that dreadful night. Also, this year Palermo Pride, which is also a social organization, has launched a Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants program, which included a number of workshops and activities to support migrants and refugees in Palermo.
As I’ve already said, religious institutes, like Santa Chiara, for instance, is very tolerant and is willing to cooperate with Palermo Pride, as well as with any other LGBTQI organizations. In April Palermo witnessed something that outraged the whole community – Yusupha Suso, a young Gambian, was shot on his way back from a BaddarHome meeting, right in the middle of the street. The attacker was detained almost immediately, and Yusupha, fortunately, survived, though spent almost a week in the drug coma. The community was enraged – despite all its former glory, no shooting has been heard in the streets of Sicily in a very long time. On this occasion, Don Enzo held a public meeting in Santa Chiara where anyone interested was welcome; the representatives of the Palermo Pride also attended the event. It had been decided to hold a demonstration to support Yusupha on the following Saturday. It was raining on that day, but thousands of people went out to the streets: parents with their children under umbrellas, students, young migrants, volunteers, social sphere workers, the Palermo Pride representatives and religious institutions’ officials. We marched through the city under the colorful umbrellas, and no one feared to participate. This is how the whole community, including religious institutions and LGBTQI organizations, proved that violence and intolerance must be opposed.
All of the above – are just a few measures that are being taken and supported in Palermo. Unfortunately, they are still far from perfect – the city itself, as well as the whole region, are stranded, many districts show low education performance and the youth work is not thorough enough. But volunteers and activists don’t give up and keep working these issues. People who in the daytime work in the offices, photo studios, and restaurants or elsewhere, always get around at nights or on the weekends to help with the community – voluntary, just because there are so many people who need help. And not only Italians give their hand: people from all around the world are getting involved in the social work and social projects, and that is what unites our community more than anything else.
Photos: BaddarHome, Palermo Pride web pages