by Francesca Bellino. Journalist and Writer
23 years have passed since the arrest of Abdullah Öcalan, founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, who took refuge in Italy after living in exile in Syria since 1980 and the condition of the Kurds living in Italy is still submerged.
The life of the Kurdish people is a succession of disappointed expectations and persecutions, desire and fear of affirming their identity, and an eternal wandering in search of protection. Even those who find a safe place to live are often forced to leave it, as has happened to many Kurdish families who have settled in Italy who have left in recent years to seek better living conditions in Northern Europe. With the Covid emergency, the economic situation of many Kurds with asylum rights has worsened and many have left, perpetuating the condition of the perennial flight inflicted on the Kurdish people in over a hundred years of struggles for the recognition of a national identity and of a territory, the Kurdistan region enclosed between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.
It is not possible to establish exactly the number of Kurds present in Italy today because they are not registered as such, but as citizens of their respective countries of origin; therefore as Turks, Iraqis, Syrians or Iranians. It is ascertained that the number has decreased in the last two years due to the shortage of work exacerbated by the pandemic.
There are about 35 million Kurds in the world. They are the largest stateless population. The link with Italy was created in the late 1990s, when this country became a transit land for Kurds fleeing the violence and torture inflicted on them by the Turkish army and politicians in reaction to the requests for autonomy and greater civil rights. A series of events that took place between 1997 and 1999 brought both the “Kurdish question” to the center of the Italian political debate, and Italy to the center of the international spotlight.
The figure of Dino Frisullo fits into this story. This activist on 21 March 1998 was in Diyarbakır, Turkey with an Italian delegation of twenty-five pacifists to celebrate Newroz, the Kurdish New Year. When the celebration turned into a procession to claim fundamental rights for the Kurds, the Turkish police intervened to repress it and arrested a hundred demonstrators on charges of inciting violence, including Frisullo. After two months of imprisonment, torture and a hunger strike, an opinion campaign supported by the Italian government and the European Parliament leads to his release. We find Frisullo on the pages of the newspapers in December of the same year when he embarks on a protest fast to support the request for political asylum for Abdullah Öcalan, founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party Pkk in 1977, who took refuge in Italy after living in exile in Syria since 1980.
The Capture of Öcalan
The leader of the PKK, a party considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and, until 2018, also by the European Union, arrived in Rome from Moscow on November 12 and asked for political asylum from a government at the time chaired by Massimo D’Alema. The Italian premier is faced with a case that he defines as “difficult to solve.” The chronicles of those days tell us that the asylum request is not accepted and Öcalan is taken to the Greek embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. Here, at the airport, on 15 February 1999 he was arrested and taken to Turkey where, in April, he was sentenced to death by a Turkish court, which in 2002 was then commuted to life imprisonment in the prison island of Imrali.
His arrest sparked protests all over the world, including in Italy where this episode remains an “open wound” for supporters of the Kurdish cause. To support their leader and “to protest against the pressure exerted on Italy by the Turkish state” in the meantime, about 1500 Kurdish asylum seekers had arrived in Rome, camped in cardboard shacks in the gardens of Colle Oppio, in Celio, near the military hospital where Öcalan had been hospitalized before leaving Italy.
23 years have passed since those days and on Saturday 12 February 2022 at 2 pm, the Kurdish community of Italy returns to the square with two processions, one in Rome (Piazza Esquilino) and one in Milan (Largo Cairoli), “to ask again for the liberation of Öcalan and to collect signatures to demand the removal of the PKK from the list of terrorist organizations with the aim of restarting a peace process.”
“When Öcalan was hospitalized the Colle Oppio area was called Cartonia,” recalls Ramazan Gunes, manager from 2016 to 2020 of Ararat, the Kurdish socio-cultural center built in Rome. Ararat was established in 1999, on 21 May when the abandoned building of the former veterinarian of Campo Boario is occupied and, a month later, becomes the fulcrum of the experimentation of a form of public space based on hospitality and coexistence in which to integrate art, solidarity and urban transformation. In June, on the occasion of the Biennial of young artists from Europe and the Mediterranean, hosted by the adjacent former slaughterhouse discharged since 1975, the Stalker collective of architects launches a series of socio-artistic initiatives involving the Kurdish community, and the tea room, kitchen and reading room of Ararat are born from the experience. Also in those days begins the construction of the monumental work Il Tappeto Volante which reproduces the wooden profile of the ceiling of the Palatine Chapel in Palermo. For months Ararat transforms itself into a place of creation. The work is made with 50 km of hemp and 6 km of copper, is exhibited in 18 countries, and becomes a symbol of brotherhood. A miniature of the work can still be admired today in Ararat, while the original one is in the Museum of Mediterranean Wefts in Gibellina.
“Over 30 thousand Kurds have passed from here in twenty years. Many are just in transit. They apply for asylum and go to live in other countries. Others lived there for years and then left. Now there are only a few left. There are five regular people, plus another three or four passing through. Many Kurds had settled in Tuscany, but today of the 70 families who lived between Castel del Piano, Livorno and Siena, only half are left,” says Ramazan, 44, who arrived from Karakoçan, in northern Kurdistan.
“In 2016 the Municipality of Rome did not renew the concession, but we continue to pay the rent. We have resorted to the request for eviction. We will not leave, adds Ramazan. We play the role of an embassy, we are a point of reference for the Kurds. In this place 20 years of history are kept.”
The Ararat cultural center in Rome
When you arrive at Ararat, whose name refers to the legendary mountain on which Noah’s Ark was stranded, which escaped the universal Flood, you are greeted by the plaque “Largo Dino Frisullo,” inaugurated on 20 June 2007 by Walter Veltroni, at the mayor of Rome, in honor of the activist who died prematurely due to illness in 2003. When you enter the area, the eye is immediately captured by the colors of Kurdistan—yellow, red and green—which shine on the murals on the relative that outline it. In the center, the face of Öcalan stands out, while on the right, among others, we find Lorenzo Orsetti, known as Orso, killed at 33 in the conflict in Syria against Isis in March 2019, and on the left that of Hevrin Khalaf, general secretary of the Party Syrian of the Future and women’s rights activist killed at the age of 35 during an ambush in October 2019. Soon after, he is attracted to a door on which the Azadi (freedom) sign stands.
Upon entering, you discover a garden where a tree is planted on April 4th of each year to celebrate Öcalan’s birthday. Next to it is the area used by the “horsemen” to stop the horses of the “carriages” for tourists. And then there is the two-story building on which the PKK flag flies, where Kurdish language courses, film screenings and book presentations are organized and the large open space where Newroz is celebrated with the traditional fire every 20 March, although it has not taken place in the past two years due to the pandemic. Despite the blocking of some activities, Ararat remains a model of self-managed community space, a place of dignity.
Cahite Ozel, 48, lived there for many years. She arrived in Rome in 2008 to help her brother Abdurrahman, a mamoste, a storyteller blind from birth, now 60 years old. She was born in Kenike, Turkey, and when her village burned down in 1995 she moved to Nisebin. “The Turkish government killed many people, including two of my brothers, so I took refuge in Italy.” says Cahite. “I started over with occasional jobs that I lost due to COVID. If I had been alone, I would have left Italy because the Italian government has not given us anything, only a document, but I have to look after my brother. I’ve always been his mother.”
“Ararat is a unique experiment, it does not exist in other parts of the world. Kurds from all over Kurdistan gather here. We meet, we look at each other and we recognize each other. It is exciting to meet again. We know we have the same culture. It is a deeply rooted identity. Nothing can erase it,” explains Sait Dursun, one of the Kurds who remained in Italy.
“I arrived in Rome at the age of 18 from Yarik, a village on Mount Ararat,” says Sait. When I lived there, I didn’t know that other worlds existed. I was afraid and ashamed of being Kurdish. I grew up with a sense of inferiority.”
Today Sait is 38 years old, has three children and works as an interpreter and toymaker. He says he feels “more Italian than Turkish, even though I am Turkish on the documents. …In Italy I opened my eyes. I found the freedom that allowed me to understand myself,” he explains. “If you are free, you are not afraid to say who you are. Under the fear only lies are only told.”
Many like him love Italy, but have been forced to leave because in the rest of Europe, especially in Germany, they find better living conditions. “On the basis of a 2014 regulation for the adaptation of the Italian system to the European one,” explains Sait, “holders of international protection, after 5 years and demonstrating a series of economic requirements, can convert their residence permit into a long-term permit residing and moving to Europe to work.”
The Badolato experience
Many of the Kurds of Badolato, the small Calabrian town which on 26 December 1997 welcomed 840 people who landed on the Ionian coast of Catanzaro with the ship Ararat, also took the opportunity. Long before Riace, Badolato became a model of hospitality. “It was the first time for everyone,” says Daniela Trapasso, teacher and former councilor for social policies and education of the Municipality of Badolato, at the time a simple observer who felt so much empathy for the refugees that she “pretended to be a Red Cross volunteer to help them.”
“There was another landing also on August 24, 1997 – continues Trapasso – 480 people arrived, including Turkish and Iraqi Kurds, Bengalis and Sri Lankans, but the Dublin Convention entered into force in September, so they all went on to Europe only with the way sheet. Nobody was afraid of them. In the evening, in the camp set up in a school, guitars were played and sang together. The same happened with the Kurds on the Ararat ship.”
The mayor of the time, Gerardo Mannello, returned to office in 2016, decided to offer them the vacant houses in the Calabrian village immediately baptized “The Italian Kurdistan.” “The arrival of the Kurds coincided with a period of depopulation in Badolato – continues the former councilor. We got funding to fix the housing and gave the refugees a place to start over. The Kurds were born here a second time. I am still moved when I think about those days. Most then went to Northern Europe, but we still receive messages of nostalgia: ‘We have never again found the humanity of Badolato. Our heart is still there.’”