An Italian Olympics legacy: A home for refugees

A decade after Turin hosted the Winter Games, more than 1,000 refugees are finding shelter in its Olympic Village.

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Turin's Olympic Village is finding a new lease of life as a shelter for refugees [Sean O'Neill/Al Jazeera]

On any given day of the week, you can find Kelvin Karim, from Ghana, cutting hair and trimming beards in front of a large mirror with a gold-painted rim in a makeshift barbershop in Turin, Italy.

A television plays a steady stream of hip-hop and R&B videos, while in another corner, a couple of guys fix and sell used shoes. In the neighbouring room, there are couches and a refrigerator from which a Nigerian woman sells cans of beer for a euro each in the evenings.

Further back, a larger room has recently been divided with sheets of plywood into three separate spaces, one of which is to become a computer lab. This serves as a shared community space and a restaurant of sorts, managed by a man in his early 30s from Senegal who preferred not to be named.

No one asked him to make food; he just started doing it, he explains. He finds it a decent way to pass the time and shows up every morning to mop the floor and cook. For a few euros, he will give you a generous helping of rice with a spicy, beefy, peanut sauce.

Nearby, there are two small grocery stores, and in the basement below, men collect discarded metal for resale.

This is the ground floor of one of several buildings in the former Olympic Village in Turin, Italy. For 17 days in 2006, the village hosted international athletes for the winter games. But once the games had finished, four of the buildings – each of five or six floors – sat abandoned for seven years.

That was until March 2013, when African refugees began to occupy them. Now, they are once again filled with life.

The legacy of the Turin Games

It has been a decade since Turin hosted the world (or rather the snowier parts of it) for the winter games. And while the memories of the festivities have receded, the bill left behind has not.

Turin is one of the most indebted cities in Italy, in part thanks to its hosting of the games. Five years after, in 2011, a comprehensive study comparing Italian cities found that it had the highest debt per capita, at just under 3,500 euros ($3,780) per person, as well as the most debt as a percentage of revenues, at just over 250 percent.

As of 2015, according to the city government, the total debt hovered at around 3bn euros. The Olympics are thought to account for about 300 million euros ($3.24m) of that, or about 10 percent – no small sum for an event that lasted just 17 days 10 years ago.

Turin was also left with various facilities, among them a bobsled track and the Olympic Village.

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The city used parts of the village for social housing, a student dormitory and a youth hostel. But, despite the fact that they were newly built, a large investment was required to render them livable.

The four in the worst condition remained vacant and were allowed to fall into ruin.

Fleeing war in Libya

When war broke out in Libya in 2011, migrant workers from further south in Africa were suddenly forced to give up what had been stable lives with decent-paying jobs and flee.

Many, like Sarda, 27, from Senegal, never had any intention of coming to Europe. He had been working in Libya for two years when the war started.

“We were put on a boat by smugglers,” he remembered. “I hoped we were going to Tunisia.”

“They cut my bag open and dumped my things. When I realised we were going to Europe, I knew I couldn’t take my things. I had good things; I was making good money in Libya. That was really hard.

“The boat ride was hard. In a small boat, the waves are like mountains. I arrived in Europe with my jacket, nothing else. Then it’s hard to go home. You can’t go home with nothing after all the work you did.”

The majority of those now living in the Olympic Village came via Libya, landing in Lampedusa, the small Italian island off the North African coast. They were among the first wave of what is now the greatest human migration since World War II, a phenomenon that has significantly altered parts of Europe.

For seven years, four of the buildings that had hosted athletes during the 2006 Winter Games had been left empty. Then, in 2013, refugees began to occupy them [Sean O'Neill/Al Jazeera]
For seven years, four of the buildings that had hosted athletes during the 2006 Winter Games had been left empty. Then, in 2013, refugees began to occupy them [Sean O’Neill/Al Jazeera]

Occupying the Olympic Village

In the 10 years since Turin held the Olympics, the number of foreigners in the city has tripled, reaching 15.4 percent of the population, according to government figures. Among them are 21,000 refugees.

Of these people, 1,500 were assigned to Turin in the initial wave from Libya and placed in temporary housing, including local hotels that received payment from the city government.

RELATED: The quiet tragedies of Africa’s escape routes

In January 2013, according to Nicolo Vasile, 29, a member of a committee of activists set up to support the Olympic Village residents, around 800 refugees were kicked out of their temporary accommodation. Money from the city had run out more quickly than expected. Some refugees report having signed forms renouncing their right to further accommodation, not understanding Italian and believing that they were, in fact, renewing their places.

In the cold of winter, these men, women and children found themselves on the streets. After a series of meetings between local activists and the homeless refugees, the decision was made to occupy the vacant Olympic Village buildings.

At first, around 250 people occupied two buildings. Soon they brought friends and acquaintances and occupied a third. In August 2013, a group of Somali refugees who had been evicted from another location joined them, occupying a fourth building. They now number some 1,100 in total. Most are young men, but there are around 80 women and 30 children among them.

There have been numerous evictions of refugees in both Turin and across Italy in recent months. On a December morning outside the village, Nicolo, an Italian volunteer working with the refugees, says: “Three houses with families were evicted last month in Turin.”

Still, he hopes those in the village have strength in numbers. “We’re a little better off for now only because we are so many people. But only because we’re so many people, and the city doesn’t know what else to do with [us].”

The maintenance man 

Nicolo spends 40 hours a week volunteering at the Village [Sean O'Neill/Al Jazeera]
Nicolo spends 40 hours a week volunteering at the Village [Sean O’Neill/Al Jazeera]

Nicolo is also a civil engineer. He volunteered his free time to help make the Olympic Village buildings livable. “I was sick of seeing people taking money and not helping,” he says.

But it is hard to say whether his work or his volunteering constitutes his real job at the moment. He spends at least 40 hours a week at the Olympic Village, fixing busted water pipes, melted outlets, rotting walls.

“Everything was done on the cheap building this place,” he says. “Poor quality materials, workers who didn’t know what they were doing.”

One evening, as he shows a resident from Gambia how to fix a busted pipe, he points out the rotting drywall in the bathroom.

“They put nothing waterproof in any of these bathrooms, just drywall,” he explains.

Next, he stops by an apartment where nine or 10 men are playing cards and trying to cook rice in an electric rice-cooker. But the wires in the socket they need have all melted together. He eventually realises that the new socket he has does not fit and he will have to come back the next day. “Sorry guys, no power in here tonight,” he says.

Given the amount of time he spends here, and the trust he has built with the residents, he has also been drafted into another role – that of conflict mediator.

“People get in arguments with each other, usually with roommates. It’s difficult when you live on top of each other and are all frustrated,” he explains. “And they started to call me to mediate because I was neutral. I mostly just listen and let them talk it out, and they come to an agreement.”

A refugee experiment in self-governance

Beyond mediation, there is a huge amount of organisation that goes into running a community of 1,100 people.

The Olympic Village is an experiment in self-governance. Important decisions are made in large assemblies of residents. When, for example, there was a problem with some drinking too much and disturbing others, a decision was reached to forbid the selling of alcohol after 11:30pm, to turn music down after midnight, and to only sell cans to avoid broken glass.

The Italian members of the committee have in turn tried to provide useful services to the residents, such as Italian lessons, basic medical supplies, and valuable legal advice, sometimes accompanying residents as they undertake the arduous task of renewing documents.

They have also succeeded in getting the city to recognise the buildings as the occupants’ residence, a necessary requirement to access many services, and have served as a liaison between the refugees and the local community, as well as with the police.

‘I’m on some sort of mission here’

Samuel is from Cameroon and spends his day reading and studying. At night, he walks
Samuel is from Cameroon and spends his day reading and studying. At night, he walks “where the spirit guides” him [Sean O’Neill/Al Jazeera]

Samuel is a cerebral guy in his early 30s, a philosopher of sorts, and a regular participant in committee activities. The corner apartment where he lives, on the fifth floor, looks like many of the other overcrowded apartments. Foam mattresses lay on the floor and graffiti marks the walls. A group of young men sit in a corner watching videos on their phones.

But walking into Samuel’s room feels like falling through Alice’s looking glass. It is tidy and organised. There are bookshelves filled with books, magazines, pamphlets. And every inch is decorated with a bizarre selection of items – a model Spiderman, Barbie dolls, plastic flowers, a large mirror. He has carved out a small refuge of colour and joy in the middle of an otherwise grey reality.

He is somewhat isolated from the other men in the apartment, with whom he feels he shares little in common, other than the fact that destiny – and he is a believer in that – has led them all to this place at this time. It is a fate in which he is earnestly trying to find some meaning.

“I believe I’m on some sort of mission here. I don’t know how long it will last. But I want to create some sort of sense to this place, some purpose, some activities that give us more to do than eat, sleep and wait,” he says as he rolls a cigarette.

In Cameroon, Samuel sold clothes. When the government closed down his and his fellow vendors’ stalls, he helped lead protests. When he heard that the police were looking for him, he fled the country. He lived and worked in Libya for four years until the war forced him, like Sarda, onto a Europe-bound boat.

In Turin, he spends his days in his room reading and studying – often the Bible.

At night, he finds it difficult to sleep, because the other young men in the apartment are loud and stay up late, so he walks around the city and the nearby hills until dawn, trying to find some rare alone time.

“I go where the spirit guides me,” he says. On one of these walks, he found a companion: a cat who followed him home and now shares his room with him.

One day, he would like to return to Cameroon, but he does not know when. “I believe that life is about going and coming back, like a migration. We all have to return to ourselves.”

‘We all went through a lot’

Kelvin Karim trims Victor's beard [Sean O'Neill/Al Jazeera]
Kelvin Karim trims Victor’s beard [Sean O’Neill/Al Jazeera]

While Samuel contemplates where his path will next lead him, others have already walked along theirs – and found that in many ways it leads back to the Olympic Village.

One Tuesday evening, I met Alfa Omar, 29, and Victor Ibrahim, 27, both from Senegal, hanging out in the restaurant-cum-common room. They have been friends for many years; working together in Libya and then crossing the Mediterranean when the war broke out.

Alfa Omar was one of the original residents of the buildings, but later found work as an agricultural labourer in a small town in the mountains to the north. But on his days off, he returns to the Olympic Village for the camaraderie.

“I have many friends here,” he explains. “People I’ve shared so much with. Friends I came to Italy with, friends I was in Libya with, friends I crossed the desert with.”

He looks around thoughtfully at the others. “We all went through a lot. When I first arrived I was young and didn’t feel the need to express how I feel about these things. As I get older I realise I need to, and these are people who understand, and so I come back to connect with them. I feel at home here.”

Since arriving in Europe, Victor has spent time in France and Germany. Like many others, his preference was to stay in Germany where there are better work opportunities.

But since he was registered in Italy upon his arrival, he must renew his documents here – a procedure that can take months or even a year, making it difficult to build a stable life elsewhere.

When he came back to Italy, he returned to the Olympic Village, where he knew he would find friends. Now he has a job as a security guard at a local mall and is resigned to stay.

“I need to get an apartment, though,” he says, swiping through photos on his phone showing him at local nightclubs. He looks up and smiles.

“So I have a place to bring girls. Obviously I can’t bring girls here.”

‘A sanctuary and a purgatory’

Leila holds her daughter Aisha [Sean O'Neill/Al Jazeera]
Leila holds her daughter Aisha [Sean O’Neill/Al Jazeera]

On a cold Sunday morning, Aisha, who is just shy of two years old, strains her head back, her face peeking out of the hood of her winter coat, and stares up at the top of the building she now calls home.

It is the fourth of the occupied buildings, where some 250 Somalis live. Her mother Leila Yassine, 38, and three other Somali women waited outside for a friend before walking over to the community room where the cook had a pot of meaty sauce simmering for lunch.

The women agreed to talk about life in the Olympic Village. Others were worried that we worked for the government and would try to get them evicted. There is an acute sense of precarity to their existence here. Leela was pregnant with Aisha when she was evicted from her previous accommodation in 2013.

Two of the women have yet to find any work. The other two had temporary jobs as cleaning ladies, but nothing since. They all fled civil war in Somalia.

The Olympic Village for them is a shelter, they say, but not much more.

“The heating doesn’t work, there’s no work to do. There’s no daily life to speak of, we just find something to eat,” said one.

On the bright side, it is a roof over their heads, Leila added. “We have electricity and water. And Aisha has other kids to play with. But that’s it. I just want a peaceful life for me and my daughter. And I want a home.”

The Olympic spirit

Ten years after Turin hosted the Olympics, the occupants of the Olympic Village could be seen as an affirmation of the Olympic spirit: 30 nationalities living more or less harmoniously together.

But it is not the home any of them hoped for when they set out to build new lives for themselves. For some, it is merely the latest in a series of shelters they have passed through. And, with its poor heating, leaky pipes, crumbling walls – and the ever-present threat of eviction – it is far from comfortable. After all, it was never built to last. 

It is merely a crossroads at which the residents have met – each led here by their own migration journeys, which will eventually lead them away again.

“Some day it will be a story to tell,” says Leila, as Aisha rests in her arms. “When we look back on our journey and tell our children about it, this will be part of the story.”

“I see this place as both a sanctuary and a purgatory,” says Samuel. “It’s not a place to stay forever; it’s where you have arrived after part of a journey, but haven’t yet arrived to the end.”

“For me, it’s been a place to put my feet down, to meet people and make friends, and to start building a new life,” says Sarda.

It also offers an insight into the two directions seemingly available to Europe: One in which a continent already struggling with debt considers refugees a burden to be wished away. The other that views them as an invaluable resource; an infusion of talent and spirit.

Samuel, at least, believes in the latter vision. At a meeting one evening near the University of Torino, where committee members were briefing student activists on the situation in the Olympic Village, he stood up to speak.

“I believe,” he said a little nervously, “that [with] what we’re doing at the Olympic Village, we just might be able to save Italy.”

Source: Al Jazeera