Madrid: Millennials find a way out of loose ends in Vallecas

Article published on April 26, 2018
Article published on April 26, 2018

When we talk about millennials, we tend to think that they are all the same and have equal opportunities. What are things like for young people living in Vallecas, the neighbourhood with the highest youth unemployment rate in Madrid, for instance? To find out, I went to visit La Kalle, a cultural organisation committed to helping young people find their way. 

For our YoTambien project, we dove into the themes of Yo!Fest @ the EYE2018, Europe's largest youth-led political festival, to explore the issues that matter to young people the most. This article focuses on the theme "calling for a fair share". 

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“Yesterday, we told everyone on WhatsApp that you would be here today and you would be taking pictures of them. From what I can see, they’ve taken it pretty seriously,” says Arancha, one of the teachers at La Kalle (a word play on the Spanish word for street, “calle”, ed.), a cultural organisation based in Vallecas, Madrid. Its main goal is to help young people between the ages of 16 and 30, who don’t have sufficient resources to live and often have difficult personal situations, to not get left behind. Luis, another teacher, smiles and bites his lip as he sees one of the students rush through the corridor with a pair of jeans and a hoodie in her hands. She just changed into a long, flowing summer dress. Her name is Katy, she’s 21 years old and is a student in the business workshop, where she learns to sell, manage order and deal with clients. At first glance, she seems like any other regular teenager. But if she’s here today, it’s because social workers have deemed her personal situation put her on the verge of social exclusion. She emigrated from Colombia with her mother and her brothers. She wanted to be free and able to make her own decisions, as neither her father nor her country agreed with her making her own choices. In her passport, there is a male name. But not for much longer. 

To be honest, Vallecas is not really a neighbourhood. It’s so big that it actually spans two of the 21 districts (Puente de Vallecas and Villa de Vallecas) that make up Madrid. There are 339,035 people that live here, a population higher than that of Alicante and almost the same as Bilbao. It’s like a mini-city within Madrid (3,231,000 inhabitants) with its own football team, the Rayo Vallecano, and a local television channel called Tele K that has been running since 1992. With a historic tradition of hosting migrants, first in the 60s with families from other Spanish provinces and now with immigrants from other countries (mainly Moroccans, Romanians and Ecuadorians), Vallecas is no longer what it was in the 80s. The reality of that poor district south of Madrid, forgotten by public policies and plagued by crime and heroin, has changed a lot. But it’s an age-old story; we already know how these things go. The stigma and ‘bad reputation’ is passed on from generation to generation, especially if your family is working class. Who suffers the most? Young people. In March 2018, of the 179,406 unemployed people registered in Madrid, 27,051 live in Vallecas. 8.62% are under 30 years old, the highest percentage in Madrid. 

 

“In Vallecas, there has always been poor people and nothing has ever been done about it. Politicians haven’t take into account this reality,” says Gonzalo, a member of La Kalle’s management team. “Here, people still say they are going to Madrid when they go downtown.” The eyes of this Chilean, who has been living in Madrid for 16 years, have seen many cases of young people on the margins. He knows what should be prioritised and what shouldn’t. “Politicians need to come back down to earth. All the advantages that Europe offers, like the European Youth Card, the Erasmus programmes and the exchanges… are all very good, but they are destined to a group that is not the majority. How can we send our kids on exchange if they can’t speak English?” More problems arise, according to him, when donors specify beforehand the type of project and students that the funds are destined for without taking into account the real local need. “We receive funding from European institutions. These send it to the Ministry of Education, who in turns sends it to the Community of Madrid, who then send it to a social fund in charge of calling for tenders, to whom we have to submit a project. What happens in the end? From the hundreds of projects submitted, they only pick one.”

Stop smiling, this is serious

Everyone is already inside the classroom where IT mechanics is normally taught. There are eight boys and five girls. But today, the class will be different. One of their classmates, Asser, has prepared a presentation. “This is serious, so no messing around. I am going to talk about the war in Syria,” he says, without hesitation, in a beautiful Arabic accent and with the seriousness of someone who seems to have been speaking publicly all his life. Although he is only 18, he looks older but the black cap he is wearing backwards brings us back to the present. Suddenly, everyone is silent. “We came here from Syria because we couldn’t live there anymore. We were living among the dead and suffered through the disappearance of many of our cousins. You can’t grow up afraid,” he says.

Unlike Asser, who arrived with his family from Turkey by plane after his father had gone into exile in Madrid a year earlier, Mohammed and Amin, two other Syrian boys present here today and a lot more introverted than him, arrived here alone and still don’t know what is going to happen to them a month from now. In 2015, the Member States undertook the relocation of 160,000 refugees settled in Italy and Greece. Spain was responsible for 17,337 people. But on the 26th of September 2017, when the expiration period was up, it had only welcomed 11% of what was promised, according to Oxfam Intermón. While the Asylum and Refugee Office collapse, the numbers keeps on rising. In 2016, 3,069 asylum requests from Syrian people were received. Ahead of them are the Venezuelans, with 4,196 people in search of dignity, peace and a better life. 

It’s break time, and everyone goes outside to smoke, check their phones, have a sandwich or just chat. They are sitting on the floor. I notice that Mohammed and Amin don’t speak much to the rest. Maybe they are shy or tired. But the first barrier that separates them from the rest is not cultural; it’s linguistic. They both started university in Syria and speak very good English, but they are still learning Spanish. “We travelled from Syria to Lebanon; then Algeria, Morocco, and finally Melilla. That is where we met. After spending 43 days in a refugee camp in terrible conditions, we were transferred to Madrid and Almeria. After a couple of months, we decided to head to Europe, me to Germany,” says Amin, “and Mohammed to the Netherlands.” After several months of mishaps, authorities made them return to Spain since, according to the Dublin Convention, refugees must follow the asylum process from the first European country they arrive in. “Meeting again here has been the only good thing that has happened to us in the last couple of months,” says Amin who, even though he is 29 years old, has the tired gaze of someone who has been through a lifetime of suffering.

Every morning, they leave the shelter where they are temporarily living and head to La Kalle to study IT mechanics. In the evenings, they go to a CEAR centre (Spanish Refugee Aid Commission, ed.) where they eat, learn Spanish, and forget for a bit that their new lives are not like the rest. “Now we just wait for something good to happen to us,” says Mohammed. According to Spanish legislation, the administration must get back to applicants within a period of six months. But these two gentlemen have met people at the shelter who have been waiting a lot longer. When I ask if I can take their picture, they don’t only say yes, they also smile: “Can you send it to us later?”

“Dreaming is fine in moderation"

Mustafa, on the other hand, is not a huge fan of having his picture taken. The 22-year-old sociology graduate from Conakry, Guinea, stayed indoors during the break. The first thing I think when I see him is that he is a serious guy that will not want to talk to me. He is very tall. He’s also very handsome. He could be a model, but I guess it is not in his plans. I noticed that he observes everyone. Unlike everyone else who is shouting, laughing and making a racket, he only speaks when spoken to. In 2016, he tried to jump the fence in Ceuta. The fence is a double wall of barbed wire and concertina mesh that is eight kilometres long and separated Morocco from Spain. Together with Melilla, it is the only land border that separates Europe from the African continent. “I tried but I couldn’t make it. That’s why I went by sea and arrived to Granada in a ‘patera’ boat. These are things that can’t be told because they are very hard.” His plan was to get to France, but you see, “Man proposes but God disposes,” he adds. In that moment, another one of the teachers comes over and scolds him – nicely – to not be so critical with everything that has happened to him. “You can’t say you were warmly welcomed when you arrived by patera. Normal people travel by plane, train, bus and you risked your life.” Mustafa nods but doesn’t add any details. “I didn’t have an easy life, and the only thing I want is for it to be peaceful, with a job, a legal status, and a little house.” He doesn’t realise that he could also have a big house if he wanted to. “Yeah, dreaming is fine, but sometimes you have to learn to moderate your desires.” 

A homogeneous generation? 

When the media talks about millennials and the economic shocks that we are facing, we often forget that in this so-called group of ‘indies’ addicted to social media, lovers of collective economy, hyper-connected, existentialist, and multi-lingual travellers, we are not all the same. In Spain, however, there is one thing we all have in common: with a rate of 36% of youth unemployment, not everyone has studied or spent time abroad, not everyone can count on their families for financial support, and not everyone can find the way to move forward with their own life plans. 

“Even though life may get hard, you can always find a way to move forward,” says Lorena, a 20-year-old girl from Madrid with a sharp tongue. She was born in Malaga and has been living in juvenile facilities since she was 12 years old because her mother had better things to do than take care of her and her siblings. If it hadn’t come from her mouth, that sentence would have seemed provocative to me, but when Lorena says it, it sounds comforting. Do you feel different from the rest? “I don’t, but there has always been a lot of prejudice. When you say you are a girl under the protection of the community of Madrid, people start making up their own conclusions. ‘What did you do?’”

The others have already left but she is smoking, she is not in a hurry. From what I can see, talking makes her feel good. “I didn’t have to run from the war like Asser, but I know what it’s like to have to start over again and again in a place where you don’t want to be. It is really hard.” Lorena has never travelled outside of Spain, but she would love to. “Where do you want to go?” I ask. “I don’t know… the truth is I never really thought about it.” At only 20 years old, she still has time. Time to travel and to study criminology: her greatest dream. She also has time to remember that we are not alone in this world. “Above everything, we must learn how to share,” she adds. “It is not the same to eat a sweet on your own, than to share it amongst four people.” I laugh and she thinks twice about what she just said: “Well, it all depends on the size of the sweet, of course.” 

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Cafebabel is a media partner of Yo!Fest, the annual political youth-led festival organised by the European Youth Forum that mixes political debates and workshops with live music and artistic performances. The festival is once again being organised as part of the European Youth Event - EYE2018 at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. The #EYE2018 provides a unique opportunity for over 8,000 young Europeans to make their voices heard and shape a vision for the future of Europe. This series will explore the event's five core themes: Keeping up with the Digital Revolution, Staying Alive in Turbulent Times, Working out for a Stronger Europe, Protecting our Planet and Calling for a Fair Share. Follow the EYE and Yo!Fest on social media.

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