Pap Khouma is a man to be greatly admired. I consider myself extremely lucky that he so generously agreed to answer my questions via e-mail despite his incredibly busy schedule. It speaks to his commitment to the cause of immigrants and refugees in Italy—that he would take the time to answer questions and to help explicate for those who still wonder or do not believe the suffering of refugees and immigrants in Italy. He fights tirelessly for equal rights of the “New Italians,” astutely realizing (while many still don’t) that helping this vulnerable population, (a moral obligation)strengthens Italian society in general. Thank you for reading.
You came to Italy in 1984. You were a “stranger in a strange land.” I feel that so many people, who oppose those who cross borders fail not only to understand exactly the conditions under which people leave their homes, indeed, their native lands, but also they fail to recognize how soul sick it can leave one feeling for years and years. Describe, if you can, what that mental and physical dislocation felt like.
I was among the first Senegalese arrived in Italy 30 years ago. Senegalese were a bit ‘more “lucky” than other immigrants, certainly we were in Italy for economic reasons , but we were free to return to our country when we wanted. For example, at the time, the Eritreans were at war for the independence of their country and the nostalgia of the homeland, dreams of return that plague many migrants or refugees were tied at the end and the outcome of that war. However, the laws on migratory flows towards Italy were almost nonexistent. Probably because Italy is considered a country of emigration, and not yet a country of immigration. Paradoxically, at the time a Senegalese could enter Italy without a visa, stay three months as a tourist and maturity had an obligation to share. He could not perform any work or try to obtain a residence permit. Those who remained after the expiration of three months, was exposed to the controls of the police or the police and could receive an expulsion. In our specific case, meant a deportation order that you forced to leave the Italian territory within 48 hours. Those who did not respect this decree of expulsion from Italian territory, was considered an illegal immigrant. At the time, the Senegalese, because they have black skin and thus more identifiable than other foreigners, were stopped every day by police, police, traffic wardens or financial police. Those who had received the warrant, was handcuffed, taken to the police station and locked up in a cell for a few hours or for about 48 hours. Every day, before you get out of our homes, we looked out first to see if a cop was not passing. When we were on the street, barely saw any man in uniform, a car that was flashing from the roof (could be an ambulance), we hid behind a traffic light, in the crowd, to ‘corner of a street, behind a car parked or mingling with the crowd. Who was stopped while carrying the business of street vendor, his goods were seized, appeared before a judge, who could sentence him to abusive work on public land. Snapped a fine and another decree of expulsion from the territory (expulsion) or in some cases a criminal conviction of a few weeks or months in prison. With very few exceptions, all the Senegalese in Italy in the first half of 1980 were illegal hawkers who squatted on public land. Obviously, the status of illegal immigrants exposed to too much abuse. I was more or less underground for three years. In 1987, my brother and I finally got a permit to stay, thanks to a law of general regularization.
But even in this situation, members of the security forces (police, police, police, financial police) coming home Senegalese night or day, patrolled their homes, carrying away the money they were and if they cared for them. Protesters were arrested and charged with resistance and violence a public official or other crime that he never committed, to give lessons to others. Samba ,my brother and I were victims of similar allegations when we were residents with regular residence permits. On the way, some individuals are allowed to spit in the face, insult or physically attack people with black skin. The tragedy occurred in 1989, with the killing of the refugee Jerry Essan Masslo by three white men in Villa Literno. He was a black guy who fled from apartheid in force in South Africa. What gave him the strength and hope as an African immigrant, was a part of the Italian public, unions, politicians, Catholic priests and Protestants who were indignant that in the press, on television, and against the rights denied and humiliations suffered by these people.
Many blame (in my mind, justifiably) the Berlusconi government for fanning the flames of hatred. The Lega Nord (Northern League) was said to be perversely pleased with the (wrongly) proclaimed “human tsunami” that Berlusconi coined the wave of refugees coming to Italian shores. Can you comment on that?
Silvio Berlusconi is a billionaire and a shrewd media (newspapers, television, websites, radio, etc.) mogul in Europe. It employs an army of journalists, political analysts, pollsters. Most of them put aside ethics and ethics and he used the powerful means of communication made available to spread fear and hatred against immigrants, political refugees, Muslims.
But the political movement that lit the flame of hatred against foreigners was founded by The Northern League led by Umberto Bossi, in the first half of the 1980s. Umberto Bossi was first elected Senator, I believe in 1986, because the corrupt politicians railed against the government and against the presence of southern Italians emigrating from the poor South to the industrialized north of the country. Before Bossi, the millions of southerners who for decades were to northern Italy to look for work, they were discriminated against by their fellow countrymen. The inhabitants of the many regions of Italy (Lombardy, Piedmont, Veneto, Emilia Romagna), refused to rent houses Italians of the south and their families. From the late ’80s, Italy, in full economic boom, has become a destination for immigrants from Africa, Asia, South America. Bossi changed target and foreigners became enemies to fight. Keep attacking the Southerners was risky for a political party. Why are Italian citizens who have the right to vote and can do weigh during the elections. While the alien has few rights, and is of course excluded from the right to vote, so it is a very easy target to hit. The Northern League in its propaganda was the amalgamation of the words immigrants, refugees, illegal, invaders, Muslims and earned the consent of the voters in northern Italy. Silvio Berlusconi entered politics in 1994, his newspapers, radio and television adopted the slogans of the League, not to lose ground.
What has changed for immigrants, migrants and refugees since the time of your arrival in 1984?
Since November 1989, the date of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the citizens of the countries of the former Soviet Bloc, had regained the freedom that all Western countries strongly demanded for them for decades. I remember that before that date, every citizen of East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Albania, Czechoslovakia, Romania, etc., which could escape the “iron curtain” was celebrated as the victory of freedom against communist oppression. The dissident was welcomed in any country of the West. Received asylum in a short time. With the end of the Cold War, many citizens of the countries affected by natural disasters in Eastern Europe immigrated to the countries of Western Europe, who had fought for their freedom. But times had changed and they were no longer welcome as before. Migration flows are carriers of a humanity varied: refugees, honest workers and unfortunately criminals. The press pointed the finger especially against the criminals, did not hesitate to generalize and to criminalize all immigrants.
The various leftist governments have not addressed the immigration issue seriously because it is very unpopular and they fear losing voters. The detention centers (CPT), which today are called centers of identification and expulsion (CIE), were created in 1998 by the government of former communists led by Massimo D’Alema, in accordance with Article 12 of Law Turkish-Napolitano. Giorgio Napolitano is the current President of the Republic. The CIE are real prisons where they are locked up for months of foreign citizens, the children of immigrants born and raised in Italy, of asylum seekers, people suspected of being illegal immigrants. There are, of course, the normal reception centers where refugees are not prisoners.
The right-wing governments have exploited and stigmatized the presence of immigrants, because it is a move that led consensus. In 2001, Forza Italy, the party of S. Berlusconi and the Northern League (U. Bossi) have joined forces and together with other small neo fascist movements (including the National Alliance, the party heir of Benito Mussolini, led by Gianfranco Fini) and won the national elections.
Paradoxically, in 2002 the government of Berlusconi right / Bossi / Fini has approved the largest law regularization of immigrants since the end of World War II. And the Bossi-Fini law is still in force with some modifications. At the time, the Italian entrepreneurs driven by the economic growth needed workers and on the market there were many illegal immigrants and refugee youth. The majority of entrepreneurs had supported the election campaign of the political right, and after the victory, were satisfied. However, during the election campaign the coalition of Berlusconi / Bossi / Fini had promised that he would drive the foreigners from Italy and stopped migration. Broken promise, but the Bossi / Fini had become so rigid and few guarantees granted to immigrants and their families. The majority of immigrants have a residence permit only for reason of employment (Article 22 Bossi-Fini).
The financial crisis that erupted in the US in 2008 did not spare any Western country and led to the failure of many businesses and, therefore, each year tens of thousands of Italians and immigrants became unemployed. Immigrants who do not find another job because of the economic crisis affecting Italy still risk losing their residence permit and become illegal immigrants and their families even if they live here for many years, they have worked and paid contributions.
You have made it your life’s work to write and speak about the experience of the immigrant. Do you feel that this has effectively helped not only Italians, but also those in Europe to see those crossing borders with more compassion?
Although it is not relevant to the question, I answer with this extract from my book We Italian Blacks written in 2010:
The fear in small doses.
What follows Mr. Judge is a small example of how the fear of the different can be injected in small doses in the spirit of the people. In the early nineties, in Italy there were nurses, profession that was entered in the list of jobs not acceptable to young people. Because it was said that the rounds were grueling and the pay was not adequate. Meanwhile, the life expectancy of the population had increased and there were always older to treat. In Sydney, there was the proposal to open access of the profession to foreigners who did not belong to the European Union. They were on the market many foreign nurses graduates in countries of origin, which could not have pulled back in the face of exhausting shifts and the base salary. While waiting for the sick care, politics questioned the professional skills of nurses trained in the countries of the third world, which could be verified without wasting time in controversy in the newspapers and on television. There is hiding behind the law on reciprocity. That is, if the country of origin of the nurse there was a law that allowed an Italian citizen – who already refused to do it in a better condition to his home – to go there to play the same profession. Touched nurse immigrant or refugee demonstrate to the Italian authorities the actual existence of such reciprocity between sovereign governments.
Some politicians Lombard had declared:
“Our seniors are not used to being cared for by strangers! Will be afraid to be approached and touched by nurses Filipinos, Arabs and blacks. “
And then they had proposed:
“Let’s go get nurses in Argentina,” they said in the press. “There are our natives. Are italoargentini, our seniors will not be afraid of them. “
The proposal was put forward to the Argentine authorities who responded in
spades. Had invested money and facilities to train professionals. Why in the world would have to send them to Italy and deny care to their patients?
At this point, the Region of Lombardy agreed to pass a law that allowed immigrants to be able to practice as nurses. The elders did not manifest any fear towards them.
Your novel I Was an Elephant Salesman is an evocative narrative of possibly the most successful of all African immigrants—the so-called (by Italians)”Vu Cumpra” (You buy). How did you come to write this novel and what did you hope to express in it?
I was a seller of elephants” (“I Was an Elephant Salesman”) was written with journalist Oreste Pivetta and published in 1990. The purpose of the book was to take the floor and explain firsthand Italians the situation of immigrants, through true stories that I lived by myself, by my friends and acquaintances. I just wanted to open a dialogue with the Italians in the simplest manner.In the book, which is written with some humor, there are stories of humiliation that we suffered at the hands of the police force, but fought to overcome through solidarity by the people and especially the common hope of young Africans who dreamed of building their future lives in Italy. I Was an Elephant Salesman was adopted in Italian schools as a textbook.
With the dissolution of Mare Nostrum and the closing of some refugee centers, it is said that Italy is losing both patience and compassion. Please share your thoughts on that.
The barges loaded with women, children, men from Libya, African parties are directed to the islands of Sicily, in particular in Lampedusa. People are fleeing war or dictatorship(s) in Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. Also landed families of refugees fled from the wars in Iraq and Syria. These refugees are exploited by traffickers of African or Asian men and then boarded the floating coffins. Happen many shipwrecks and sea of Sicily became the largest marine cemetery in the world. The Transaction Mare Nostrum was started in October 2013 after the massacre of 130 shipwrecked migrants October 3, 2013 near the island of Lampedusa. The aim was to monitor the ships of the Italian Navy, the Mediterranean Sea and the rescue boat migrants in distress. And ‘duration a year, was stopped on 31 October 2014 and replaced by the operation that Triton has few resources and a more limited range. A part of the Italian public, some newspapers, political parties (Forza Italy, the Northern League, 5 Star Movement founded the comedian Beppe Grillo, etc.) considered Mare Nostrum as encouraging Africans to immigrate to Italy, defined of these refugees illegal carrying of insecurity. It is obvious that as long as there will be wars, dictatorships, famine, ethnic or religious oppression as happens in the Middle East and in some African countries, people will try to survive elsewhere. The dictatorial regimes of Eritrea and Ethiopia are allied with most Western countries. Most Western countries considered rich and stable close their borders and there will be more human traffickers ready to set sail the boats laden with desperate people who will risk their lives for the dreamed paradise.
What does a typical day in the life of Pap Khouma look like?
I work five days a week in a library in the center of Milan. In the evening, after work I often take part in debates on immigration or literature. During my two days off a week I go often in schools of all Italian regions and participate as a speaker, along with students and teachers, in debates on immigration, integration, or simply on the themes of literature. I direct the magazine online and free http://www.el-ghibli.org, which deals with the literature of migration and beyond. I find the time to take care of miafamiglia, my partner Anna and my son Khadim, now eighteen.
The condition of the “new Italians” is met with consistent resistance at many, if not most levels of Italian society. Is there hope?
My latest book is titled “We Italians blacks” (We italians black) and deals with the theme of “new italians citizens”. In conclusion, if you have black skin, all you will consider a foreigner. You are a customer who has to bow your head and thank Italians always white. Certainly, all the “new Italians” are not blacks. There are the children of white Arabic, descendants of Asians or South Americans, children between blacks mixed African and Italian banks, etc. These kids or adults are called “second generation immigrants” and not “citizens of the first generation”. Sometimes even their parents were born, raised and educated in Italy, the country of which they are nationals and know little of the original land of their grandparents. But they stressed is the fact that you have a name and a surname “not normal”, to be people of “color”, to have traits sommatici “strange”, not to be Christian. My dream is as I write the last page of my book:
“Do not struggle to the dreams of the great characters that I mentioned. But in my small way, I would finally the community were considering me, or at least my son and his generation, Yassin, Saba, Matthew and the other, not a skin color which bind the worst prejudices inherited from the past, but of citizens with equal dignity and equal opportunities. I wish at least my son does not know either hatred or suspicion, often so subtle, but instead, compassion. I wish no one has to defend themselves as to their identity of being Italian, as if a black Italian was a paradox. I wish no one would suspect him automatically if you do not find something in class, in school, and no one asked him the ticket arrogantly assuming that because black has to travel illegally. I wish the new generation of Italian blacks, can face all the choices of life and work on the basis of merit and ability. I wish that when my son will be great in the national football there were not one, but many Balotelli, and that thanks to them we won the World Cup, and he referred them to the skill and not for black skin. I want a country where my son can become healthy man, a country that is not afraid of ethnic, religious and cultural, but who knows how to exploit the best of its components. I wish my son could go to Senegal, uncles, to tell how good it is to live in Italy for him, and then returned to Italy to speak of his origins with pride. I know that everything will happen, Your Honor, it’s just a matter of time. The day was coming when blacks men and women are doctors, policemen, lawyers , and even controllers of public transport. That will be a great day, I hope to see it. This is my dream, Your Honor, this was the dream of my father. “