“Reality is Not the Shadow of a Dream” : An Interview with Kossi Komla-Ebri on Italy, Immigrants and Integration

I was very excited the first time I read about Dr. Kossi Komla-Ebri, an educated man—a medical doctor, born in Togo and living in Italy. I had been searching, endlessly, for about African  immigration in Italy  from the “inside.”

I was eager to know everything about him—he is a passionate activist and writer, who does not shy away from speaking about racism and other issues that affect immigrants of all kinds in Italy, but most of all, the African immigrant.  Dr. Komla-Ebri speaks from a unique position—to me , he is both an insider and outsider.  He rights both from the margin and within the margin. Yes, he is an African man living in Italy , but one who is highly educated and able to make a successful living in his chosen country which gives him the ideal platform to speak eloquently and truthfully about the condition of the immigrant, a condition he has experienced himself and knows intimately.  His activism and his prolific writing helps to not only bring awareness to the plight of the African immigrant , but is helping to effect change.

MR: There is so much talk about the lack of integration in Italian society, regarding immigrants and refugees. Has it  always been the case or have made things worse?

KKE:The difficulty and lack of integration of migrants and refugees in Italian society has several origins and causes.

First of all Italy for years has been a country of emigration and not having had a marked colonial experience has not been able to deal rationally and metabolize the arrival of migrants as the tradition of colonialist countries such as France and England.


The first migrants were well received by the paternalism of the left and the Christian pietism because they were mostly tourists, pilgrims and students-if we exclude the exiled Eritreans and Ethiopians for which Italy was predominantly a place of passage to England, the United States or Canada.

The massive arrival of immigrants in the 90’s and  the political crisis in the east-south from the worlds economic crisis has been unprepared for this company and has worsened relations between  the migrants and nationals, also because of the right-wing populist who has ridden the ‘wave of xenophobia’ for electoral finding an excuse for their incompetence in dealing with the crisis.

Yet we would have expected a greater solidarity on the part of a country with nearly 30 million expatriates from the unification of Italy and today has more than 4 million citizens officially residing abroad.

MR: Can you  share your reasons for going to Italy? What was you experience of acceptance in Italian society?

KKE: Personally, I landed in Italy in 1974 thanks to a scholarship to enroll in medicine and surgery because then the right  to do so did not exist in Togo. In those years as migrants “intellectual” from black Africa, aroused  interest and curiosity (a legacy  of the missionary in the Italy of the Pope) and were regarded as “good” as opposed to the Greek students who then fled the dictatorship of the colonels and had not yet of the EEC.
We were the people renting out their homes and not because they were “bearded”, spoke a language that no one understood and were considered “dirty”.

In Bologna at that time there  was a town that was open and welcoming to the  tradition.

Today, as a doctor, my social role, I need to bark and make me a little ‘sheltered harbor’ until the white coat-that a little’ me-bleaching, but return to being a “vu cumpra”  (Michelle’s note:  a street vendor of African origin) but once I undress and am out of the hospital I  am a bit paranoid.  I am constantly living in these alternate roles.


MR: Please speak to the difficulties of  so many African refugees  who are l currently living in Italy—a society that, for the most part, clearly does not want them.

KKE: The plight of refugees is of two types.

The first is on a corporate basis in Italy because there is an organic law on refugees and asylum seekers. The second point is the lack of planning over the eternal “emergency.”

The newcomers largely fled and expelled from Libya found themselves sandwiched between the crisis situation, the non-existence and non-recognition of their status and the lack of economic means available for their hospitality and the impossibility ‘of being able to fix .
In this crisis, young men and women have been blocked in hotels and shopping centers without the possibility of work for almost two years and have been sitting all day to wait for the end of the day. Obviously they were perceived by the common people as pests for which it spent taxpayers’ money. When Italians tightened their belts to survive them if they were housed and fed free to do nothing from morning to night. These refugees were in large part run by volunteers who taught them the language, but there were no resources for training. In this way, without the possibility of looking for a job, without any specification of their social status, has favored a liability without participation in the construction of their own lives.

Today the countries of the “Arab Spring” have remained in Italy :13,000 people on 62,000 refugees accepted in the context of the ‘”emergency north africa” of 2011.

From March 31, 2013 were “liberated” with a dowry of 500 euro (because the funds are over-sometimes-mysterious ways) and the obligation to leave the centers or hotels because the money ran out, with the obligation to find a job within a year to break into the world of production.

Yet they  have been spent on them an average of 25,000 euro per person with no planning.

Many still suffer from mental suffering and some girls, in order to have a bit ‘of money , have gone into  prostitution, exploited by their fellow countrymen.

Today  they put themselves  on the street, left to themselves without even a place to go to sleep , which makes them easy prey to exploitation in undeclared work, the underground and the world of crime. Italian companies do not want them!

Immigrants forced return to Libya.

MR: Do you believe that integration in its truest sense is even possible? Do you think that a change in laws can change the minds of the Italians?

KKE: The integration understood as the interaction of our integrity, understood as the inclusion, not segregation or assimilation, is possible but not easy and it will take time. However, I do not think that will be the law to do so, some will be able to facilitate and alleviate discomfort but the real process of integration materializes only from below from the local to the global.

The overall approach as the “local without walls” of everyday life in coexistence and sharing spaces for meeting and direct knowledge and respect, to overcome our mutual prejudices.

MR: You are a doctor, and your commitment to the plight of immigrants is an amazing thing — do you do this because of your own experience?

KKE: Before being a doctor I am a man and a citizen who lives and is part of a society in which ,I believe , like many do, that injustices should be fought because we are all jointly responsible. I am convinced that as long as we remain on the bench not playing and we can only stand on the edge of the field to yell at the players and to protest and give the “horned” the arbitrator. To win you have to enter the field, take shots, learn to dribble and score.

Obviously as an immigrant living clearly, powerfully, this experience of my skin with my eyes straight on the future of coexistence for new generations, our children and future grandchildren.

Nowadays, unfortunately, we are not leaving a better world.

MR:In another interview I read,  you talked about the promotion of African cultures —- whose responsibility is this — speaking in the Italian context, of course.

KKE: In the collective European mind there  is essentially a negative image of the African continent and particularly in Italy linked to this “no knowledge” is voiced by a missionary heritage pietism African children are stunted, starving Africa to help, perennial beggar at the table opulence. An imaginary that “hinc sunt leones” ( Michelle’s note: “Here be dragons”–denotes dangerous and unexplored territory) feeds off the slave trade, colonialism and neo-colonialism, literature, film theory, reportage, short stories missionaries and spots of NGOs (Non Governmental Organizations).

There is an idea of Africa as a single entity almost as a country instead of a continent of 54 countries all different from one another.  The Africa of Tarzan, the virgin spaces untouched, wild animals, Africa of “Out of Africa” Blixen, the “Leopard Woman” of Moravia. To deconstruct this needs to be done to know the ‘”other” Africa, that is not news, the one who walks with the legs of his women with their economic, social and political power.Africa: that different from so-called “tribal wars” of dictators cannibals, clowns and puppets. Do know Africa in turmoil that invents and is invented in daily life. The Africa of a thousand cultural riches. Africa is resisting, that dell’Ubuntu, orality, the community schoolgirl, holistic medicine, cooperatives, young inventors, artists. We must make known what Africa has given and can offer humanity. And who better than the Africans themselves can operate in this sense, who better than the euro-African diaspora across the two cultures, which knows the password, can mediate and open a gate to knowledge.


In the Italian example this promotion can be done concretely with the establishment of cultural centers in Africa into three main Italian regions, which make available materials for schools, books, movies, kit of different themes and to organize meetings, travel eco and fair trade , talks about the past, present and future of our continent and where to take our children to decline the richness of their rut identity porous, multi, mosaic, plural.A place where involve institutions, associations and NGOs (non governmental organizations) in new partnership for the development of circular migration, to guide and stem the brain drain from the old continent cradle of humanity.

MR: What are your thoughts on racism in Italy and what do you think causes it? Is it a matter of recent immigration or do you believe that this is an unfortunate flaw in the  Italian personality?

KKE: I believe that racism exists in all the heavens and stems from prejudice and ignorance, and  our habit of relating to each other starting from the appearance and social status.

There’s so much classism in racism.

The case of Italy is predominantly a racism that was latent, unrecognized Italians themselves are gratified by a  self-esteem that says:  “Italians good people.”

If before was latent racism in Italy, today it has become social and political phenomenon worrying! Some laws have contributed to this Italian increasingly discriminatory towards us, the otherwise visible. The policy has the duty rats.


I once thought that the Italians were good, although bad politicians. However, after a realistic analysis, I had to change my mind. It is an illusion on an intellectual level to make this distinction. The policy implemented by the elite of government is what the Italians want, since politicians are voted by the citizens. It’s really sad to admit, but it is better to start from this consideration. I keep saying it to other immigrants: do not be fooled that the government is doing things contrary to the will of the people! Of course, there is a minority in Italy that does not agree with this policy. I do not know if it is a minority or a silent majority that does not agree. However, not expressing their dissent, this “silent majority” will always be in fact a minority of more accomplice of the other screaming.

MR: What part does the Italian media played in forming negative attitudes towards immigration in general and immigration in particular?

KKE: The media have had and still carry a big fault: the lack of an ethic of responsibility. The media certainly live on the newsworthiness (bad news are good news) but they create and act as a sounding board to an imaginary collective syndrome of invasion using a terminology related to water “invading” and “human tsunami” of “tide human ‘, the’ “wave of migration” forgetting that the water is also to water to germinate and new fruits.

On average there is no serious analysis of the cause of migration. They
do not explain that among the root causes of immigration processes are: the desertification is advancing in Africa, conflicts, lack of employment prospects with the co-responsibility of our leaders. How can a  Togolese farmer, still tied to old systems, compete with a farmer plowing North America that uses the thresher? Or compete with European farmers who receive subsidies? How can they take off our economies if the prices of our products are determined by the stock exchanges in Europe? Why do you pretend not to understand that our so-called “tribal wars” occur where the soil is rich in coltan, gold, diamonds, oil and uranium? It is irrational to analyze the phenomenon of immigration from a single point of view. An African boy, if he had the chance to work in your country and to be with his family, would not have decided to leave everything to undermine its only asset (life) to venture on the open-air graveyard that is become the Mediterranean Sea to come to suffer;suffering discrimination in the land of Dante.

The media slam the immigrant in large letters on the front page, speaking only in crime with an easy equation:  illegal immigrant = criminal—in contrast with the reality that so many Italian migrants who rely on these things most dear to them: the care of their home, their children and their parents. Today it seems that words like “mafia”, “mafia”, “Ndrangheta” are of African origin.

The media do not ever talk about the immigrants themselves and do not report the objective fact that even if 10% of them are made of offenders, 90% work, pay taxes and contribute to the growth of this country by creating 11% of the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and paying with their contributions to the retirement of many Italians.

In order not to be feeling sorry for himself, to exit the systematic disadvantage, is important today for the  “new Italians” to organize themselves with Italians progressives and integrate the media system, to promote pluralism and objectivity in the world of communication. It is urgent that the “new Italians” to develop their imagination to create works that arouse empathy with Italians without pietism on the real causes of immigration and the situation of migrants in this country.

MR: How do you feel about the election of Laura Boldrini and her ability to effect change?

KKE: The election of Laura Boldrini as the entrance to the parliament of two African citizens – Italian (I prefer this definition than “new Italians”) made us hope for a change. To be honest, personally I have doubts because, today it seems that if a political party wants to give a turning point, I believe that the closure of the CIE (Centres for Identification and Expulsion)-real-lager, the law on citizenship, the ‘ abolition of the wicked Bossi-Fini law that binds the living room to work will not be easy due to be approved without a parliamentary majority. Unfortunately, the recent developments in policy in Italy and the priority decisions are clipping the wings to our hopes. In this situation, I am afraid that the election of Laura Boldrini for now will only stem the river of institutional racism.

MR: What advice would you give to someone who wants to work for change and integration into Italian society?

KKE: My advice: Change from the bottom, working to share in the neighborhoods, schools, parents meetings between natives and migrants, avoiding the urban ghettos. Bringing migrants to participate in the life of the host country, encouraging them to enter the meeting spaces: in the associations, the voluntary sector. Give migrants rights and not just the obligations of citizenship, citizenship to children born in Italy to offer them equal opportunities with peers, the right to vote in local elections.
Working integration means operate to the sharing of values, to everyday managing conflicts in the negotiation and appreciation of the cultures of origin, creating spaces of encounter, dialogue for a better understanding and coexistence slowly to create what I call a fruit salad of our cultures and not their bland smoothie.

MR: Do you have any last words of hope?

KKE: Hope, they say in Italian , is the last to die.

My hope is that you take the road of a poetic relationship, as would the Caribbean Edouard Glissant, learn to go “beyond” our appearances to discover and rediscover what we have in common: our humanity.     

If we can from this port to approach and recognize each other, the other on its own then it will not matter the pigmentation of skin, gender, social class or sexual orientation.

It seems like a dream.

We continue to dream because reality is not the shadow of a dream. Of course, as they say, we know that “it is difficult to steer the wind but we can direct the sails.”

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4 thoughts on ““Reality is Not the Shadow of a Dream” : An Interview with Kossi Komla-Ebri on Italy, Immigrants and Integration

  1. Thanks for illuminating the experience of Africans in Italy. My picture of the world just got bigger. …Great interview!

  2. Thanks for reading, Helen!

  3. thanks Michelle, so good to read real news from that part of the world,


  4. K. Eaton says:

    Great interview, Michelle. This is such important work–from the ground up. You are connecting with people through language and experience; however, removing yourself and allowing their voices to shine. This takes great skill.
    I loved that he quoted Glissant!

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