Pietro Varriale works with troubled youths in Naples; he hasn’t been paid in two years. Photograph: Jon Henley for the Guardian
Pietro Varriale is a burly, bearded and impassioned man who has been working with children in difficulty in Naples since 1998. He is involved in two projects through a non-profit organisation called Associazione Obiettivo Napoli: in one, he and his six-strong team welcome between 30 and 60 children a day aged eight to 16 who are in minor trouble – at school, with their families or with the police – and work with them: making lamps and furniture from recycled materials they collect themselves from the rubbish dump, mounting plays, sometimes just playing football.
In the second, the youth workers provide one-on-one counselling and advice to severely affected youngsters: victims of sexual abuse, of violence, who have family members in prison. Many of the children the youth workers deal with in this particular programme, Pietro says, come from families with links to the Camorra, Naples’ all-pervading Mafia-like criminal organisation.
“It’s a question of building up trust, educating them emotionally and morally, improving their self-esteem,” he said. “Very often they have experience of violence, and their first instinct is to resort to violence. It’s something you have to do step by step. It takes time, building such relationships. To start with you’re an intermediary between them and society, and the goal is gradually to be able to step back, so they can become full citizens themselves.”
Since the austerity measures introduced by central government to tackle Italy‘s yawning budget deficit and shore up confidence in its economic system, however, Obiettivo Napoli has been running into problems. Central funding to town halls has been cut, in some cases drastically, and organisations like Pietro’s, which sit uneasily somewhere between education, welfare and rehabilitation budgets, have been the first to suffer.
Bureaucratic obstacles are being put in their way: “They’re saying we need a second degree in education science to be able to do this work,” says Pietro. “It’s crazy. I have 15 years experience in this field, most of the team likewise, and we all have first degrees. A second degree is going to cost people a fortune, really a lot of money, and there’s no help or grant for that kind of thing. We’ve been given till 2013 to conform.”
Rather more seriously, the city hall has simply stopped paying Obiettivo Napoli’s bills. The association has had to borrow money from the bank to bridge the increasing gaps between payments. Pietro says he hasn’t been paid properly for nearly two years. He doesn’t have a family to support, but nonetheless has had to resort to bar work, waiting, picking tomatoes, building stages for concerts and summer outdoor theatre productions.
“You keep going because of the kids, the relationships you build up,” he said. “You just want to give them a choice in life, give them the skills so they can function properly in society. It doesn’t always work, of course with some of them you don’t succeed. But there are others …
“Just recently one boy, from a very violent background, very difficult – we were collecting stuff to recycle from the tip and he cut his knee. He held up this bit of skin and said, ‘Hey, Pietro, what can we recycle this for? Could be useful.’ He was joking, of course. But you knew he had changed, grown up, understood something. He would never have reacted like that before.”
His story encapsulates quite a few of Italy’s problems, Pietro reckons: “A bureaucracy that’s never happier than when it can create barriers to people who want to do something useful. Laws that are sound in principle, but can’t be made to work in practice. A lack of concern for the collective good. An absence of vision, of a real political or social project, on the part of politicians. And now a shortage of public money. It’s not great.”