With nowhere else to turn, dozens of refugees create a new home inside an old, abandoned school building. Photographer Horacio Siciliano documents life on the inside.
Most people walking around Barcelona’s Raval neighborhood don’t notice the old, rundown Massana school building. The bricks have lost their color. Graffiti words line the block, covering the entrance door. You would think it’s abandoned—until you see the migrants and refugees flowing in and out the main entrance all day.
Roughly 40 individuals have called this building home for months. They come from every part of the world: Russia, India, Pakistan, Morocco, Ukraine, Guinea, and Venezuela. Some traveled by air, others, hidden in trucks or small boats. They fled their homes in search of safety and solace. Yet what they found in Europe was anything but. Now they are a number, an expedient file that will take years to solve.
They call this building, their new home, El Encierro, the confinement. They stay in protest, denouncing the “social and institutional racism” they’ve felt since they’ve arrived. And they don’t intend to leave until the government meets their demands.
Some want asylum. Others simply want better treatment. More than anything, they all want a place to call home.
Not surprisingly, Spain’s government does not have the infrastructure or resources to integrate so many migrants requesting international protection, which means the majority are left in precarious situations, without money or employment, and often, without a place to sleep.
The door of El Encierro is plastered with immigration messages, each composed in a different language, with a different alphabet. The residents communicate with looks and gestures, as no one language is understood.
Despite their cultural differences, the residents of El Encierro treat each other like family. They don’t have anyone else.
The day begins with an assembly. Different committees meet to coordinate their work. Some take care of the food, which arrives by donation. Others are in charge of the cleaning. A few people each day set out time to welcome new residents and help them get acclimated.
Residents spend their days together, cooking, dancing, reading, or even practicing new languages. At some point, Pakistani tea is served. Small cups are scattered everywhere.There are meals for those who are hungry and beds for those who need rest.
Inside the communal living room lies a single communal couch. The rest of the room is bare. In other rooms, mattresses lie on the floor next to each other; food gets stacked in corners. Sometimes, misunderstandings happen. Tenants save a mattress and aren’t willing to share it with someone they don't know.
Misunderstandings are difficult to control when people don't understand each other, but at the end of the day, they work it out because they are all suffering the same. They all have the same fight.
Imourana left Guinea in a patera boat without looking back. Facing poverty, violence, and unemployment in his home town, he made the decision to leave. He had already lost two friends trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, but his yearning for a better future compelled him to try. His mantra: In god we trust.
The night he left was cold. He and about 25 others started sailing in a rubber boat without an accurate course, without lights, without lifeguards. After several hours, he found himself floating at night in the middle of nowhere. Suddenly, someone noticed that the boat was starting to lose air. A pointed object had punctured the rubber. They were sinking. Thanks to a rescue crew, they only spent a few minutes in the cold water. He and his fellow migrants were taken to Andalucía.
He stayed in Valencia for a month, waiting for asylum, learning Spanish, and coloring his life to distract his mind. Eventually, he left Valencia for Barcelona and came to El Encierro. But unlike the others, he only stayed for a week. Imourana had always wanted to get to Switzerland, and that's where he is headed right now.
Imourana doesn’t regret his journey. "I had to do it," he says. "Hope is the only thing left."
Sergei has been living in Spain for 18 years. He left Ukraine in 2000 looking for a better future—and found it in Spain. Though he already has Spanish nationality, he does not stop supporting his fellow compatriots.
Sergei is part of an association—a community of Belarusians, Russians, Ukrainians—that helps migrants and refugees in Spain. Sergei doesn’t want these refugees to suffer like he did. He knows how hard it can be to arrive in a new place without speaking the language, so he helps out as an interpreter as much as he can.
"People have to understand that we are all humans in search of the same thing, humanity."
In Spain, obtaining refugee status is very difficult. Sergei knows two Ukrainians who presented the same case in 2014, and one of them obtained status, while the other was denied. In his mind, there is no explanation—the process is “a lottery”.
Lahcen came to Spain in 2004, at just 27 years old. He fled one of the poorest villages in Morocco, hiding under a truck for hours until it arrived in Spain. He remembers how difficult it was to communicate—that was his first barrier. He slept on the street for a while. Fourteen years have gone by and he still has no asylum papers.
The immigration system is very hard, especially for Moroccans. After trying several times, Lahcen has still not been able to pass the test for Spanish citizenship.
Now, Lahcen spends his days at El Encierro, his new home.
As long as there are wars, persecutions, and poverty, people will try to find a safe place, a new start. Residents of El Encierro say they will stay as long as they need. They won’t quit. They fight to vindicate their rights as humans.
Refuges are just like you and me, with one difference; they’ve been forced to run away from their home to save their lives.