The 'wall of shame'
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Letter to Friends around the World # 93

Roma families from Portugal have demolished the ’wall of shame’ which has surrounded a very poor area called the ’Pedreiras neighbourhood’ for almost 10 years. It separated the largest Roma community in Beja from the rest of the Alentejo society.

For safety reasons, the wall which is 100 metres long and three metres high was built because of a road carrying heavy goods vehicles on the outskirts of the neighbourhood. But the Roma community did not accept the wall, seeing it as something to segregate and exclude them. Despite a solidarity movement that supported the Roma community, Beja Council refused to do anything, and in 2015 the Roma community decided to demolish the wall. It was not a sudden fit of rage which caused its destruction. More than 300 people from all ages, expressed their outrage persistently year after year by making holes in the concrete with whatever they had to hand: hammers, bits of metal, stones and pieces of wood.

About a month ago, it was down and ’no one feels like they live in a cemetery for the living any more’. ’And now we can even see the town!’ exclaimed its residents happily. Bruna G., was delighted: ’We destroyed the wall. It’s a great victory,’ which marked a turning point in the lives of the Roma who were tired of ’the value judgements made by non-Roma about them’.

Prudencio C., the mediator who is working hard to break down the barriers between Roma and non-Roma, expressed a collective desire: ’We don’t want people to think that all we can do is knock down walls’. Therefore a partnership made up of a number of bodies has set up a project to improve living conditions in the neighbourhood. Julio S., one of the young people who lived in the area, encouraged the community to repair the roofs of the houses, before embarking on another task – to paint the 50 houses.

The Council approved funding to buy paint, and the residents decided democratically that blue would be the main colour. Prudencio C. pointed out that ’each house will be painted by the people living in it.’ Maria Monica was the first. She took a chair, asked for a paintbrush, and set to painting the front of her house. A few minutes later, her face and clothes were covered in paint. ’It doesn’t matter. My house will be prettier!’. But painting with a brush takes a very long time.

The first paint-rollers arrived and everything speeded up. Enthusiasm took hold of everyone and, bit by bit, the houses changed colour. The work will continue throughout the forthcoming weeks and the partners are now embarking on building a car park and planting fruit trees, requests were ’fig, plum, pear and others’. One of the men said he didn’t know how to plant trees, we put him in charge of watering them.

Carlos D., Pastoral Dos Ciganos, Portugal