ROME—When Senada Sejdović and her husband Imer Omerović were awarded public housing for themselves and their 12 children in early May, it seemed like a dream come true. The nomads had lived in various degrees of homelessness for years, either in unofficial encampments along Rome’s Tiber River or in state-run shelters among others in similarly dire situations.
Now they have a home, and a proper roof over their children’s heads—but they also have an Italian leader bent on making sure they live in fear, and a band of neo-fascist vigilantes spurred on by his calls to strip the Roma community of their rights.
“For us, this house represents the idea of a normal life. Our children were ashamed to live in the camp, they never invited friends home, but now they can do it,” said Omerović, who, along with his wife, is officially a Bosnian citizen but also part of the Roma community in Italy. “My children were born in Italy, two of them are Italian citizens, I arrived in Italy as a child, this is my country, the country where my children are growing up.”
Italy’s right-wing Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, head of the League party, has made it his goal to close all camps inhabited by Roma or Sinti people, who are often referred to with the derogatory term gypsy. He has personally supervised the bulldozing of shanty towns where hundreds of Roma have lived for years and he recently livestreamed the full four-hour destruction of one of the Italian capital’s biggest official camps, proudly standing by while the displaced inhabitants watched their belongings destroyed.
The scene was reminiscent of Benito Mussolini destroying nomad camps in Italy as far back as 1926, referring to the Roma people as “sub-human” long before he joined Hitler’s attack on Jews. By the time World War II was over, he had sent at least 500,000 Roma people to Hitler’s death camps alongside Jews.
Mussolini called the Roma an “inferior race” who had no right to live in Italy, even though most knew no other home. Some historians put the number of those killed closer to 1.5 million, but because Roma were not documented or counted on any census, unlike Jewish people, the true toll of their genocide may never be known.
Today many Roma who have been displaced by Salvini’s bulldozers—even those who are Italian—have moved to some of the 50-plus squat houses in abandoned public buildings around Rome. Others, like the Omerović family, have applied successfully for public housing grants even though they are not Italian. Salvini has made it clear that only Italian Roma people will be given rights.
“We'll have to keep the ones who are Italian,” Salvini said of Roma people when he announced his plan to raze all the Roma camps last year. “But everyone else will have to go.” Though the Omerović family are registered residents in Italy, they are clearly not whom Salvini wants to see receiving state benefits.
From the moment the Omerović family moved into their apartment in the downtrodden Casal Bruciato suburb of Rome, their problems got worse. Members of CasaPound, an unapologetically neo-fascist vigilante group that supports Salvini and which recently won seats in local municipal elections, set up a command post at the door of the apartment complex to protest the Roma family’s placement. The immediate aim was to stop anyone from delivering food, which is a tactic they have used in previous cases of Roma people trying to integrate into Italian society. Then they stopped the family from leaving the premises, essentially barricading them inside. No one in the apartment complex came to the Omerović family’s aid. Instead, neighbors peppered them with insults, hanging signs on their doors with the words “troia, puttana, fai schifo” (slut, whore, you disgust me).
The Omerović family eventually sent their older children back out to an encampment to stay with relatives so they could continue to attend school and work. But they refused to give up the home. Then last weekend, two members of CasaPound went to their door and threatened to rape Senada if she didn't move her family back to the streets. She called the police, who set up their own guards beside CasaPound militants to try to calm down tensions. “I’m tired, I haven’t slept in days,” she told a reporter with Internazionale who had made it into the building. “I’m scared, exhausted. How can we survive this way?”
When Rome’s mayor, Virginia Raggi of the Five Star Movement, went to visit the home in an attempt to show solidarity, partly because her city government had awarded the public housing apartment to the family, her entourage was attacked by CasaPound activists. She was also slammed by Salvini, who questioned her capacity to lead by mandating public housing to “zingari,” the Italian word for gypsies.
Within days the entire family, along with 500 other Roma people, had been invited for a private audience with Pope Francis, who told them that despite the current government’s attitude, they are “not second class citizens” and that they would always be respected by him.
Salvini was livid. “In Italy, where the League rules, Italians come first. For public housing, for baby bonuses, for jobs, they come first. That's not a fascist, selfish, racist regulation,” he said during a campaign rally he streamed live on Facebook ahead of upcoming European Parliamentary elections. “Today I read that the pope met with 500 Roma. He is free to do so, everyone can meet who they want. But my goal is still to close all Roma camps. In Italy there is no space for everyone.”
Then, on Monday night, the pope dispatched his almsgiver, Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, a veritable Robin Hood known for his charitable works and commonly called Don Corrado on the streets. His mission: to provide basic necessities to the homeless, this time to a squat house that serves as home to more than 450 people, including 100 or more children. Many of the inhabitants are migrants and refugees, others are Roma who have been forced out of camps. There are also a handful of Italians who have lost jobs due to austerity cuts who have found a bed in the seven-story building.
Electricity being illegally funneled to the building, which once housed state pension offices, had been cut off earlier in the day. The squatters had allegedly run up a $350,000 bill. A Catholic nun who works with many of the residents there had called the Vatican to report that food was spoiling and a woman on a respirator would likely die if something wasn't done.
Don Corrado responded to the growing crisis by donning workman's coveralls and climbing down into the electric company’s manhole, risking electrocution to turn the electricity back on. He taped his business card onto the manhole cover and wrote, “I’ll pay whatever is owed.”
Salvini did not take kindly to Don Corrado lending a helping hand. He publicly urged the pope to pay the bills of all Italians struggling to pay for their utilities if such aid was being given to foreigners and Roma. Don Corrado offered to pay Salvini’s electricity bill if he needed help.
The situation is untenable. Salvini has vowed to keep his promises, and many fear that he will now seek his revenge by closing down the squat house where Don Corrado intervened. But it is almost certain he won't do the same to CasaPound, where they have also run up an illegal electricity bill that tops $300,000 in the abandoned office building they occupy. Somehow, the state didn’t cut their power, and, by not doing so, has given them even more.