Don Giacomo Panizza is an Italian priest and in the last 40 years he worked with social projects with disabled and disadvantaged people. He started Progetto Sud: a huge network between local associations, working together to create social services and fighting against criminal organisations. Don Giacomo’s life has been under threat during the last year and he lives constantly under protection, but those threats didn’t stop him and today his fight against mafia goes on without rest. With the great honor to interview him, here is the interview:
The common migration pattern in Italy is from the “poor” South to the “rich” North, but Don Giacomo Panizza followed the opposite direction. Why?
Italy is a unitary State. “Unitary” is the juridical word used to describe the fact that many regions are united and constitute our nation, with the same rights and obligations. But in Italy the reality is different. If someone is born with some kind of handicap or disability in Lombardia (Northern Italy) he can find many useful services for his situation, if the same person with the same disability is born in Calabria (Southern Italy) he won’t find the same services. That’s why I moved from Northern to Southern Italy: to help those disabled people that were looking for help. Many of them couldn’t even leave their homes, sometimes due to a sort of “religious shame” of their families, their parents usually said: “Why did God punish me with a diseased child?”, in other cases for the lack of local social services like school transports, therapy sessions or simply social activities. Most of the people in this situation used to move to other Italian regions to find what they didn’t have in Calabria, when I saw the situation I decided to move there, so I could help those people to remain in their land and build something there together.
“Progetto Sud” (Project South): how can it be explained to a European citizen?
To a European citizen I would explain that Progetto Sud started with the people I was talking about before: disabled young people in wheelchair, closed in their homes and looking for help. I helped them to create a group, to collaborate and to build social activities and services. Today Progetto Sud manages many activities and more than 50 workers, so you can see that those disabled in wheelchair did a great job and today they are not only users of the services, they are the real owners. They had the chance to remain in their region and thanks to their work many others can do the same and don’t have to go away. Progetto Sud was born as an ensemble of different small initiatives, basically because of the ‘Ndrangheta (the local criminal organization). They don’t allow big organizations to work in the region, so we had to create different small auto-managed projects, it was the only way. Today we are a group of groups, many associations, organisations and cooperatives working together with the same mindset and distributed in Calabria. Distribution is important: for example, we welcomed 133 refugees from different countries, but they were not placed in one building, they are equally distributed in the local communities and this helps so much with the social integration. We use the same system with the disabled people we help and it works great.
Talking about ‘Ndrangheta (local mafia): what’s your experience?
I arrived here (Calabria) 40 years ago, in 1976, and I didn’t know mafia. I knew they were proud killers and thieves, but here I understood it was not about money, it’s all about power. For mafia, money is only a tool to get power and it reaches power with popular consent. I saw many bad people in Northern Italy, many thieves and cheaters, but here is different: here they steal your money, they steal your rights and they show themselves as the “good ones”, the ones that are always ready to help you. And this is how you can explain a complex phenomenon like mafia: mafia offers you help while it is buying your silence. They use the same system with everyone: politicians, entrepreneurs, even priests. For example, they buy new bells for your church and in exchange they want their name associated to local religious festivals, they want their names associated to good things so people have a better disposition towards them.
Today, Europe talks about immigration as an emergency, but Southern Italy welcomed refugees for the last years. It seems that European countries and the Eu lost control of immigration, why?
There are many causes. Local causes, for example here in Calabria we need young arms and brains to replace the workers that will reach the pension age in the next 5-10 years, the problem is that youngsters from Calabria don’t want to remain here and want to go abroad to find better jobs. Here you can see that immigrants can be a great resource: they adapt easily and they want to work. In fact, the immigrants we welcome find a job very quickly.
Another problem is with births and with our youth leaving the country for the lack of good job opportunities. I think this is a political problem: politicians didn’t have a long-term plan, they were thinking only about next elections, and when you plan you must think 15 years ahead, not 4 years. Another local problem was mafia: they created a huge business from immigration. We must remember that mafia can create a business from everything: from wars, from peace, from poverty and from personal needs. I do not wish Mafia for anyone, they can take advantage of everyone and the only way to fight them is with intelligence and courage.
These were “our” mistakes, but even Europe was wrong. An example is the idea that immigration was a problem only for the countries that were easier to reach for immigrants (like Italy and Greece). Then you have wars, like in Syria and Libya, and religious and racial persecutions, like curds in Turkey. Immigration is very complicated, and only peace will solve the problem.
We are a young European organization, do you have suggestion for us?
Exchange of good practices: if we create good initiatives and they work well we must discuss and share them, if they don’t go as we wish we must change something, but it’s always a great thing if we can share the results, because we can learn much even from mistakes. Sharing is the best way to grow together.