Erasing a bad memory for a good purpose: How mafia seized properties have become socially useful

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A Ukrainian family has moved into property seized from the Italian mafia.

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Tetiana and her family didn’t have an easy escape from Ukraine after surviving the horrors of their family home of Bucha, a symbol of war atrocities allegedly committed by Russian soldiers in Ukraine.

Their priority was to find a place where they could eventually feel safe but they didn’t seem concerned about the history of the Italian house where they are now living.

It’s a place like no other given that the property used to belong to Italy’s ‘Ndrangheta – one of the country’s most powerful Mafia-type organisations.

According to the mayor and following the decision taken by the Interior Ministry, this house in Rescaldina is the first example of Mafia-seized property that is now being used to welcome Ukrainian refugees.

The small town’s mayor, Gilles Andrè Ielo was emotional when he recounted the first time he drove to pick up Tetiana and her family.

He had thought that handling the fight against COVID-19 in one Italy’s most hit areas was the hardest challenge he faced as a first time mayor in a town outside Milan, but the effects of the war Ukraine have also been very much felt across Italy including in Ielo’s town.

Yet the municipality of Rescaldina, a town of around 14,000, was prepared to host refugees, with already 50 living in the town. The Lombardy region has one of the largest communities of Ukrainian families in Italy.

For Ielo, above all, having a house where the family could settle has proved to be a game changer.

“The fact that they were not in a reception centre with too many people, but rather in a proper house made them feel much calmer,” Ielo said.

As we rang the bell and Tetiana opened the door, it was clear how strong the bond has become between the mayor and the family. There was laughter and jokes as Tetiana’s children saw Ielo.

The children’s father had stayed behind to fight.

It’s hard for Tetiana and her mother to recall the very first days of the Russian occupation. They told me they don’t want to talk about the past. They saw too many of their friends die and it’s too painful for them to go back to that time.

‘A strong message to organised crime’

Although it’s the first time that the government decided to use these properties to host refugees – authorities are in charge of a large quantity of this type of assets.

In 2021 alone, authorities seized €1.9 billion in assets from Italy’s criminal organisations.

As of today the National Agency for the Administration of Assets Confiscated from Organised Crime manages a total of around 40,000 properties.

The agency’s director Bruno Corda said “the very fact that the property has been returned to the community sends out a very strong message to organised criminals”.

He said that using the asset for social purposes is a way to challenge these Mafia-type organisations and somehow a way to erase once and for all a painful past.

The advantage in this case seems to be that both Tetiana and the local community have been able to start a new life.

When I asked Tetiana if her new home made her think of her old place, she said the two are quite similar but she said that she would love to go back to Ukraine and see where she used to live.

“Even a week to see it and retrieve a few documents would be enough,” she says, adding: “perhaps when I’ll be there I might even miss my new place in Rescaldina”.

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