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In The Heart of Naples, a Tale of Perseverance Keeps Kids Out Of Troubles
“Quartieri Spagnoli” (Spanish Quarters) is not only a much talked-about district in Naples. It is a world of its own, a complex and fascinating ecosystem where the outside rules do not apply. Local people accustomed to their peculiar lifestyle developed original, unwritten conventions.
You should spend some time there to understand. On every day Quartieri Spagnoli are packed with pedestrians, cars and whirring Vespas. It is the crowd to offer the best of Naples. Neapolitans do their living in the streets, especially in the Quartieri Spagnoli where you can find friendly shopkeepers, hear loud conversations in dialect between pizzeria busboys, and where you are most likely to accidentally interrupt a two-on-two soccer game.
About two dozen kids — half in their early teens, half small children —make their way up a short, steep hill to the Ronin Club, located in Vico San Matteo, in the unusual setting of a desecrated church. Shopkeepers and house inhabitants pour water down their basement floors and the street is slick. Bunches of people slip and nearly fall. This is not a sport club like others.
Most of the people on sight are here for Karen Torre, 31, karate master and instructor. Some scouts, a few reporters from local outlets, a photographer — it’s all part of the unnatural role of a being a martial arts teacher in a place typically associated with mafia gangs and lawlessness.
By the way, Karen, half British and half Neapolitan – her dad is from Pozzuoli, her mom from London, where she resided for an extended amount of time during her childhood – handles the hill and humidity with ease.
How did you approach karate for the first time?
Karen: I had a passion for karate since I was six. I am now a black belt, but due to an injury, I had to abandon the competitions and thus I opened my first gym in Pozzuoli, where I still live, four years ago. Since 2012, I have set up the same activity at the Quartieri Spagnoli, not far from here. We moved to this church because the number of kids grew from 36 to 100, and space was not enough.
Why here and not in a fancier area?
K: I decided to start here because I liked the idea of practicing martial arts in a neighborhood like this. Martial arts are based on discipline, rules, and respect for the companion. It seemed nice to offer a sport with these values in a part of town not familiar with them.
How is life in the Quartieri?
K: Everybody knows life here is not simple. There is a lot of mistrust towards the government and police, and a few months ago we witnessed a killing not far from here (a man was shot by rival mafia members). But there’s a lot of solidarity, too. After the initial skepticism, families started attending the classes of their children with a sense of hope, and now, whenever we have a problem at the gym, everyone contributes to help in some ways – most of the time by word-of-mouth. We feel safe and accepted.
We have all kinds of background, but I would say most of my kids come from very working class families. Many are unemployed. Our classes are split by age: usually kids under the age of 8 attend in the early afternoon, those between age 8 and 12 in the evening and so on.
What kind of help do you expect from Catholic institutions and the city hall?
K: The Church granted us the use of this structure, which is great, but City Hall must help us with restorations and safety requirements. We only survive thanks to the generosity of our supporters, and very little membership fees – most of the time, kids attend this gym free, but they need to pay for their own uniforms when they attend competitions.
What is the kind of lifestyle of these kids?
K: Soccer is obviously the king of all sports here in Napoli, and Quartieri Spagnoli makes no exception.
We were surprised, however, by the big flow of families showing up to our classes, curious to learn more about karate or chanbara (a type of Japanese fencing). If we are talking about eating habits, I have only one word: frying. Fried snacks are always present here, and although delicious, we at Ronin Club are trying to address the importance of healthy, authentic food without too many carbohydrates.
Together with Karen and a five of her pupils, we walk to a not so distant house called Del Pazzariello (“of the Mad Guy”), where lives a family of travelling performers. Here we sit at a large table where the hosts offer a genuine pasta dish cooked with Traditional Ragù alla Fiorentina.
“Two of my chanbara students won podium at the World Championship in Japan. That’s a big accomplishment for a small gym club in a desecrated church!”
Karen is not only a karate master. She spends time with her students talking discussing their sentimental, family and school issues. “These kids are like family to me,” she repeats.
Now her world is at risk. City Hall and several parents are worried that gang tensions in the area could represent a threat too big for the children in the gym. Furthermore, the church is becoming too small for the large number of members.
But Karen wants to stay in Vico San Matteo: “I am attached to this place, which is just at a walking distance from the home of many students. If I move elsewhere, what would happen to them? The priesthood gave me the keys of to this church and I want to return their trust.”
“I am struggling to find sponsors willing to help us”, says Karen. “Please do not leave us alone. Please talk about our initiatives, of all the positive things happening here in the Quartieri. We do a lot for these kids, they deserve more.”
Watch the video here:
A collaboration with the University of Mediterranean Cuisine (UcMed), Naples.
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