Monthly Archives: February 2013

Roll Up the Welcome Mat: Migrant and Refugee Holding Centers Closing Across Italy

At the end of 2012, I posted about my friend Mody who had sent me some articles claiming the closing of Migrant and Refugee centers in Italy at the end of December of 2012.

He had been living in one for quite some time and was alarmed that , without employment (though not for lack of trying) that he would be put out on the street.  He justifiably worried about what his condition and the condition of so very many others would be once the place he called “home” would shut the door in his face.  Unbelievable, the centers did not close, and so, he and the others were given a reprieve of sorts.


But time gets us all, and if Italy needs to close the centers, they will close.  Actually, they are slated to close tomorrow. A reprieve is , after all, just a stop-gap measure to delay the inevitable. Everyone knew that the closing of the centers was going to happen  though what it hard to understand is the reason why  they are closing.  Or perhaps, given Italy’s penchant for terribly bureaucracy and mismanagement  of government funds, it is not surprising.

refugee center

Thirteen thousand (13,000) migrants and refugees will be affected.  Many of these were refugees who arrived during the ‘Arab Spring’ and will now be essentially homeless. Will be, for all intents and purposes, now , perhaps, perceived as more of a menace that they previously were, if that is even possible.


This is a bit of a jumbled picture as well as a catch-22.  Follow me here as I attempt to unravel things.

The Italian Government has spent nearly 1.3 billion euros(!!!) that critics and humanitarian groups note has ended up lining the pockets of hotels, cooperatives and individuals who claimed to offer “homes” for migrants instead of spending the money on education and funding other initiatives that would help to integrate them into society.  Now, the money has run out.  Surprise!

Big Number!

And so , since the migrants were deprived of the real opportunity to find work, (which means they must often travel around , something they can often not do freely) and live parallel lives to Italians, but have precious little integration as contributing members of society, the interior ministry has instructed its top representatives in Italian towns and cities across the country  to provide the migrants and refugees with documents to travel (in the absence of passports) and to provide them with 500 euros (!) each.   Measures, it is said, to help them leave the country.


I don’t even really know what to say here. 


Kudos to the humanitarian groups that are galvanizing protests in schools and universities  to help to save the migrants and their families. Kudos, as well, to  Italians citizens who have a heart and who  understand this crisis for the insular, racist and bureaucratic debacle that is really is.


To think that those who have already sacrificed so much, left those they loved , traveled so far and who have encountered only anger and uncertainty, are now expected to be on the move, once again.  Five-hundred euros won’t get you very far for very long. Everyone knows that.  It is disturbing to think, but  maybe that was the sinister goal all along.




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The Rhetoric of Racism: Paolo Berlusconi, Balotelli and a Disturbing Tolerance for Intolerance

While newspaper reports around the world have called Paolo Berlusconi’s (Silvio Berlusconi’s brother) comments about  soccer player, Mario Balotelli, “gross racial insensitivity,” why don’t we just say what it really is:  racism.

AC Milan v Udinese Calcio  - Serie A

Here is how things went down.

The crowd, gathered at an event held by Silvio Berlusconi, his brother, a real dolt if there ever was one,  referred to  the fact that AC Milan signed Balotelli, the “negretto.”  Wow.  That word  literally means  “little nigger” or “little negro”.   It is better understood as as “little black boy.”  Here is the comment he actually made, igniting laughter from the audience :

“And now, let’s go and watch the little black boy of the family, the hot head.”

What?  Seriously?  I waited for the outrage, the raw , hot anger.  And I waited.  I spoke to a friend in Sicily who said , “. . . no one has really reacted.”

News reports noted that the comment went largely “unnoticed” in Italy.   Not until the video  of the remark went viral, when the world was witness to the rhetoric of racism, NOT “insensitivity”, did  people react.



This is not the first verbal assault lobbed at Balotelli, who was born to Ghanian parents but raised by an Italian couple, and , sadly, given the nearly imperceptible rate at which Italians seem capable of changing their attitudes toward the growing and changing demographic of their country, it won’t be the last. He has had bananas thrown at him as well as the verbal assault of racist chants.  But this is not something that Balotelli should have to get used to.  Call me crazy.

Mario Balotelli

Mario Balotelli

The immigrant as scapegoat, the immigrant as an easy target, the immigrant forever as “other.”  

I would pity Berlusconi and his brother and others like them , for being so far gone , idiotic in a myriad of ways, but really, their actions and their remarks are like well-sharpened knives, filed to a point and aiming to hit their target.

When will things change?  Piara Powar,  the executive director  of  Footbal Against Racism in Europe (FARE)recognizes that Italian society is changing, but attitudes are not keeping pace.  What an understatement.  That he called the comment and “outrage” was a first step.  But he seems to be in the minority.  Maybe Italians, having lived so long with Berlusconi (while castigating Americans who would deign to elect Bush not once but twice) have a high tolerance for intolerance.


Paolo Berlusconi now says, in the face of a bit of a tarnished image , that he was being “affectionate” with Balotelli.  But who would believe or trust a word he says?

I don’t.  I really don’t.




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A Romanian Immigrant and Business Owner in Sicily: “I wish that things would change.”

The laundry shop is small , but impeccably clean.   There is a flat scree t.v. on the wall, the sound low.  Pink, yellow, green and purple laundry baskets are stacked on top of one another.   Large stainless steel washers and dryers line the green and yellow walls.  A few thick blankets are neatly folded and wrapped in plastic, waiting to be picked up.  We wait to speak to Valentin, the owner of the shop,  until he is finished folding another blanket.  When he is done, he sighs deeply, thrusts his hands in his pockets and agrees to answer our questions.  But he is not smiling.  He is kind , and soft-spoken,  but also, I sense, weary.


Valentin  is 39 years old  an immigrant from Romania. He arrived in Sicily in 2004, and was an illegal immigrant until Romania joined the EU 2 years later. He was looking for an opportunity as so many Romanians were at the time and was determined to  earn his living in  any way that he could: washing dishes, making pizza, cleaning, and working as a second chef.  He needed to find a legal and legitimate job to be able to stay in Sicily.  Though  married, he had left his wife , Violetta, and his son, Florian, behind while he established himself.


He was eager to have a business of his own, something that he could dedicate himself to and to be his own boss as to increase the chances of his success.  Sviluppo Italia Sicilia , a government agency that works within the regional economic structure in order to increase business to the area through support and development of new business initiatives.  Valentin put together his CV, conceived of and designed a project and  brought it to the agency where they , amongst other things, analyzed his capacity for management and success.  They gave him 50% off the value of his project, which he will have to pay back in 5 years.

Laundry baskets

Valentin thought that nothing could be better, or , simpler than owning his own business.  What he had not thought of was the racism and resentment that he would encounter from the locals.  One look at his face and you can tell that the experience has taken its toll.  When I asked him if he was happy in Sicily, he took one hand out of a pocket and scratched his chin and sighed deeply.  “I am not doing well economically, but I am not giving up,” he said, quietly.  “My neighbors don’t want me.  I have a lot of debt and I have a family to care for.”   This is a tough time to probed deeper, but I have to.   I want to know, exactly, what they are denouncing him for. He shrugs. It is not an indifferent shrug, it is a hopeless shrug.   “They denounce me for not following local standards, but the truth is , nobody follows these standards,” he says with a grimace.  He goes on to count the times the local police have turned up at his sharp—-the locals complain that his detergent smells.  He points to the food joint across the street and tells me,  with a tinge of bitterness that ‘no one complains about that chimney belching the smell of fried food.’  I look out the window, decorated for the Christmas season,  in the direction his finger is pointing.  People pass by the large window, indifferent, not knowing that the man inside is not what they think he is.

Perception is a problem for most immigrants.  They are often judged not for who they are, but for who people think they are. He knows the stereotype of Romanians is not a good one.  “But we are not all the same, don’t they know that?”  Tourists, he says, are his best customers as the locals ‘do not want to be involved in a business with a Romanian.”  I started to think that perhaps his own perception might have been a bit off. Could people really be treating this dignified, well-spoken man in such a way?  As I was scribbling in my notebook, a tall, blonde Italian woman, presumably a local, walked into the shop to inquire whether the parking on the street was paid or not.   Valentin barely got a few words out before she held up two gloved hands, mumbled “scusa!”  and exited the shop.  My friend  Ramzi turned to me and said “You have witnessed this with your own eyes. ”  It was unbelievable, but true:  as soon as the woman heard Valentin speak with Italian , tinged with a Romanian accent, she wanted no parts of it.

Valentin with Jesus painting

I ask Valentin, feeling rather desperate on his behalf, why he just doesn’t leave.  It is a stupid question and I realize that as soon as it is out of my mouth.  “The project manager said that I can open in another location , but this is not an easy thing to do.  I cannot give up the business because I am bound by a 5 year contract.  I will have to give the money back if I don’t succeed—and there is an additional penalty.”


Still, I know that Valentin harbors hope.  His wife , Violetta, is a house cleaner in Sicily and his son, Florian his happy, healthy and well-integrated in society.  He says that they have not experienced the racism that he has and he is thankful.

On one end of the shop is a painted picture of Jesus, a simple, rough sort of painting.  Clear across the shop at the other end, is a rather large majestic painting of Christ,  bearing the crown of thorns, his hands bound  with  gold rope.  The metaphor is not lost on me.   Valentin explains, with pride that, the the large painting was a gift  from the Orthodox priest in Siracusa, Sicily, Padre Mikhail , as an inauguration present.  It was handmade at the Cathedral in Romania and is a great comfort to Valentin who is a man of faith, but whose faith is tested over and over again.

Romanian CHRISTValentin needs to bet back to work . He has been patient with my questions.  Before we leave, and as I am gathering my notebook and pen, he tells me “I wish that things would change, especially the mentality of the people here. ”  I nod and agree with him, because I feel the same, of course.  Then he adds, “People should focus on individuals, not their ethnicity.  There is a criminal element amongst Romanians, but that exists in all cultures, even Italian Parliament!”

He is right of course.  On our way out I glance up at the larger than life painting, a talisman, a protector of sorts .  And I feel glad that someone is looking out for Valentin.




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Confronting Vulnerability: Am I a Sucker or a Human With a Heart?

 It cannot be easy to hold out your hand hoping someone will give.

I look try to look away from those asking for money on the streets when I am in Sicily (or anywhere for that matter). I am  more sensitive to it in Sicily because those needing help are often far, far from their real homes and vulnerable in a number of ways.   This is not an indifference to the plight of the less fortunate.  Far from it.  There have been times in my life where the want of such simple things was an impossibility, when just getting what I needed would take gargantuan feats, despite the fact that I have always worked hard.  Lack can grab you by the throat and shake until you can’t breathe.  I am sensitive to it.  I encounter it with more and more regularity.  When writing about and working with immigrants and refugees,  need is a  prominent theme–and it is endless.  I am not a policy maker.  There are others with far greater minds than mine to do that work.  People interest me.   I do not observe them from a distance.  Their stories are not abstract , theoretical jottings relegated to my notebooks.  They  live and breathe, and I along with them.  I do not want to be drained of emotion.  But I cannot live with emotional distance, either.  I won’t allow it of myself.   My eyes is wide and gaping whether I like it or not.


 When I am in Sicily and I am approached, I do not try to figure out genuine need from those trying to shake me down.  How could I possibly ascertain that? What is the litmus test? Either I am ready and willing to give something or I am not.  The reasons why I find it difficult to look at them is two-fold:  I have experienced  that   kind of  need and  I will always find it hard to confront in others.  I also am cognizant of the fact that many locals, while extremely  polite, will look right through or past them.    I can do neither.   But I am a sucker for kindness. And so. . .

When the sweet gypsy girl with the little girl calls out to me “Ciao mia amica!” and embraces me with such warmth , I feel tears stinging my eyes, I melt.   I am in need of coffee, and I have my book bag with me.  My eyes are stinging from the bright sun and cold morning air.  Her hair is a mess, her skin dusky. The child she carries is different from the one I had seen her with the day before, but I reason that she has two:  a girl and a boy.  Or two girls. I am really not sure, because she has a cousine who looks just like her.   The children seem interchangeable somehow.  Her husband is in Rome. She is with the children. If I will give her money today, she will come and find me upon her husband’s return and she will pay me back. She shifts the child on her hip, whose nose is running, sticking to the hair that is blowing in the wind all over her face.

I give her some money and she kisses me all over my face.  I am embarrassed by her display since it is out of proportion to what I had just placed in her hand.  She persists in asking me where she can find me in a few days so that she can pay me back.  It is a game that she must play and I know this.  I tell her that the money is  a  gift to her and her children.    I could not confront this poverty and this need.  To have anything at all in the face of so much need in the world seems to me to be a vulgar thing, I have always struggled with this and I struggle with it still.


A few days later , on a beautiful Sunday, I am sitting in the Duomo with my friend Sarah and  I see the gypsy girl and her cousine stroll into the view.   The gypsy and her cousin, veritable twins, have only one child with them on that day—a little boy, disheveled in the way that the family always appears to be, pushing a rickety little pink baby carriage with neither baby nor doll inside.   He is so tiny, going around in circles with the carriage, whose wheels looks as though they are held by threads.   He talks to himself.  I cannot see the gypsy girl or her cousin.  I express concern to my friend Sarah , who assures me that they are somewhere in the crowd, watching from a distance.  This is something that few would do in the states. But this is Sicily, after all, on a Sunday, in the Duomo for goodness sake.

The little boy abandons the carriage and walks into the array of tables where family’s are soaking up winter sun and drinking coffee and eating.  Out comes the little boy with an enormous chocolate cone. He is still unsmiling.   He takes himself with his cone into the crowd.  I tip my head back and close my eyes to the sun. When I open them , he is gone.


At the table behind us , two women, one breastfeeding a baby are approached by a very old gypsy woman.  She has the same yellowish-brown complexion if the cousins. She wears a thick wool skirt and thicker wool stockings.  She is devoid of any facial expressions and simply holds out a small dish.  She is making me uncomfortable , but I might be the only one who is.   The woman disengages the baby from her breast and swaddles her a little tighter despite the warmth of the day.  I do not know what transpired, but when the gypsy woman walked away, the woman with the baby was wiping up a spilled beverage from her clothes.

Spilled drink

I wanted to analyze.  I wanted to ask the woman “what happened?”   Sarah, serene as can be, was on to something else, looking around, smiling.  But I always want to know.  It’s often my downfall.

Before we leave, the little boy emerges out of the well-dressed crowd in the Duomo.  He is still holding tight to his cone, which has melted , but not by much.  He has a bit of chocolate on his face.  With determination he walks his tiny self past the outside tables into the cafe.  I see him walk up to the counter.  I imagine that he does not like chocolate. Wants another.  They will give it to them. Because Sicilians love children and indulge them


I have given up trying to judge who needs what.  If I can, I give.  If I can’t, I can’t.  But then I feel awful.  This is an occupational hazard I suppose.  Or is it just a condition of being a sucker?  Or , merely humanity with a heart?



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Sri Lankan Immigrant Anura Ranith Wijemanna: An Artist Living in Rome

The first thing you notice upon meeting Anura Ranjith Wijemanna is  that he is a humble man, refreshing in an age where self-aggrandizement is the order of the day.  Originally from Sri Lanka, he now lives with his family in Rome, but Anura is a success story for how an immigrant with little less than pure desire to make a better life for himself, can not only succeed , but thrive.  I met Anura through a friend who introduced us.  We spoke in a busy Sicilian caffe, with several friends at the table with us as we navigated our cafe macchiato’s , capuccino’s ,cornettos and newspapers being opened and read. Lots of  coss conversations going on. A typical Italian morning.

I was a bit irritated that day.  I was not able to properly focus, and apologized to Anura, who showed no irritation whatsoever.  I realized that he was wondering what I was making such a fuss about !  This was the first clue I had to this absolutely remarkable man.  A man  who, against the odds has done quite well for himself, but has no want or need for praise or publicity. He simply lives and works the life he believes in. I felt humbled.

Anura 1

Anura tells me his story in a very straight forward way.  Laying out details one at a time.  He had been a journalist working in Columbo.  He fell upon hard economic times and decided to follow some friends that were settled in Rome.   He pretended to be a tourist, but in reality liked what he saw and was willing to “bend to any humiliating job” in order to stay.   He kept his eye on the society around him and was determined to do what he had to do to eat, but knew that , eventually, he could make something of himself.  After working has a house cleaner in for two years, he was desperate to find work that nurtured the creative part of himself he found hard to suppress.   Back at home in Sri Lanka, his hobbies were artistic ones: music and art.  His ambition became to do something that Italians not only valued, but were known for:  restoration.  He used his own initiative and brought his collected sketches and painting to a business man who was a decorative designer.  Anura told me that this man fell in love with his work and hired him.  His knowledge of Italian was understandably limited at the time,  the words he learned were limited  to the terminology that existed around cleaning tools and courteous expressions.    “I did my very best to earn money in my job, but of course I was not paid as much as Italians were.”   He ended up working for the man for 3 years before the business went bankrupt.  But that was actually an opportunity for him as it was the impetus he needed to go into business for himself.   He was commissioned by house owners to do restoration work on their homes.  Sadly, though not surprisingly , he had to compensate for not being Italian by lowering his prices, receiving far less than what his work was worth.   When Anura tells me this, I am surprised at the total lack of bitterness in his voice.

Anura 2

Due to the Martelli law, named after primary author and sponsor of the law, then Prime Minister Claudia Martelli, which, in its simplest terms gave immigrants permission to stay in Italy (soggiorno).  Basically, a period of a 2 year stay, renewable for 4 years if the immigrant can prove that he had work and was making an income.  Some say this law was passed at the time that the World Cup was going to be held in Italy—an easy way to record the number of immigrants in the country.  The Martelli law, however,  allowed him the freedom and security to return home.

Tools of the trade

When his father died, being the only son with three sisters, it was his responsibility to the family to return to Sri Lanka.  At that point he’d been in Italy for 6 years.  Once there, he stayed for 3 months with his family where he visited the tomb of his father , asking him for spiritual help to succeed.    While there, he enjoyed everything the place of his birth had to offer:  friendship, roots , food, cricket.  Anura  is rather quiet and serious, but when he tells me this, his handsome features break into an almost beatific smile.  Where we are born  is home , it seems ,  no matter where in the world we may find ourselves.  I was struck by Anura’s composure and dignity as he recounted the details of his life without embellishment, in a soft-spoken voice.

Anura 3

At 51 years old, Anura looks at least 15 years younger.  Perhaps it is his serenity.  Perhaps it is his devotion to his own happiness.  He has a wife who he loves more than “the pizza in Naples”  and a son he adores.   His life consists of devotion to his family , his art and his music.  Anura is a talented drummer who plays on his own and with other bands in Italy.   I met him in Sicily where he had been staying for one month working on the restoration of a hotel.


When I ask him what the secret to his success was, he says m matter of factly, ” As an artist I had skills that were easily transferrable.”   With that  he said that he needed to be on his way.  He was returning to Rome.  His manners are impeccable and he needlessly  thanked me for speaking with him. He  buttoned up his navy blue peacoat, placing the portfolio he’d brought to show me under his arm.  We said goodbye.  I watched him walk away , his back strong and straight.  I remembered something that he said, something I quickly wrote in my notes: ” I just always wanted to be able to embrace something bigger than society itself.”

As simple as that.  And if I truly didn’t know better, I’d think it was easy.

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