Reportage. The ‘Grandma Rome’ organization distributes food to those who have lost their jobs. But they warn: ‘solidarity is not enough without a perspective of political transformation.’

In Rome, a human chain of solidarity volunteers

At 10 a.m., on the last weekend of Phase 1, in Viale Palmiro Togliatti on the eastern outskirts of the Italian capital, there is such low traffic that is only seen in August. It’s sunny, but not so hot, and after one police checkpoint, another one follows manned by the Carabinieri: machine guns in hand, masks on their faces.

In front of house number 979, on the other hand, the pace is hectic and the cars are parked in a double file. They are waiting outside, driving in empty, turning around on the gravel driveway and coming out after a few minutes loaded with packages to deliver. A human chain of girls and boys between the ages of 20 and 30 is retrieving the packages from an underground warehouse and loading them into the cars.

If you follow the human chain inside, after “sanitization” with a disinfectant sprayed from a kind of red fire extinguisher, you enter a large facility. Here, the products collected during the week at over 60 supermarkets and small shops are being packed into food parcels to be distributed around the city. We are at the operational base of the Nonna Roma association, between the districts of Centocelle and Quarticciolo.

The name of the association (“Grandma Rome”) refers to Mamma Roma, the filmic masterpiece written and directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini and starring Anna Magnani. But here we are also reminded of The Hunchback of Rome by Carlo Lizzani, a film which narrates the deeds of Giuseppe Albano, a WWII partisan suffering from kyphosis and known as “the hunchback of the Quarticciolo,” who between ‘43 and ‘45 was killing Nazis and stealing flour to give to the hungry.

“Every weekend, we distribute about 800 packages, which reach over 3,000 people,” says Aberto Campailla, 30, born in southern Sicily and member of the CGIL trade union, representing the precarious workers in the schools. He founded Nonna Roma in 2017.

In the midst of the pandemic, the association has become a hub of city solidarity. Social centers, committees and neighborhood assemblies are being organized around it. In addition to this one, there are three other independent warehouses from which deliveries are being sent: an ATER facility between the Pyramid of Cestius and the Tiber, in the Municipio I district, the Astra social center in Municipio III, and the Arci di Pietralata club in Municipio IV.

“Most of the food is being collected by the territorial organizations thanks to the mechanism of ‘suspended shopping,’ another part we buy thanks to online crowdfunding, another part comes from the municipality through the district authorities and the National Forum of the Third Sector,” Campailla continues. At the receiving end, people in need are reported by the institutions, call them directly or come into contact with neighborhood institutions “like the popular gym in Quarticciolo or the Free Republic of San Lorenzo, Asinitas or ARCI.”

Now, those who lost their jobs during the epidemic have been added to the number of the destitute. Another “enormous” slice is represented by the precarious workers of the underground economy, who are asking for help for the first time because they are suddenly left without money and without the possibility of going out to earn any.

“But in their case, the stigma is a reality, and despite the fact that they are in difficulty, it is very difficult for them to make themselves heard.” More than 250 people are taking part in the distribution: longtime volunteers from Nonna Roma and new recruits, activists from self-organized associations, organizations and unions. Most of the cars are heading towards the eastern quadrant of the city, the region with the lowest income.

“But we also take packages downtown: in Municipio I there are many maids and home caregivers who haven’t received a salary for two months,” Campailla adds.

The transport we’re traveling with loads up seven packages and receives a sheet of paper with the names, surnames, telephone numbers and addresses of seven households. First delivery: the grey Fiat 600 turns towards Torpignattara. At the wheel is Luca Magno, a 35-year-old activist who returned to Rome after five years in Iraq with the Un Ponte Per NGO, now an activist at the ESC social center of San Lorenzo.

At our destination, five families are living on the same street, two in the same building. The first one who opens the door for us is a lady wearing a red chador and a white mask. Then, a man and a woman who insist to get confirmation that the package is really intended for them.

“It’s good for me, but I wouldn’t want to take it away from someone else,” the woman says in the Roman dialect. “Do you happen to have something for my neighbor? She’s deaf and I’m helping her.” Her name is not on the list. An elderly woman who has recently had surgery answers the next intercom: she lives in the basement and can’t get up the stairs. “We were supposed to leave it outside, but…,” says Magno as he takes the large package to her door.

Second delivery: we head toward Monteverde, a residential district in Municipio XII, in western Rome. The urban landscape is very different here: the apartments have balconies full of plants and sometimes gardens, you can see many small villas and some council houses. The housing prices range between €2,800 and €5,000 per square meter (the average in Rome is €3,200). But even here there are people who have difficulty in buying groceries.

All seven addresses listed on the sheet belong to Filipino families. Waiters, bartenders—but most of all maids and home caregivers. “My husband has been laid off with pay, but he hasn’t seen one euro yet,” says a lady at the gate of a small villa with a garden, who comes up to us by climbing up an incline. “I used to clean houses, but they don’t call me anymore. We applied for the state bonuses for expenses, but nothing came. Maybe because we live in this neighborhood and they think we’re rich.”

With shining eyes, she says that there are four people in their household and the fridge is empty, and that she doesn’t know how to make ends meet anymore.

Will this wave of solidarity that has swept over the Italian peninsula from north to south be enough? “The crisis is a long one, and I believe that the associations and movements must build stable infrastructure,” says Campailla. “But solidarity is not enough without a perspective of political transformation.”

What are the issues to be focused on? “Housing and income, for starters. The Tenants’ Union is saying there are 200,000 families at risk of eviction: they won’t think twice when they need to decide between paying rent or buying food. And then, you need a truly universal income, conceived as a structural measure. The decisive challenge is that of transforming welfare beyond the emergency.”

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