*The following is an edited transcript of an interview conducted for European Alternatives’ forthcoming documentary, Demos: Solidarity in Europe.
Tell us about the origins of Baobab experience. How long have you been operating? And what does the name mean?
Baobab experience: The Baobab experience started in Spring 2015 and it’s probably the biggest experience of civil society helping migrants in Italy. We’ve had over 70,000 people passing by our camp. It’s formed by all kinds of citizens, young and old, employees and unemployed, there’s every kind of citizen. We called it Baobab experience for two reasons: first we wanted to give it an international name – after the ubiquitous tree – because we have many volunteers and activists from all over Europe and all over the world. Secondly we wanted to label it an experience, because it is constantly changing, with new arrivals, new friends, new problems, new evictions. You never know what will happen tomorrow.
The camp seems to be extraordinarily well organized. Coming here I saw a poster that shows language classes, computer training, psychological aid, and food delivery. How does the camp operate in practice?
B.E.: We have different groups of volunteers specialised in different activities. We have a legal team, a medical team, people dealing with clothes distribution, to name just a few. We try to organise our activity the best way we can but you know we are all volunteers, we all have another life, other jobs to do elsewhere. The only reason we can manage a situation like this is that a huge number of people want to help us. Despite what you read in newspapers or on TV there is still solidarity in Rome, and there is still solidarity in Italy.
Beyond just hosting migrants that are passing by and are in need of protection there is also a social care that you provide to these migrants. But what is the relationship you have with them when they leave the camp? Is that the end of the story or do you keep in touch with them?
B.E.: I think this is probably the thing I like most about Baobab experience. We create real relationships. If you see my cell phone more than half of the contacts I have are Abdul, Amin, Ahmed. A few weeks ago I was walking in the La Chapelle neighbourhood of Paris and hundreds of people stopped to say ‘Hey I remember you, I passed by Rome, it was one of best stops in the whole journey’. We always have to remember that they come here from very difficult journeys. The Libya camps are something that shouldn’t exist in 2018. We’re talking about torture, sexual abuse, slavery, pain and death. Everybody who comes here has faced this, in the sea or the desert or in the camps.
What makes your experience different from the approach taken by official programmes?
B.E.: For both the Italian government and the European government, migration is governed by an old idea: numbers, statistics, the difference from one year to another. You know in some Northern regions of Italy they even tag people. What we try to do is to put their lives on top of the issues and try to understand every single case. If we don’t start investing in psychologists, for example, or in language and cultural mediators, in a few years we could probably have a situation with a generation of migrants with problems, because for years they weren’t accepted as human beings, first during the journey and then in Europe too.
Another thing that distinguishes Baobab from other organisations is that our courses are not only this. We are friends, we go out in the evening together, we show them around Rome, we have tour guides that offer their services for free, we have many associations that welcome immigrants without paying tickets. Every Saturday we play soccer and basketball, we do lots of things. These people have so many issues and troubles. We hear them sometimes in the night, how they scream or have nightmares because they have a difficult journey on their backs. This is also what a bit I think is the difference between just giving them food and a place to sleep and being a community, we try not to just abandon them alone with their memories.
It’s a telling coincidence that you are right next to a street named after the European federalist Alterio Spinelli. His legacy reminds us that solidarity is not just a personal thing but political. Do you see a political role for the type of work you are doing?
B.E.: I think that something is changing. I’m 50 years old and I’ve always been involved in politics in social issues, both national and international. The last twenty years in Italy and Europe has meant the death of politics. There hasn’t been a single battle that could put you in contact with people of other regions of Italy, that could put you in contact with citizens of other European countries. This is the first time that it has happened.
I come from a very ideological culture but I understood immediately that this fight is not ideological. You can have a 15 year old anarchist over here and an old lady who works with the church helping homeless over there. They will get along very well, and realise they have so many things in common that they didn’t know before. And then you might bring the old lady who worked with the church to a big demonstration against fascists and xenophobic parties, and the young anarchist to give food in a very Christian charity to way to some homeless in Rome’s suburbs. This is the first time I really feel I’m fighting as a European citizen. I go to Greece, I go to France, I go to Belgium, I go to Sweden, and the people I meet come here and do the same things. This is a new challenge for Europeans, and and opportunity for all those people who lost their path over the last twenty years, to change the situation.