Peggy and Sam’s Refugee Relief Roadtrip

Update posted by Sam Mitchell On Apr 25, 2017

This is one for people who like activism, occupied spaces, historical architecture and solidarity.

The city of Bologna has three nicknames; La Dotta (the learned one - so-called for its famous university; La Grassa (the fat one - its cuisine is widely considered the best in Italy), and La Rossa (the red one - a reference its left-wing politics and also the red colour of the buildings in the city). Bologna is also famous for its intellectuals - Umberto Eco was a professor emeritus at the university - and for its left-wing and working class roots. With all this in mind, it came as no surprise to us to discover one of the best run solidarity led occupied sites we have encountered in all our time in this crisis.

We had heard on the Italian grapevine that a protest had been planned in the city centre against the revocation of “emergency accomodation” for refugees and migrants. Basically, the municipality of Bologna had decided to close down the shelters opened during winter time to house people and kick them out onto the streets.

At the demonstration we meet a group of young men from central Africa. One, Musa (not his real name) was seventeen years old from Gambia. He had been in Italy for three months now, sleeping on the streets of Bologna and in the train station. He told me how his main reason for coming to Europe was to go to university; a dream he has almost given up on now since he cannot even find a safe place to sleep, never mind a job or a place in a school. He wants to learn Italian as he feels that learning the language of a country is the best way to integrate, but he is frustrated by the lack of official support to do so.

The story of Musa’s journey to Europe is harrowing. He left Gambia with his brother due to political upheaval and their inability to attend university at home. Musa spoke of the horrendous mistreatment of those traveling north through Africa. He said no man can make the journey without being beaten and no woman can make the journey without being raped. Musa himself was twice detained against his will by people smugglers, who treated him appallingly. He was lucky as he managed to escape. Many were not so fortunate. Their father was against them leaving as he thought it was too dangerous, a worry that was vindicated when Musa’s brother drowned during the crossing. Musa’s family call him every day to see how he is. They ask if he has enrolled in a school, got a job or found a home to stay in. He says he rarely answers these days as he cannot bring himself to tell his mother he is sleeping on the street.

So, alone and underage with no official papers or legal protection Musa is losing hope. He says he is not the same person he was when he left home; sometimes he simply collapses in the street and often cries. He has seen many who make the journey lose their mind and knows of several suicides amongst the refugee community here.

Downbeat after hearing this very tragic story, we spoke to one of the organisers of the protest, which several groups organised. They were members of a group called Accoglienza Degna, an association doing crucial humanitarian for migrants and refugees in Bologna. Accoglienza Degna roughly translates as “reception with dignity”, a knowing play on the word “reception” as so many of Italy’s migrant and reception centres are not fit for purpose. They told us they were based in the Làbas project which is situated on the edge of the old city of Bologna and consists of a huge collection of disused buildings in the west of the city which have been occupied. They offered to show us around later that evening.

We met our very friendly guides who explained the story of ex-Caserma Masini, the structure which Làbas occupies. The history of the building is as interesting as the projects that now take place there; anti-fascist patriots fighting against Mussolini were imprisoned here, one escaped but several did not and were killed within the walls. In more recent years it was a training facility for the police and military. In the cellar we came across several discarded military uniforms which we realised we had seen before in donations to refugees in Greece. For the last 20 years, the huge complex has been completely abandoned until activists occupied it four years ago. The building comprises of a veritable maze of colourfully graffitied basements, halls, stairwells, porticos, bathrooms, dormitories and offices spread out across assorted sized buildings surrounding a large courtyard.

The space is huge and although much of it still lies empty, there is still so much activity going on within the compound. Currently there are five houses worth of people living and working here on an amazing array of projects – a pizzeria, the Schiumarell Brewery, a carpentry workshop, a bicycle repair workshop, the ‘Place la Bimbi’ - a children’s play area and a community garden. We were lucky enough to turn up on a Wednesday when the space is opened to the general public for a local market with farmers selling food and drink, bookstalls, art and crafts, a bar, and a wide variety of fantastic live music. The money from selling drinks at the bar goes to fund Labas’ activities in the building. The event was well attended by Bologna’s young student population and many refugees and migrants in the city - we would definitely recommend a visit if you’re in the city during the week.

But the main project we were there to see was Accoglienza Degna. AD runs a free dormitory which currently houses 14 migrants/refugees, 13 of them men and one woman. They focus on smaller numbers so they can maintain the living standards that they do. Though with more volunteers, who knows how many people could be housed - there is certainly space within Làbas. The dormitory is open from 6 pm to 10 am as due to the building’s occupied nature, it is not normally open all day long unless there are enough volunteers to man the main gate at all times. Residents cook and clean together and as well as living quarters, AD’s section of Làbas also includes a well stocked library in many different languages, which is also used for conference space.

One of the problems with the way Italy structures its asylum centres is that people whose papers have expired - often through no fault of their own - are not allowed to stay in ‘official camps/spaces”. AD does not discriminate like this and as well as taking care of its 14 residents, it also offers a variety of other services. There are regular Italian classes which are offered two days a week at beginner, intermediate and advanced levels for both men and women and also a thrift shop where clothes, after being offered to the residents and others in need, are sold to the public at knockdown prices to help fund the project. Many of the clothes in AD’s storage were donated to victims of the earthquake in Italy last year. But perhaps most importantly, AD run a ‘Migrants’ Desk’ which is open to give help and advice about getting official documentation, health issues, job searches and more generally to help migrants with any practical issues whether they wish to move on from Bologna or begin a new life in the city.

But the future of Labas and AD is under threat. Last year, the local government who previously owned the building, sold it onto a cassa depositi e prestiti, an organisation which buys buildings and sells them onto private corporations. No one knows how long they could all be there; it could be one year, it could be ten years. This impacts on the way the building can be used. Members of AD and Labas would like to open the building for more days than just Wednesday, but it’s hard if they don’t have enough boots on the ground to ensure the security of the front gate and more importantly, enough volunteers to make sure the services offered run at a high standard. There are many rooms in good condition which could potentially be cleaned up, repaired and used to house more refugees and migrants or open up more projects for Italians and migrants alike, but uncertainty quells ambition.

One thing that is certain is the fantastic work that AD are doing to provide dignity to refugees and migrants in Bologna. The wider Làbas project is fascinating and one of the most well run ‘occupied’ buildings in all of Europe. Donations here are very well spent, which is why we gave them one. You can do to by using the following bank account to help them carry on doing what they do so well:

C/C Ya Basta Bologna, reference "Accoglienza Degna"

Banca Popolare Etica

IBAN: IT75 Z050 1802 4000 0000 0109 427

They may be in a position to take on volunteers in very near future - please contact their Facebook page for more information.

This is a fantastic project which deserves to survive and thrive - as well as supporting humanitarianism and refugee and migrant welfare, it’s also a fascinating showcase for collective entrepreneurship and social cohesion. We need more of it in the world.

Big love goes to Help Refugees for supporting us on this trip and for all their great work across Europe and beyond.

If you want to donate to our trip, please do so by my PayPal [email protected] and/or our crowdfunder

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Update posted by Sam Mitchell On Apr 25, 2017

Let us tell you about the parable of Don Justo. It’s one of the best ones, we promise.

This is a story about the power of faith. Even though we don’t believe. We live in times where the core of the major Abrahamic religions are being abused and misused to prop up tyranny, to justify war crimes and to excuse terror and death. It’s easy to forget that every single day, humble men and women of faith practise what they preach. And Don Justo is one of these people.

He arrived in Lake Como, Italy, six years ago from Cameroon and one of the first things he did was open up his church and buildings to the men, women and children who had braved the watery graveyard of the Mediterranean to search for refuge in Europe. Whatever their legal status, nationality, religion, sexuality or backstory, it didn’t - and doesn’t - matter. Don Justo offers refuge. We had heard about his project several months ago and it topped our list of projects to visit on our trip.

We arrived on a foggy, grey day and were welcomed by Desi and Georgia, mother and daughter from Como who have been volunteering with Don Justo’s project for a long time. We were immediately struck by how peaceful and welcoming the project felt. We also felt like we were in a London tube carriage - so many nationalities! Mali, Nigeria, Cameroon, Syria, Morocco, Italy, Peru and countless other far-flung places are represented here.

People under the care of Don Justo are very well looked after. Everyone who arrives here or is referred is interviewed by a volunteer so they can help refugees in the best way possible. Minors are referred elsewhere and victims of sex trafficking are offered a place of refuge with another specialised project - both groups are sadly commonplace. There is space for 70 people to sleep within the walls of Don Justo’s property and everyone here is helped to access the medical care that they need. Rarely for this kind of project, legal support is offered - both of us wish that NGOs and volunteers paid more attention to this area as it can often be life-changing. Whatever stage of the process a person is at, they can be referred to get the advice that they need.

But support here is also practical - clothes and wash products are distributed and snacks are provided - other restaurants in Como provide meals during the day. But every evening, local volunteers, residents and refugees cook together to prepare a meal for anyone who wants to join them. It’s a very Italian opportunity to communicate, socialise and learn over eating really good food. We don’t think that we have ever sat down with so many different nationalities in our lives - we learned about Neil Armstrong’s love of ceviche from a Peruvian, the joys of whiskey from a Bangladeshi, how to dress from an Italian and how to ride a camel correctly from some Moroccans. And this was all before coffee!

One thing that struck us was how well integrated residents seemed - such good Italian! Some residents of the project have found employment and Don Justo helps them pay the rent for the first year, to make the transition easier. Integration is helped by the fact that Italians from across the country sit down and eat dinner with Don Justo and the residents every night. It’s really valuable and a lesson that other countries and projects would do well to learn from.

All of this is in sharp contrast with the Red Cross ‘camp’ less than a kilometre down the road. Volunteers or locals are forbidden entry, but people who have been inside say that containers made for four are now crammed with up to eight people. There are no activities or facilities in the camp and if the authorities know that residents of the camp wish to leave to attend activities elsewhere in Como, they are forbidden from leaving. Instead of making life better for people there, the Swiss Red Cross, the prefecture and Caritas are just in an ongoing battle over who has overall control and the residents suffer. The camp has been open for a mere six months but, like many official structures, seems to be failing before it even begins.

An outsider may think that a project like Don Justo is running would be well received. Alas, this isn’t necessarily the case. Even though Como is a very rich place, because last summer refugees were sleeping out in the railway station, many powerful locals just want to wish away the ‘problem’ of refugees passing through or living in their town. Don Justo’s project is entirely run on donations and needs help. More recently, the fascist Italian Northern League party has been making problems for Don Justo and the residents. Their most recent attempt to try and shut them down came from Como’s first and only health and safety inspection of the community kitchen. They passed with flying colours, but this certainly won’t be the last time they try.

Both of us feel this is one of the best projects we have come across during our time working in this crisis and Don Justo and his volunteers need all the help and support they can get. We made a substantial donation and we would love it if you or anyone you know would do the same. More coverage and volunteers could help raise European consciousness about what Don Justo is achieving here. Financial donations would help to safeguard their future - as any Italian will tell you, utility bills are astronomical here and a big proportion of donations goes to paying for essentials such as heat, water and light. Please make a donation and if you are friendly with any church groups, please encourage them to help on a more ongoing basis. If you would like to make a donation to Don Justo, then please contact Sam or I for IBAN details.

Local volunteers fully expect the numbers of people travelling through Como, especially minors, to rise during the summer months - last summer around 500 people were camped out in appalling conditions in the railway station. With this in mind, local volunteers are planning on opening a shelter for minors in the next month or so. If you would like to donate to this cause or obtain more information, please contact me and I can put you in touch with one of the organisers, the lovely Ale Galli, who was our Como guide and is an all round lovely human being and excellent volunteer.

We are really reluctant to leave Como, even though there has been torrential rain since we arrived, but it’s time to hit the road again and find out more about the incredibly work that Italians are doing to help their newest and most vulnerable arrivals.

Ciao for now, and please consider donating to our crowdfunder to help us help great projects continue their fantastic work across Europe.

Also, many thanks to the always wonderful Help Refugees who are funding our petrol and accommodation costs. There are few, if any, organisations that do more work with refugees than them.

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Update posted by Sam Mitchell On Mar 30, 2017

The story of our brief time in Milan begins as so many of these volunteer tales do; a flurry of messages between friends, acquaintances, friends of friends until you finally make contact with the person that can tell your everything you need to know. And more often than not, this person turns out to be a former refugee. In this case, the lovely Riad, who was to take us around the Hub Project in Milan - even though he should have been tucking into a celebratory pizza for passing his driving test first time. Riad arrived in Italy three years ago and is one of the few Syrians we met who arrived by plane with a visa. He’s now settled in Milan and has a killer Italian accent and great command of the language, as well as being fluent in English and Arabic; basically the perfect guy to show us around.

The Hub is what it sounds like; a welcoming place, of non-judgment, where refugees in Milan can meet, socialise and access the things that they need, whether they have papers and are trying to settle in the city, or are continuing their journey elsewhere. The Hub is situated on the outskirts of the city underneath crumbling, but elegant railway arches. But the greyness of the environs belies the warmth of the people who work and volunteer here.

The Hub is made up of an interlinking series of large rooms underneath the arches. There is a large warehouse here - anyone who says that Italians are disorganised should come and look at how clothing, shampoo and toys are arranged here; it’s one of the most well-run warehouses we have ever set eyes on. Then there is a ticketed clothing distribution point, where refugees can collect the clothing that they need, whether the sun is shining or it’s wet and grey and drizzling. There is another room with a children’s play area, a cafe serving amazing Italian coffee and snacks, along with a medical area with a well stocked pharmacy and friendly Arabic speaking doctors, as well as a small IT lab with several computers where people can access the internet. There is also a restaurant area where refugees are served hot, delicious and nutritious food, with good music and a really great ambience. Many refugees volunteer here as well as locals - we really liked hanging out there.

But perhaps the most impressive space at the Hub is the sleeping quarters. Behind the main public arches is a sleeping area which offers shelter to up to 400 hundred people, for up to ten days at a time, regardless of what their legal status is. On the grey and cold and wet day that we visited, we realised what a lifeline this was for people who may but shut out of more official structures for various reasons.

The Hub is run by Progetto Arca, an Italian organisation which operates in several Italian cities, helping refugees and poor and homeless members of the Italian community - it doesn’t discriminate, it just helps those who need it. Riad is part of a group of volunteers called SOS ERM who support the Hub as well as various other projects in the city. Their main duties in this project are to provide tea and snacks, as well as gap filling where needed. They also often pay for monthly travel passes for refugees choosing to settle in Milan, so they can access the services they need, without having to dip into the 75 euro monthly stipend issued by the government.

Sam and I both felt that this is the type of project that should be replicated across Europe - we were really, really impressed with the simplicity of what the Hub was trying to achieve, but the skill that it was executed with and what a massive impact it had on so many people’s lives.


We were also made to feel so welcome and we met lots of interesting people and activists who work their socks off to make the project successful, but also took the time to give us helpful information about fantastic projects in other Italian cities. We really want to thank everyone we met for helping us so much, being so friendly and plying us with fantastic coffee!

One thing that struck us - and this is something that would continue to come to our minds elsewhere in Italy - is how the project was entirely reliant on Italian support, whether donations of goods or money. The only ‘foreign’ shipments the Hub gets are from Switzerland. We couldn’t help but feel that there are lots of people further afield in Europe who would be happy to support great projects like this.

If you want to volunteer or make a donation to SOS ERM, please contact their FB page

If you want to donate to Progetto Arca, please do so through their website - Italian only!

But volunteers and staff were keen to tell us that they really need more clothing donations, specifically they are always short of men’s clothing - size S/M - and men’s socks and underwear. They have the space and capacity to receive large deliveries, so where are all our container people at? Contact me if you can help in this way, the aid really will be well-managed and go to a good home :)

So we reluctantly said “Ciao” from Milan and move onwards into the rain of the Italian lakes. We made a donation to SOS ERM to help them pay for travel costs for refugees in Milan, so thank you to everyone who has donated for making that possible. We have some great projects lined up to visit and we need your continued support to help us help them!

Grazie mille!

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Update posted by Sam Mitchell On Mar 27, 2017

“It is fatal to look hungry. It makes people want to kick you.”

The words of George Orwell came to mind everywhere we went during my time in the French capital - sometimes we had to pinch ourselves to remember that this was Paris, 2017.The plight of refugees in the city has been constantly over-shadowed by the media spotlight that was shone on Calais. But the streets of the northern banlieus are filled with stories of deprivation, hardship, violence and hope. And, of course, small grassroots groups battling against the odds to try and make things a little better.

We spent four days in the city with Paris Ground Support, a small street outreach group that has been feeding and clothing refugees on the streets of Port de la Chapelle from midnight until dawn for the last six months. Aside from the two people who PGS is made up of - Heather and Kelvin - the most valuable asset they have is their van, which allows them to roam around and distribute clothing, tents, sleeping bags and food to those in need. Unfortunately, some days before we arrived, their van had broken down and was being repaired. Our first days in Paris were spent sorting clothes in the PSG warehouse while Kelvin and Heather filled us in on what life is like for many refugees in the city.

In the summer, a huge unofficial camp formed in Port de la Chapelle where hundreds of men, women and children lived in appalling conditions. The municipality did not want these scenes of human suffering inside the city limits and the camp was violently dispersed. But these people had nowhere to go and were forced to form communities on the streets outside and on the borders of the periferique (the ring road around Paris). The closure of the camp in Calais further swelled the numbers of people living on the streets and every day new arrivals from boats in Italy and towns and cities elsewhere in Europe mean that there is always work to be done here.

Because the powers that be in Paris don’t want another unofficial camp forming, small impermanent sites pop up all over the Saint-Ouen neighbourhood, self-segregated into different nationalities. However, these don’t last for long as every night the infamous CRS are out in force and when they find a ‘camp’ they move in, beating refugees whilst they sleep and scattering the few possessions that they have. It’s hard to understand how the authorities can just accept people living in conditions like this - but it isn’t just refugees. Many of these sites are close to an informal Roma camp where conditions seemed only marginally better. And this site has been here for a long time.

We went out one night on a food distribution to see for ourselves what life is like for refugees on the streets in Paris. Outside of slums in Africa and India, I’ve never seen people forced to live in the manner they do in Paris. Men and teenage boys are forced to scavenge for rubbish and plastic to build some kind of shelter. They sleep in the under passes of motorways, with no shelter, no access to water and no toilets. Tents and sleeping bags are distributed under the cover of darkness as to do so in daytime risks drawing the attention of the CRS who then violently force them from the meagre places they have made to sleep. We met cheerful Afghans who had somehow managed to build a yurt out of plastic and discarded fabric. We gave food to Eritreans who were forced to sleep on concrete soaked in piss. And we were offered oranges and seats by a group of cheerful Sudanese men and boys, who had no blankets or sleeping bags at all. The only thing they possessed was a sense of humour and friendliness and a keen sense of irony about the fact they were forced to sleep out under the stars and a “Life is Good” advertising billboard.

All of the men we met were at different stages of the asylum process. Many wanted to stay in France. Some wanted to come to England because they had family there or they spoke the language. A few were ex-residents of Calais, who had nowhere else to go.

And then of course within the hour we had met our first minor, a 16 year old Sudanese boy who didn’t know where to go or who to ask for help. Many of the activists and volunteers we spoke to said that the numbers of lone children on the streets of Paris had grown exponentially since the closure of Calais. Many of these children have the right to come to the UK under Dublin III (family reunification) and others were eligible under the Dubs amendment. Right before the closure of Calais, the British government promised that if these children were moved to centres all over France, their claims would be processed there. Of course, this hasn’t happened and Dubs has been closed down, even though local councils in the UK say there are many more places open for refugee children over and above the 350 that are already scattered across the country. And so the children come back to Paris and Calais and try to survive on the streets and risk their lives jumping onto the back of lorries to get to the UK.

It’s hard not to feel angry when you compare the beds that English MPs get into every night, safe and warm in their houses (many paid for by the tax-payer) with the bit of cardboard the 16 year old Sudanese boy slept on that cold night in Paris.

Everyone had told me that Paris was ‘different’; different problems, different rules, different challenges, different ways of operating. This is all true - volunteers and organisations looking to help should not rush in thinking that their months of work and experience in Greece has much relevance here. It’s a different way of operating - good work can still be done, but it’s so important to speak to teams already here about how to help. There is commonality though - there is simply no need for human beings to live like this. There is the money there to help them. It’s political will, or lack thereof, that means that people have to endure these hardships. And it’s always volunteers working the frontline to ensure that basic needs of refugees are met.

We take our hats off to all the people that have been working with refugees in Paris, particularly those who do street outreach. We met some of the most dedicated, hard-working and sleep deprived volunteers we have come across in all our time being involved in this refugee crisis. The deprivation in Paris is heartbreaking and the street is hard - police and gangsters make it incredibly difficult to operate safely. And for once, Paris isn’t sexy. The city gets little coverage in the media for refugee issues and the projects here deserve more support. If you want to help, we can recommend contacting the following people/organisations - this list is not exhaustive and many more good groups operate in the city, we just didn’t get a chance to meet them all.

Help Refugees funds many projects in Paris, as well as elsewhere in France

Paris Refugee Ground Support is fantastic but is about to have a well earned and much overdue hiatus. Watch their FB page for future posts about what they are doing next.

Solidarithe - This is a great organisation doing street outreach and providing refugees with vital information about their legal rights and services that can be accessed in Paris.

Utopia 56 does invaluable work with refugees in northern Paris and with minors.

The incredible Danika has been in Paris for many years and she and her team help out in any and every way you can imagine.

We left Paris for Italy a few days ago. Before we hit the road, we made a donation to PGS to spend on giving them and some refugees on the street a bit of a break from the daily grind. We also gave money to a Syrian mother and her child who were on the streets.

Please consider donating to our crowdfunder to help us support great projects we find in Italy and beyond.

Thanks for all your support so far

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Happy Birthday (belatedly) Sam. I continue to be proud of you. xx

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I hope you're having fun at the same time as doing such valuable work!

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Amazing job Peggy @ Chris 😃

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Good luck <3

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