“Free to Choose”

Roberto Di Bella: “Last July 31 renewed the memorandum of understanding”.

Also MIUR and CEI to free boys from mafia.

The revolutionary project “Free to Choose” born within the walls of the Juvenile Court of Reggio Calabria, the result of 25 years of experience of the President Dr. Roberto Di Bella, was the subject of a memorandum of understanding signed in February 2018 and renewed on 31 July 2020 by the Miur, the CEI, the Ministry of University and Research, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of the Interior, the Minister of Equal Opportunities and the Family at the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, the National Anti-Mafia Directorate , by the Juvenile Court of Reggio Calabria, by the Public Prosecutor’s Office at the Court of Reggio Calabria, by Libera, having as its purpose a “concrete alternative of life to minors and family members living in organized crime contexts“.

The funds that are disbursed by the Ministry of Justice, the Department of Equal Opportunities and the Family and the CEI thanks to the ‘Otto per mille‘ funds, have made it possible to create a “network of reception and accompaniment for all children and for all mothers who want to free themselves from the criminal game and from the pressures of the criminal family to which they belong ”.

For them “cultivating a hope of redemption is no longer a utopia, because we have concrete tools” – explains Di Bella – “and in addition to the strictly judicial and operational director, we have set ourselves the problem of carrying out a preventive cultural activity involving the schools and the university. The Ministry of Education gave us a helping hand and the “Free to choose” project became National. Circulars were issued to all regional school leaders in Italy, to talk about the project in schools, to raise awareness among teachers and children. Many schools in Calabria have adopted my book “Free to choose” as a text of education to legality [… ..]. The children who, thanks to their teachers, have read the book and seen the film Free to choose, have managed to externalize the their existential anxieties and family problems through the themes assigned to them on the subject “.

Roberto Di Bella leaves Reggio Calabria.

He left Reggio Calabria, leaving a part of his heart there. From his book, professionally autobiographical, you can read words of great love for that difficult, difficult, closed land, but which for 25 years has allowed him to make his profession a proactive activity. Never would he have thought that that place would one day become a laboratory of courageous and revolutionary initiatives. He would never have thought that his choice of having preferred a juvenile court, influenced by family dynamics, would have been the right one. The right person in the right place. He would never have thought of having to judge children who posed as men, whose destinies were already marked in the registry office at the time of birth. Only his great personality, his extraordinary sensitivity, without ever undressing his role, gave life to the project “Free to Choose”. Many criticisms from public opinion and the press. But none has ever discouraged him. The results were starting to arrive. The boys removed from the families of the n’drangheta, began to enjoy a life different from that offered by their families. They could finally free themselves from the weight of massive surnames, from the weight of gunshots, drugs, blood, prison. Here’s what he was given: the opportunity to be “normal” kids, free to make their own choices.

Unfortunately the n’drangheta is inherited. It is based on a family system – tribal, very reliable and repentance is rare, because it would mean accusing one’s parents or siblings or relatives. This closed and cyclical system is a succession of criminal actions and imprisonment or death, for which women, referred to in the book as the “white widows”, wives and mothers, are not given the opportunity to defend their children from that horrible fate. From an early age they have gotten used to controlling their emotions , to appearing harsh and inflexible, vindictive, to hating the police to the point of tattooing the symbol of the carabinieri under the sole of the foot, in order to be able to step on them continuously.

Di Bella, first as a magistrate and then as President of the Juvenile Court, sensed that the fight against that criminal system had to start from those courtrooms. The boys aged 13, 14, 15 were still boys. It all began with a little boy with the fictional name “Davide”, it was he with his apparent coldness and consequent fragility who sparked off. Something had to be “done”. They had to be treated like boys and, like all boys, what they needed was affection, care, attention, lightness, dreams.

Eradicating them from their families, if for someone it meant returning to an “Ethical State” for those kids it was oxygen. Today, besides the mothers, it is the fathers from prison who thank Dr. Di Bella for giving their children the opportunity to get out of the “system”, the system that forced them to 41 bis. “Take away our children, maybe they will be safe” reads some newspapers. These are the words of some bosses of the n’drangheta. A cultural revolution that until a few years ago it was unthinkable to be able to read in the newspapers.

Free to Choose attracts the interest of the international press.

The n’drangheta is not a phenomenon confined to Calabria. Its “luck” was to be able to branch out in many parts of the world, in all five continents, thanks to the great business of cocaine. From South America it arrives in Italy through some ports including that of Gioia Tauro to then be sorted nationally and internationally. This is why the international press and media immediately became interested in the project. Large newspapers such as the BBC, The Guardian, New York Times, the Parisian newspaper Le Monde and many other important news agencies, Chinese state television, major Japanese journalists, even the American University of Harvard contacted Dr. Di Bella to hold a web conference meeting in the coming weeks.

Arrive in Catania.

A new reality, a city of a thousand contradictions. Dr. Roberto Di Bella is the new President of the Court of Catania.

Although Sicilian, Catania is not his Messina, nor Reggio Calabria. Catania has different criminal logics, it is a city with a predominantly popular demography, Librino has the satellite city with the famous concrete building, it has the famous districts of the center and the suburbs, where schools are very active to try to stem the scholastic dispersion . Here, too, efforts are made to bring legality to the whole territory, but the dynamics are different from those of Calabria.

To the question – “Do you think that the Free to Choose project can also be applied here in this city?” – Di Bella replies:

“It is a territory that I am only starting to know now, but if the conditions are right, why not! In Reggio Calabria we have not done extraordinary things, we have applied the legal instruments available for the Juvenile Court. As we intervene to protect the children of abusive parents, alcoholics, drug addicts, in the same way we must intervene to protect the children of Mafia parents, when there is a Mafia educational method that can cause prejudice to the regular psychophysical development of children.

Valeria Barbagallo

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