Sunday, June 26, 2011





Gianfranco Bongiovanni from the Occhio del Riciclone organisation which provides social integration for the Roma community through recycling initiatives.

Against a backdrop of discrimination and forced re-housing, the Roma community plays an important role in recycling in Rome Rudi Salkanovic is one of Rome’s estimated 8,000 Roma. Born in Montenegro, he has been living in Italy for 30 years. He speaks and writes Italian well and has worked as a social mediator help­ing his community to integrate and access social services such as schools and healthcare. But like many Roma throughout Italy Salkanovic has been forcibly moved out of his home several times – last year he was made to leave Rome’s biggest camp for Roma, Casilino 900.

He says: “After living there for many years, I was kicked out. This made me sad because, apart from losing my house – a spacious cabin we built ourselves where my whole family could live well – we also lost the small authorised market where we could sell second-hand goods.”

So in just a few hours, Salkanovic lost not only his family home, but also his livelihood. This is part of the city’s plan to address the issue of illegal camp sites for nomadic ethnic minorities (called the piano nomadi – even though many Roma and Sinti are no longer nomadic).

Salkanovic now lives in one of the city’s seven centres that house 1,200 Roma. But conditions, he says, are not ideal: “I live there with my wife and seven children in a camper van, which has electricity, water and a shower. We can cook there but it is really too small for us, and the children have to sleep in a heap.”

Criticisms of the city’s re-housing plan focus on the policy of housing some families in separate locations. Being separated is unacceptable to many families and simply pushes them to leave sites earmarked for destruction and rebuild their homes on other unauthorised sites.

The issue of housing for the Roma was in the news in February when four children were killed in a fire in an illegal Roma camp in Rome’s southern suburb of Tor Fiscale. This highlighted the need for safe and se­cure housing for the Roma, while emphasising the need for a solution appropriate for numerous extended families. The forced evacuations from camp sites made the headlines again when more than 150 Roma took shelter in the basilica of St Paul’s Outside the Walls for three days over Easter. Rome’s local government has now stopped its forced evacuations, but the issue of providing appropriate housing and social services for the Roma remains.

A 2006 report by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) was damning of the lack of progress made in Italy towards improving the lot of the Roma and Sinti. It said: “The use of racist and xenophobic discourse in politics [in Italy] has intensified and targets in particular non-EU citizens, Roma, Sinti and Muslims.”

Between 120,000 and 150,000 Roma and Sinti live in Italy; about 60 per cent of these are Italian citizens while the remaining 40 per cent retain their original citizenship from the Balkans or Romania. However, they are among the most deprived communities in Europe, according to ECRI.

One organisation that has been working with Roma and Sinti since 2003 is Occhio del Riciclone, a non-profit initiative to improve social integration for marginalised groups while addressing one of the country’s urgent issues: that of household waste.

Gianfranco Bongiovanni from Occhio del Riciclone says: “At the moment, many objects end up in landfill and 60-70 per cent of these can be used again. We aim to bring discarded objects back into commercial circulation. Items such as furniture, clothes, shoes, toys, kitchenware, electrical and automotive parts can be cleaned, repaired and recycled.”

This philosophy ties in well with the way of life of the Roma, who also have a strong culture of mending, recycling and re-using. Bongiovanni explains that, since Rome’s local authorities shut down the second-hand flea markets, the Roma have had nowhere legitimate to sell the goods that they retrieve.

If they set up unauthorised markets, they are forced to move by city police.

The practice of taking discarded objects from communal (not recycling) waste bins is illegal, as well as being a risky activity exposing people to serious health hazards through toxic waste, excrement and broken glass or needles. However the Roma are obliged to do this work, partly because of the lack of other opportunities.

Occhio del Riciclone estimates that, with 45,000 green (general mixed-waste) bins in Rome and an average of two re-usable objects thrown into each bin every day, there are potentially 33 million re-usable objects a year going into landfill. A solution it proposes is that Rome’s recycling centres, the so-called isole ecologiche, could sell objects to the Roma for a small fee. “At the moment there are no recycling islands that officially re-sell objects. This could be a way of formalising the presence of the Roma in Rome while at the same time avoiding the risks they face when sorting through rubbish,” says Bongiovanni.

More than 2,200 Roma work on recycling in Rome. Salkanovic has been working as a collector of abandoned objects ever since he was a child. While his main job as a cultural mediator with Opera Nomadi has dried up, he continues to collect iron and sells it at flea markets. It is a job that Salkanovic claims can earn from €1,500 to €2,000 a month if the whole family is working on it.

He explains: “I’m satisfied with my work because it feeds my family and we’re also doing good by reusing things that would otherwise be thrown away.” But overall, his view of the community’s current situation is bleak: “Unfortunately for the Roma here in Rome, as in the rest of Italy, it’s getting harder. There is a lot of racism and they don’t give us opportunities to work or get proper housing. They talk a lot, but if they close the flea markets and don’t allow us to work, how are we meant to feed our children?”

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