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Story Publication logo March 2, 2016

Occupy Turin: Refugees Find a Home in Italy's Abandoned Olympic Village


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Control over its territory has always been considered the fundamental characteristic of the state...

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Turin's Occupied Olympic Village
Abandoned athletes’ accommodation now occupied by migrants. Image by Claire Provost. Italy, 2016.

Ten years ago the sprawling Olympic Village in Turin housed figure skaters, hockey players and other athletes from dozens of countries during the 2006 Olympic Winter Games. Built specifically for the event, the village includes a series of large, modern concrete buildings painted blue, orange and grey, lined up alongside the train tracks on the border with Lingotto–a former industrial area in the southern part of the city.

Today, it is the site of one of the largest housing occupations Turin has ever seen. Once again it is home to dozens of nationalities, but now the village's residents include more than 1,000 refugees and migrants from Libya to Somalia who are squatting four of its buildings. On the side of one orange seven-storey block of flats, the words "humanity is not for sale" are painted on the wall in turquoise, along with the declaration, in black capital letters, that "there won't be a country that is distant as long as there is a friend nearby".

"It's a bit of a famous place," Adamo says, standing outside the occupation. Originally from Mali, the 25-year-old says he doesn't have a fixed place to stay and moves across the country on his bicycle, working on farms from Puglia to Piedmont, picking apples, pears and kiwis. He arrived at the occupation two days ago, and is staying temporarily with a friend who lives here while he looks for his next job.

"If I didn't have this right now I would be sleeping on the street, or at the train station," says Adamo. Migrants and refugees are living in abandoned farmhouses in the countryside and in other empty buildings in cities across Italy, according to Adamo, but this occupation in Turin is the largest he has ever seen.

The "Ex Moi" occupation–named after the former wholesale fruit market that was once the area's main landmark–began in March 2013 when approximately 100 refugees moved into one of the buildings in the Olympic athletes' village. Within weeks, the occupation had grown to four buildings with more than 500 people.

Today it is home to 1,100 people from 30 different African countries, according to Nicoló Vasile, 29, an Italian activist involved in the Comitato Solidarietá Rifugiati e Migranti, a group supporting the occupation. He says it has "become a symbol for the protests of migrants and refugees in the city".

The majority of those living in the occupied Olympic Village were migrant workers from other African countries, working in Libya when the civil war broke out, says Vasile. After arriving at the tiny Sicilian island of Lampedusa, thousands of people were routed through a network of temporary "centri di accoglienza" reception centres across the country. In 2013, when the Italian government's Emergency North Africa programme abruptly ended, many living in these centres suddenly found themselves on the streets.

"There were hundreds and hundreds of people on the street [in Turin] and so the primary need was to be able to give a home to these people – which is their right," says Vasile. But the goal of occupying the Olympic Village, he says, was also to "make the local government understand that these people were not alone, that they were not abandoned, that they were united, that they have rights, and that they are retaking those rights, retaking them with the occupation".

Olympic Turin

The largest city in Italy's northwestern Piedmont province, Turin's reputation as the post-war manufacturing centre of the country once earned it nicknames like "Italy's Detroit" and "the car capital of Italy". But economic decline since the 1980s, and the closure of many Fiat factories in the city, left it with widespread unemployment and whole areas of abandoned factories, warehouses, and other industrial infrastructure.

Hosting the Winter Olympics in 2006 was supposed to help rebrand Turin as a forward looking, post-industrial city, open to tourists, culture and competition. Sergio Scamuzzi, professor of sociology at the University of Turin, says the Games "produced a new international image of the city", and after the events "people all over the world ... knew that the city was on the map first, and second that it was not 'the city of Fiat'".

The Olympics "gave an opportunity to the inhabitants to be proud of the city, of its capacity for innovation, its capacity to organise such a big event", Scamuzzi adds, who was part of the Olympics and Mega Events Research Observatory, a group of academics established to monitor the Games.

Ahead of the Games, much of Turin became an enormous construction site – stadiums were restructured, museums and historical buildings were renovated, and work began on the city's first metro line.

In southern Turin, a sprawling Olympic Village was built for the Games along Via Giordano Bruno. Along with new housing blocks for athletes and the media, the enormous Mercati Ortofrutticoli all'Ingrosso (Moi) marketplace was redeveloped as a complex for exhibitions, information points, stalls and retail shops.

During the events the area was full of people "but as soon as the Games ended, it was almost abandoned", says Fabrizio Bianco, 32, who owns a coffee shop across the street from the village. "This is a typical problem when there are Olympic Games," he adds. "You build a lot and then what happens after? 'We'll see.' It's not fair, and it's not good."

Ten years on, some of the Olympic structures in the city, including the stadiums, are still in use, hosting football games, music concerts, and travelling events like Cirque du Soleil. Outside Turin, athletes' villages in the mountains have been converted into ski resorts. But other constructions were left unused.

Today the old marketplace lies empty–a vast area of concrete arches and floor-to-ceiling windows, the glass dirty and covered with graffiti. Placards and signs directing athletes and guests to information desks remain in place, emblazoned with the official motto for the Turin Games: "Passion lives here". Bleached by the sun, the words are faded but still visible 10 years on.

At an event earlier this month in the Centro Congressi Unione Industriali di Torino–a conference centre for the city's industrialists – Sergio Chiamparino, mayor of Turin at the time of the Olympics, acknowledged that there had been "problems" with unused structures after the Games. He didn't mention the 1,100 people living in the athletes' village buildings, but blamed the financial crisis for the fact that they had been left empty.

"We made a mistake, yes, in the sense that we had predicted … [that] part of those buildings would have been put on the market, to sell, to recover part of the money we needed to pay our debts. Then there was 2008, which interrupted this," he said.

Inside the occupation

The occupied buildings are in bad condition and need "perpetual maintenance", according to Vasile, who is also a mechanical engineer. He describes them as permanent, concrete structures with temporary insides and flimsy, plasterboard interior walls. "These weren't built to last forever; they were built for two weeks," he says, citing problems with mould, plumbing, and electricity.

Inside, almost all available space is occupied by mattresses. One of the overcrowded buildings, built to accommodate fewer than 100 athletes during the Games, is now home to as many as 500 people. But the Ex Moi occupation is far more than just a place to sleep.

Some areas have been protected as common space, like small offices to work on CVs and job applications. There is a coordinated legal advice drop-in centre and a storage area for donated clothes. Along with two pop-up barber shops, there is a Senegalese restaurant and several small stores.

Once a week, a volunteer doctor visits. In one of the buildings, a room has been reserved for Italian and English language classes. On a Monday evening, a dozen people are sitting in rows in front of blackboards. The lyrics to The Cure's Friday I'm in Love are written in white chalk on one of the boards, with the group practising how to say the days of the week in English.

For Teresa, 57, also an activist with the Comitato Solidarietá, the Ex Moi occupation "shows how something could be used instead of being abandoned, with people who should be helped instead of being abandoned. It is really a meeting of these two things."

"This is really the example of what you could do if one really wanted it. With all the money they have used for the reception [of refugees], here you could have done so much," she says, "instead of leaving them abandoned with a lot of problems … without any prospect [for the future]."

Elarco, 30, was living on the streets before he arrived at the Ex Moi occupation in 2014. Born in Tripoli, he had stayed in Libya working at a cafe after the war broke out and his family went to stay with relatives in Senegal. "I stayed to make money and send it back to my family. But then problems increased, everyone had guns in the street … there was no work anymore, no money anymore," he says, describing what pushed him to make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean.

Though he no longer lives at Ex Moi, he continues to support the occupation. Also a musician, Elarco is part of Re-Fugees: Southern Turin Crew, a group born out of friendships made at Ex Moi. "Our group, for me, is like unity," he says, "because we didn't know each other before. If you don't do things with people, you can't know who they are."

Something similar could be said of the occupation itself – which is something of an experiment in self-governance, albeit under extremely challenging conditions, and supported by a group of committed activists who talk in terms of solidarity, not charity.

Among other things, the activists supporting the occupation help with language classes and repairs to the buildings, and accompany occupants to meetings with local officials. Once a week there is general assembly, where residents can discuss problems, seek mediation for disputes between individuals, and take decisions collectively on how to manage the buildings they live in.

For Vasile, the occupation shows both the failures of the state's temporary reception system for refugees, and a bold alternative based on self-government, where people only move on once they are able to. "This place is simply the emblem of that which doesn't function," he says. "For this it was occupied, on top of giving a home and a possibility to the people living here. There are many of these people who, thanks to the occupation, have managed to build themselves a life."

The future of Ex Moi

The Ex Moi occupation has become famous in Italy's migrant and refugee communities, with news of the occupied Olympic Village spreading by word of mouth. New people continue to arrive, though the buildings are far beyond capacity.

Life in the occupation is not easy, says Malick, 35, perched on the edge of a desk in the small office used as a drop-in legal advice clinic. "The toilets break, the buildings have many problems," he says, adding there is overcrowding and that "without work it's difficult, some people are depressed. What we need is jobs."

Unemployment remains high in Turin as across Italy, and regular work is hard to come by. Most of the occupants at Ex Moi are men, but there are some women and approximately 40 children too. Many survive by working as seasonal labourers on fruit and vegetable farms in different parts of the country.

On top of these challenges, in January 2015 local courts in Turin issued an order for the seizure of the occupied Olympic Village buildings and the eviction of the refugees and migrants living there. In June, new plans were announced to redevelop the abandoned marketplace into a research and technology centre for the city's universities.

Originally from Senegal, Malick has been living in the Ex Moi occupation for two years. "I don't know what they're thinking," he says of the eviction order, which is still pending more than a year after it was issued. "For now it's just words, no one knows what will happen."

Looking at the size of the occupation, and the significance of this place to so many who live here, it would seem almost impossible to evict. Then there is the obvious question of where the 1,100 refugees and migrants who live here are supposed to go. "Without this place, lots of people would suffer," says Malick. "It's a difficult situation, but we share everything."


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