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F4D Special Envoy for Human Rights

My vision of journalism wouldn't be shared by my American colleagues. In fact, when I explained what drives me and what my aims are to my professors while completing a Master’s program at Columbia University, they told me I had probably chosen the wrong career. 

To me, being a reporter isn't just a quest to find the truth. I do feel a strong responsibility to be objective and unbiased, to convene the most complete information to my audience. But this is not all for me. I see journalism as a tool to impact the world surrounding me, to make it fairer, to give a voice to those who wouldn't have one and to force whomever is guilty – whether it’s a mafia affiliate or a corrupt or unethical politician – to be held accountable. 

In fact, growing up in the Berlusconi-led Italy was, for me, very shaping. I remember protesting against the corruption of the first Republic when I was 9 years old, and getting very frustrated by seeing the same behavior happening over and over again through the years, as if no preceding scandal was unbearable enough. My frustration came to an end when I joined a team of brave reporters in 2006, at the age of 20, and I had the chance to be active about all sorts of injustices. 

I started traveling my country telling stories of people forced to live in houses infested with asbestos and getting sick because of it, among many others, investigating the lack of safety measures that killed 7 people in the Thyssenkrupp fire, chasing after those politicians who were colluding with the Italian mafia (such as Marcello Dell’Utri, former deputy who funded Berlusconi’s party and who is now serving a 7 year jail sentence). I kept working with one rule in mind: since I understood that not much happens in Italy, even after a scandal surfaces, I decided I would persist – time and time again – until I could find some justice for the victims of the stories on which I was reporting. If you can’t fix a situation with a reportage, try again, and then again, until it works. 

After working for Annozero, the most followed and controversial political talk show in Italian State television, I was part of a group of 12 reporters who started a newspaper in 2009 (Il Fatto Quotidiano, today among the best-selling in the country). Once again, I was working in an atypical context, since my boss’ request was to simply do our job, without any regard for the powerful or for people that could have (and did) make our lives very difficult through law-suits and intimidations. This might seem normal – a journalist being the watch dog of the powerful rather than the pet – but in Italy, it’s often not the case. As great as it was to work for my newspaper, for which I still write today, I started feeling the need to go deeper into stories, to have more time to research and produce stories with the potential of having a greater impact. 

I started working on my first documentary when I was studying in New York with the aid of Newsweek magazine. It focused on the women behind the mob; those who run the clans in the most powerful and rich crime organization worldwide, the ‘Ndrangheta. Spending time with them, exploring the drug trade between New York and Milan, getting ahold of telephone tappings and surveillance videos in which, for instance, they order murders with electric saws, made me realize there is another aspect of this job that I value: the fact that I get to explore and experience so many realities that I would otherwise know nothing about. 

I then worked on other projects, but it was only when Franca Sozzani asked me to become Special Envoy for Fashion 4 Development, that I decided to focus more on matters of human rights. I figured that what had always driven me – the desire to fix injustices – could now be at the very core of my work. I spent a lot of time figuring out the best way to be of use and to honor the important job Evie and Franca had given me. I decided that in order to do that, I had to dedicate my skills and my time to telling stories of human rights violations, making them as widely known as possible so that people would have a tough time ignoring them. 

Exploring many different stories, I found one worth telling. Interestingly enough, I didn’t need to go to developing countries, nor to places blended by wars or extreme poverty to find the worst violations of very basic human rights. 

This story takes place less than 100 km south of Rome. After the Gomorra saga attracted the attention of the press, making doing business so much more difficult for the mob, most of the drug trading moved from Scampia and other neighborhoods in Naples to a small town called Caivano, 25 km north of the city. Parco Verde, the biggest drug dealing “piazza” in Caivano, is impenetrable. There are eyes watching at all times to make sure nobody gets in, and very often, this is a job for the local children. I was very interested in finding out what life’s like for the almost 600 kids living there. 

In this town, where local bosses (according to police records) rent each street for about 100,000 euros a month to drug dealers, with the guarantee that no police will bother the drug market, kids are very aware of who is in charge. 14-year-old Carmen explains how the Camorra is helping her and her mother now that her brother – a mafia affiliate –  went to prison. She’s been aware of who deals and who kills, she says, since the age of 6, when a man was shot dead in front of her for the first time. 

Her classmate, Mario, also witnessed an execution ten years ago: that of his father. While we were filming, Mario asked a friend of his older brother, who also died, to help him beat up a kid who was “disrespecting me”. Just like Francesca or Maicol, the other main characters of this documentary, Mario is at the age at which he has to choose his path: he can either join the local gangs or stay in school. In fact, it is the local school, or better the principal who was running it, at the center of this story. 

Her name is Eugenia Carfora and for the past 10 years, she’s been fighting her very personal, daily battle: bring kids to school and keep them there as much as possible, because when they are not in class, most often, they are in the streets learning a very different and dangerous job. And even when kids want to stay out of trouble, trouble seem to find them. The only playground in town, for instance, is surrounded by junkies walking around 6-year-olds with syringes pending from their arms. One of the kids’ favorite games is mocking the junkies: they walk like them, imitate facial tics, and count how many syringes encrusted with blood they manage to find. 

When Ms. Carfora started working in her school, it was dirty, with dead birds in the bathrooms and guns buried in the school’s courtyard. Years later, it became an example for the whole region, with laboratories on which to learn computer skills, jobs of all kinds, languages and arts. Ms. Carfora’s dream was to create a school filled with opportunities, and one that was extremely understanding toward the issues of kids who often have one or both parents in jail, and ensure that no one is left behind. “I promise, you don’t have to stay in class. Just come to school today, and we’ll take it from there,” I heard her saying to a young girl. There was only one problem: her work started paying off, kids were attending classes like never before, and the local mobs became increasingly frustrated by the absence of their young soldiers. 

On a more complex level, what probably scared the people who rule Caivano, was that Ms. Carfora’s work was generating hope and it was spreading around. For example, there was one square next to the school that was used for drug trading, where cages with guard dogs were used to scare off intruders.  She managed to get rid of the dogs and dealers and used it as a playground for the kids.

The day of the inauguration, people watched from the windows, clapping and unrolling white sheets as a sign of support. That was the turning point when, in Ms. Carfora’s opinion, it was decided that the school was too dangerous and had to be closed. And thus, it happened. 

The local mayor – a man who in his office carried pictures of Mussolini along with a vast collection of fascist symbols – informed Carfora that she didn't bear the minimum number to keep the school open (she had 593 students, the minimum was 600). With that, the school was closed and the kids scattered into other facilities nearby – only no other principal would check to see if the students were in class, as Carfora would do every morning as a mantra, calling the parents and driving to their homes or around Caivano to collect those who wouldn't show up by 8 am. 

This documentary was meant to tell a positive story: that, of a teacher who was saving kids one at the time in a very troubled place, where 36 children died just in recent years, due to mafia conflicts, drugs, accidents and a thick net of pedophiles well rooted in the area. But while filming, it became  another example of how easily unjustifiable decisions continue to be made in Italy, where everybody knows what’s going on but nobody intervenes. Even the former Minister of Education, informed of this situation, granted me an interview stating that with the closing of the school that the mafia had won, and declared her powerless about it. 

I know this film will not change the lives of these kids, but I do believe that bringing awareness – as F4D teaches – is a good place to start. And forcing people to open their eyes might accomplish some little miracle: reopening that school, in a land with no hope, could be just what these kids need to understand that not every scandal goes unpunished, and to give them a chance to be the ones who will write their own future.