By Ombretta Baggio, IFRC
They come from all walks of life, nationalities and socio-economic strata, but they are all facing the same devil: drug addiction. Some of them work as professionals, some others do not work at all and are constantly looking for more money to cover their drug needs.
No one is refused at the Villa Maraini Foundation in Rome, a centre founded 37 years ago by the Italian Red Cross. No one is excluded from accessing its community services, its street units or its daily drop-in centre. This is all about applying the fundamental principles – humanity and neutrality – to all vulnerable people in need of assistance.
Julius, a tall Nigerian man, is busy preparing the food for hundreds of people using the centre’s canteen every day. He is the centre’s head chef. He is also one of the former drug users who went through the centre’s recovery programme. In fact, some 30 per cent of the workers in Villa Maraini are former drug users.
“I came to Italy with a scholarship when I was still a young teenager. I wanted to become an architect. In the mid-80s, when things started falling apart in Nigeria, many of us lost our bursaries. We found ourselves with no money in a foreign country. But this was our opportunity in life and we could not simply leave,” he says.
“We had to make it up for ourselves and I started a housing business. Things went wrong. Drugs were found in one of the houses I was sub-letting and no one, of course, claimed responsibility for it. I found myself in prison for the first time ever and fell into a downwards spiral of drug addiction.
“For 20 years my life was in and out of prison, unsuccessfully trying to deal with my drug addiction problem and working as a drug dealer to get high on everything and anything,” he says. “Making money was easy. It was as easy as losing my family and destroying my entire life.”
In 2003, there was a turning point. After yet another arrest, the judge suggested Julius go to the alternative detention centre in Villa Maraini. That was not the end of his nightmare though. “I started the programme but soon after, in 2004, I was arrested again and sent to the maximum prison. It was only in 2006 that I was able to start the full therapy programme.” Villa Maraini and the Italian Red Cross staff have followed Julius over the years and witnessed the many obstacles he has faced.
“The main focus of any treatment initiative must be to build a trusting relationship with drug users, to help them in times of need or when they are ready to be helped. Every case is different. It is simply not possible to force people to follow a recovery process in which they do not believe,” says Fabio Patruno, one of the founders of Villa Maraini, currently President of ERNA, the European Red Cross Red Crescent Network on HIV, AIDS and Tuberculosis.
“Every human being can improve his or her life and reintegrate into society if properly assisted and given the right conditions.”
Today, Julius is a key member of the centre’s staff. For over six years, Julius has been slowly and patiently walking through the journey of change, reconnecting with his life, his family, his ambitions and dreams. In less than a year, he will graduate from the University of Rome and a another new chapter in his life will begin.
Julius is one of the many drug users who has successfully pulled himself out of the drug addiction spiral thanks to a tailored harm reduction programme.
The Italian Red Cross has been active in the field of drug-related issues since 1976, when its then president, Massimo Barra, founded the Villa Maraini Therapeutic Community in Rome. Today, the therapeutic community is a multi-service free treatment facility, the most comprehensive in Italy, that helps 800 drug users each day with a wide range of free therapies. It has a success rate of over 30 per cent.
Villa Maraini has now become one of the leading centres in substance abuse mitigation and prevention, serving as a reference for all Red Cross Red Crescent National Societies. Since 2004, the Villa Maraini Foundation – together with the Italian Red Cross and the IFRC – provides regular training and technical assistance on harm reduction and drug abuse treatment to over 25 National Societies worldwide.
In 2011, the three organizations established the ‘Partnership on Substance Abuse’. It offers a range of services and technical support to National Societies and partners, ranging from tailored training programmes, guidance tools and manuals, to knowledge management and research.
Injecting drug use should not be seen as a criminal act, but as a major public health issue. We have a responsibility to safeguard the well-being of drug users and allow them to minimize harm to themselves and others by offering simple life-saving services and continuous support.