City Layers or The Ambiguity of Being a Local

Each city receives its form from the desert it opposes. 

— Italo Calvino, The Invisible Cities


Turin, Italy, Europe, 2014

I can’t believe you don’t know what happened at the former Olympic Village – an old friend of mine tells me on my latest trip to Turin, my hometown.

– You really do not know your city anymore, you have been away for too long. You are more a foreigner than I am. I have lived in Italy and in Turin for less than ten years and I know the city better than you. — He laughs. — I am going to be your tourist guide today. I am going to show you some parts of the city as you have never seen them. –


I smile and I think it is true, my city has changed so much lately and I have not been around enough to follow this evolution. Living abroad, I have a frozen image of the place I come from. I think about it and, although the Alps still protect the city with their embrace and cobbled stones still cover its alleys in the old town, the social landscape has deeply changed since I was a teenager. I find myself in a city full of cafes and trendy wine bars, I can hear different languages spoken in the streets and I see in people’s faces a variety of features that remind me of the population of multi-ethnic big European capitals, and not of the cold industrial city I thought I came from.

I get guided through my hometown as a tourist; I follow my guide as I was visiting Turin for the very first time. We go through metro stations and big boulevards, we cross the city and make our way to the suburbs that had their moment of glory 8 years ago for the Olympic Games. We go through a big shopping mall and pass in front a handful of corner shops, entering in a very ordinary neighbourhood, just a spit away from the city fair and conference centre and a railway station. We cross the famous pedestrian bridge with the red arch, the one you will find on the postcards promoting the “Turin always on the move” and finally reach the former Olympic Village. The colourful building complex, home of celebrity athletes and promising young sport talents during the Winter Games of 2006, still hosts international guests. Mostly of African origin, the hundreds of new inhabitants of the former Olympic Village, locally known as the “Ex-MOI”, were granted the status of refugees upon their arrival in Italy. The first two hundred people moved here by forcing their way in; the other three, four hundred joined by hearsay, following a lead given by Italian authorities in Lampedusa once asylum had been granted. Many among the new tenants of the Ex-MOI were working in Libya; following the Arab Spring they were lucky enough to reach Europe and were welcomed by the Italian government “Emergency North Africa Plan”, a declaration of emergency and integration program that represented a helping hand out of the war and into a new life in another country. Two years into this emergency plan, the government decided to close it because declared temporary and unsustainable in the long term. The thousands of people enrolled in the program were given 500 Euros to start a new life, finding themselves in a confused limbo and suddenly without a roof over their head.


It is not the first time a building has been occupied in the city of Turin to provide shelter to refugees. I already visited another occupation concerning in refugees in 2009, the Clinica San Paolo, a former private clinic that was occupied in order to respond to the emergency of housing political refugees on the Municipality’s housing waiting list. In fact, in the name of Article 10 of the Italian Constitution [The right to asylum] and as part of the SPRAR program [Services for the Protection of Asylum Seekers and Refugees], the Municipality of Turin is supposedly in charge of finding suitable housing and training for individuals enrolled on the program. However, due to lack of planning and resources, emergency solutions have long become permanent solutions. As I enter the concrete yard in the middle of the four occupied buildings, I realise that in the past 5 years the housing emergency has got worse. This occupation is massive.

More than 600 refugees currently occupy 4 of the buildings of the original Olympic Village, an area that in 2006 had a capacity of 2500 athletes in 22,000 square metres of residential buildings. My chaperon confirms. This is the largest, stablest and most important occupation for refugees that has ever taken place in Italy.

The four multi-storey occupied buildings open in a central yard where people hang out. Kids play soccer, people roast corn or simply chat, sitting on a bench. Women observe the lively scene from the balconies, others stroll around with their babies and friends. In front of me a neighbourhood unfolds, a community where 21 different nationalities and dozens of languages coexist.


— You see, the splendours of the Olympic Games, you see who has taken the leftovers. I don’t think this is how the Municipality thought this area would have been re-used – my chaperon comments as we enter one of the buildings. — Hopefully, – he adds, — they will not get kicked out. There are too many people living here now and, also for the Municipality, this situation is better than having all these people in the streets.

I follow him and for the following couple of hours we go up and down the very unstable staircases of every one of the four buildings, holding to the walls as we slipper, the steps falling apart under our feet. We enter a few rooms, where I meet different people sharing similar stories of migration. I ask them about my hometown, what places they go to, their general impression of the city in which I grew up. I hear about a city I am not familiar with, they talk to me about a place I do not know anymore. Their reaction to my curiosity is always the same; the only locals who come here are volunteers, activists and journalists, but I do not belong to any of these categories. The questions usually concern the place where they come from, the issues they have, not often they are asked about the place where they live now. But me, I am a visiting. I am meeting people who are trying to build their new life in the very same place I left to build my life somewhere else.


– I thought you were a local here.

-Yes, but I haven’t lived here for a long time….- and I share my story of migration, result of the brain drain and immense curiosity. The exchange is big and intense.

The sun heats up the concrete yard as we walk out to reach the metro station. I am silent, wondering about spaces and overlapping, coincidences, luck and fate, when my friend breaks the silence and asks for feedback of his tour.

– I hope the tour was up to your expectations. — He smiles, and then he adds: — So, you met the “Moians”… who is the local now? –


1Neologism to define the new tenants of the “Ex-MOI”

Published on Medium and on billionBRICKS


This story does not intend to be a comprehensive explanation of the complex political and social situation refugees are currently living in Italy or in the city of Turin. For references and sources and more information on the topic, please refer to the links below:

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