By Michelle Hough, communications officer for Caritas Internationalis
I’m thinking about how I really should buy a pair of warm boots. My feet are freezing. I’m standing in a tent in L’Aquila, the central Italian town where a 6.3 magnitude earthquake killed over 300 people in April and left over 65,000 people homeless. The drafty blue tent is someone’s home.
Maria Olga, 76, and her two sons have been living in the temporary shelter on the edge of a sports field for seven months. A wheelchair sits between two beds because Maria Olga can’t walk very far. She looks very fragile. There is a stove so they can cook instead of going to the nearby canteen, where “there is always a queue”. As the tent walls shake in the icy mountain wind I wonder how on earth they manage to live in such conditions.
“They’ve left us with two toilets and two showers which don’t work properly. When you turn them on, ice cubes come out,” jokes Sandro Cicerone, who also lives in the camp which is made up of around 20 tents.
When I came to L’Aquila one week after the earthquake, the whole sports field and many other parts of the town were covered with the government-issue temporary blue structures. Now, a lot of housing has been built but over 24,000 people have yet to find a permanent home. Some live in tents, others with family and friends, some in barracks, while others live in hotels around the region.
Driving around the edge of the centre of this historical town, we stare at the shops, banks and businesses which closed their doors seven months ago and have never since reopened. Anna Arcuri, a colleague from Caritas Italiana, tells me that people have not been able to go back to work in the centre. People who lived there were given a few minutes accompanied by the fire brigade to go and collect their possessions after the earthquake.
I’ve come to L’Aquila with Rosette Héchaimé, regional coordinator for Caritas members in the Middle East and North Africa, and Sébastien Dechamps, head of emergencies for Secours Catholique (Caritas France). As we drive past the piles of rubble which still litter the streets and the buildings scarred by gaping cracks and holes, Sébastien asks something which has never occurred to me: “What do families do about their children’s schooling if they’ve been put in hotels on the coast and far from L’Aquila?”
“Some of them bring their children here to school,” says Danilo Feliciangeli, L’Aquila earthquake response coordinator for Caritas Italiana. “That can mean two hours’ drive there and back. Other people who’ve been housed far away from L’Aquila put their children in a local school. These people may also have lost their jobs in L’Aquila because of the earthquake and may never come back here to live.”
Caritas is building three schools in L’Aquila and also plans to construct some flats along with a community centre in Pettino – one of the worst-hit districts.
Directly after the earthquake volunteers came from all over Italy to help with the emergency as Caritas distributed hot food, clothes and toiletries. We meet a group of Caritas volunteers who are living in tents. They take us with them on their rounds to visit some elderly people. The volunteers frequently visit them to offer moral support and run errands such as shopping or going to fetch medicines.
An important part of Caritas’ work over the past seven months has been focused on helping people face the psychological stress of the earthquake. It has organised activities for children, provided moral support for people who have survived the disaster and it is currently helping the Camillian Fathers and Rome’s Bambino Gesù children’s hospital produce a study on post-traumatic stress caused by the earthquake.
Danilo tells us that it is important to try to recreate a sense of community – especially considering many people have had to move home and are living in unfamiliar places. The new flats don’t yet offer communal meeting places such as shops, bars and community centres.
As we drive back to Rome in the dark, I tell Rosette and Sébastien about how amazed I’d been at the number of emails and phone calls I’d received from people around the world offering money and help to the people of L’Aquila following the earthquake.
“It’s not that surprising,” says Rosette, “Italians are much loved across the world. And they are always very generous and ready to help others when they are in difficulty.”