Friday, April 15, 2016

Africans in Italy still have many kilometers to go for full acceptance

I have always found it odd that Italy, the European country closest to Africa, has so few people of African descent integrated into its society. We see plenty of Africans, but they are, for the most part, separate. I have never seen a black police officer, government official, grocery store clerk, train conductor, waiter or bank clerk.

Blacks play on the professional soccer and basketball teams, and they stand on the sidewalks and in piazzas selling purses, umbrellas, socks and a host of other household items. People of color usually sit apart by choice from whites on trains and buses. Why this separation occurs undoubtedly has no one simple answer, and I certainly don’t pretend to be an expert on race relations in Italy. However, lack of expertise has never stopped people from having an opinion or making observations.

Part of it is fear of the unknown. Stefano Mammi told me that immigration from Africa didn’t become commonplace until the 1990s.

So many people started coming then, especially from Nigeria,” he said. “But there weren’t many jobs, and they didn’t learn the language quickly. Many of them saw Italy as a temporary place to earn some money, get their European citizenship and then move on to another country. A lot of them spoke English and wanted to go to England.” Some came from French-speaking African countries, and they hoped to eventually move to France, but Italy was easier to enter.

I recently read a “rant” on Facebook from my friend Alicia Gray Cortes, who complained that “so many Italians are racist.” She noticed that a black man had offered the empty bus seat next to him to some Italian teenagers, but they refused it.

Once on my way home I sat next to a Nigerian man, and we talked the whole hour-long ride,” she said. “He told me that Italians will never sit next to Africans and that he is always treated poorly. He mentioned how it makes him angry and it does not make him want to integrate and be a part of the culture and community. He said that I was obviously not Italian because I was not just sitting next to him but talking to him like an equal. It’s sad and infuriating!”

One of Alicia’s friends followed up with a comment: “I can totally relate. I ditto your sentiments. I am a victim and have personally experienced racism from the Italians. I can tell you countless stories that will bring you to tears; however, they have gotten better. I've seen posters and pamphlets, educating the people on ‘manners and etiquette.’ They are trying, but it still hurts!”

Alicia’s dad, Steve Gray, has been a missionary in Italy for some years and also lived in America for about the same length of time, so he is well qualified to compare racism in the two countries.

I have seen here in Padova that first generation Africans do not integrate well on the whole,” he said. “However, I don’t see this as out of the ordinary with even first generations from several countries, white or black, in America. I think that because this is such a new phenomenon in Italy, Italians themselves are just trying to come to grips with it.

Certainly, the laws concerning jobs are very pro Italian-born-blood favorable. For example, our Albanian young lady friend graduated from nursing school in the University of Padova. However, because she is not an Italian citizen, she cannot work in the hospitals as a nurse. She can only do privatized nursing. For Africans working in the factories, they will never become managers, even though they may qualify, because they are not Italian. However, this may also be true in America, so I don’t know if it is really any different than anywhere else.

The foreign children who are born here go to Italian schools and even the university, though they still have no great future in front of them. However, even Italians graduating from the university here have no future because of the bad Italian economy and ways of doing things that are so archaic.

So, yes, there is discrimination, but I’m not sure if it really is different than many other struggling nations.”

I see other hopeful signs that attitudes can be changed. Migrants who have remained in Italy send their children to public schools, and I see mixed race groups of children walking and talking together. The children often grow up speaking Italian without accents and adopting the values of their classmates, increasing their chances of being accepted into mainstream society.

Members of the Pro Loco Marliana preparing for the sagra.

We recently participated in the Sagra delle Frittelle Dolce in the rural community of Marliana. I noticed right away a young black man working alongside other members of the pro loco (a grassroots group of local volunteers working to promote the community). Members were helping people park, filling a large kettle with oil, setting up tables, preparing food and stoking a fire beneath the kettle. Oumaru wore a Marliana Pro Loco t-shirt and was interacting in a casual and friendly manner with the other men. Originally from Mali, he had been studying science at a university in Syria when warfare forced him to flee first to Libia and then Italy. The Italian government placed Oumaru in a hotel in Marliana, along with dozens of other refugees, so that he could learn Italian and receive the documents he would need to live and work on his own.

Mali is a French-speaking country, and Oumarou said that he had tried to go to France, but they refused to admit him. He has been in Marliana for more than a year, and he has found part-time work at the misericordia, an Italian group that provides emergency first aid. He is also attending a class in Firenze on “how to take care of people,” he said.

One of the local men, Pablo, explained that the government has sent as many as 40 immigrants at a time to Marliana. “At first, the older people here were scared,” he said. “They were afraid the people had come to steal from us, or at least take away our jobs. Gradually, the community has come to accept and help them. However, there still aren’t any jobs for most of them.”

Oumarou has been exceptionally well received, though. “He’s very intelligent,” Pablo said. “He learned Italian in just a few months, and now he’s like one of us, part of the community.”

The local priest has taken an active role in helping the immigrants, and someone in the community made an apartment available to Oumarou when his government housing allowance ran out. While it seems that he is on the road to transitioning into society, I wonder what will become of the other immigrants who weren’t able to learn Italian so quickly or find jobs.

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