Tag Archives: Italy

Still Opposing Refugees the Right to Safety and Peace? Better Check Yourself…

…because up close and personal, THIS is the reality, this is the face, (one of many) of the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.   Still oppose refugees right to cross borders ?  If you can ,. you are cold , hard and shiny plastic ,for sure. And I hope your society, and your country never burns under your feet.  What a way to come into the world, right?  This infant boy and his twin brother , along with their mother braved a 3o hour, arduous journey, some of it in the pitch black of night, for a safe shore.  Fifteen rubber boats (unbelievably) and one made of wood were rescued in the Mediterranean.  Thousands were rescued.

Compassion is in play here, thankfully, but the naysayers, the bigots and the ill-informed cannot be far behind. The harsh truth is that the 30 hour  journey, treacherous as it was, will not be the end of a life full of instability, fear, and an intense longing for a land and a home that, for all intents and purposes no longer exists.  The refugee escapes one set of unbearable circumstances for another.  But , at the very least, the ground is no longer burning under their feet.

The face of this tiny infant , a mere 5 days old, and others like him will haunt me.


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Trying Times in the Wake of Migrant Deaths: Speaking in the Language of Crisis and Fatigue

Lately, the language with which many of us use to  communicate with one another feels and sounds fraught.   Maybe we feel irritable, sad, angry.  Maybe we blame it on overwork, lack of sleep, too much caffeine, not enough caffeine,  lack of love or world-weariness in general.


Our language when we speak with one another is fraught, because we, ourselves are fraught.   We communicate in the language of crisis and fatigue.  Fatigue of crisis.  We look to one another for a moment of reprieve , but these days lately are tough ones and in one way or another, we are feeling it.


I am writing this while watching “breaking news” on CNN who is reporting that a peaceful, but large gathering of people in Philadelphia , protesting the unexplained and tragic death of Freddie Gray , an African-American man who died while in police custody, have begun to “clash” with police.  Or, perhaps, police have begun to clash with protesters.  (note: protesters are citizens, not criminals, and they deserve protection!)  I suspect, but hope and pray otherwise, that the situation may get more out of hand as the evening wears on and darkness descends on the City of Brotherly Love.

We are deaf

We are deaf

Last week, when over 800 migrants died in the Mediterranean attempting to escape death and chaos,  I was approached by more than just a few people on the “situation” “over there”.   I was feeling raw from the news,  sad in a deep place that I could not adequately articulate to anyone.  I have spent time with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, have witnessed to and for them with what I hope is care and responsibility and have never, ever, not even once , taken that responsibility lightly.   The ethical pitfalls of working with such a vulnerable population are many and I am all too aware of them.    It is not anyone’s responsibility to know how emotionally fragile I felt over the situation—-I have not even an iota of the vulnerability these brave men and women have to cross an ocean with nothing but the shirts on their backs, but I was amazed and dismayed by the lack of compassion for these people by those who did not have an understanding of the situation. And so, I began with great patience in discussing the situation .

A coffin waiting for a refugee

A coffin waiting for a refugee

I have been keeping this blog for almost 4 years, documenting the trials of the migrant, refugee and asylum seeker in the Sicilian context, but I suppose it is not a sexy enough subject for people to care about in their day to day lives.   I have attempted to methodically chronicle my thoughts , experiences and encounters from my ethnography in this blog and was (and still am!) grateful to anyone to whom it provides any enlightenment.  But to those who simply do not want to understand, who have already prejudged these people, who say that Europe has no responsibility  for the troubles the migrants are fleeing and therefore have no right to protection have left me feeling…well, here I am at a loss for words  And then I realized that people were baiting me in an attempt to clobber me on the head with their own opinions which, to be generous in a situation where I probably shouldn’t, were disturbing at best, sickening at worst.

One person asked  me, in an imperious and razor-edge tone ,’ if the migrants can afford to “pay” human traffickers so much money, why don’t they just buy a plane ticket and go to Europe like normal, civilized people?’ This person is highly educated. And, in fact, born and raised in Europe, but a naturalized American citizen.   I had no words.  I put my hand up to stop the conversation and willed deafness to be able to block out the senselessness that  was coming out of her mouth.

In essence, in her opinion and the opinion of many others who I have spoken to, the underlying problem, really, is that the migrants are simply the wrong color.   This should not shock or surprise anyone.  This is not new.   In the United States  right now, Baltimore is burning, protests are spreading once again across the country against police brutality  and  against racism that is firmly embedded and institutionalized.

What does this have to do with the refugees?  If you cannot see the parallels, I probably would not be able to explain it to you. And , unfortunately, my patience is wearing thin.  Because I thought that I could educate people, I thought I could “bear witness”.  But people will see, hear and believe what they want to believe. And it seems as though tragedy is polarizing us now, more than ever.

While Europe dallies,  and those who have been ignoring  a situation that has been going on for years act as if this terribly tragic situation just came out of absolutely nowhere, the migrants will continue to come.  They will not ever stop coming. They have the right to protection, which is not only a humanitarian imperative, but is a part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  

I had posted a tag one day on Facebook , in response to migrant deaths, proclaiming “refugee lives matter”  and was asked by a friend I respect profoundly  “when will we say all lives matter?”  I gently called him out on this.  I responded thus:  when the lives of the most vulnerable matter.  Plain and simply.  He sent me a message that meant a lot to me. He acknowledged my feelings.  As a thinking and feeling person, he felt the strain of tragedy himself and was looking for a universal answer–an all-inclusive message that we all matter.  And in fact, we do.   The point is not to value one life over another.  But one must, in the final estimation, look at how uneven the playing field is.   It seems almost criminal to even describe it that way.

I stand in solidarity with the refugees and will continue to act as writer/activist , with care and witness.   And hopefully, a multi-pronged solution can be implemented, but I fear it may be too late.   So many lives, undocumented in life and undocumented in death.

Indeed, refugees lives matter. So let’s start acting like they do.

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No End to Tears: Refugee Deaths in the Mediterranean

Those who work in the human rights arena are quite good at statistical information. Right now, all eyes are on the Mediterranean as authorities are claiming that the latest deaths of refugees on packed boats is the worst disaster to hit this body of water, ever.   This is a humanitarian tragedy, a massacre, disaster being too tame a word for the way I and so many others feel about these senseless deaths.


Statistics on refugees are ubiquitous. The agencies that attempt to give this population aid and other services count their heads like herds of sheep, attempt to track their impact on the places in which they find themselves, small towns on mainland Italy and Sicily in which the unemployment rates are higher than one can even imagine they could be, and they live, these vulnerable people, in fear of being scapegoats for just about anything that ails a society. I am tired of hearing how only 10% of refugees who arrive in Italy arrive by boat. What is this statistic supposed to mean? My humanitarian standards, that 10% matters a hell of a lot.

I, and so many others, who have seen this terrible refugee phenomenon up close and personal in the Mediterranean, can’t help but feel that this latest tragedy goes beyond the pale.   The anger that I feel at a system that has failed, in any concerted and systematic attempt to alleviate these deaths in the cold waters of the Mediterranean,( what I have called a “liquid coffin” in this blog before), simply boggles the mind.

Refugee bodies

It has been re ported that Italy’s coastguard, coordinating the search for survivors, found only 28 who managed to keep breathing.   They believe that 700 people were on one of the boats and that refugees caused the boat to capsize as they panicked and all ran to one end of the boat, helping to sink it.

The water, thick and slick with oil is preventing divers from the recovery of bodies.

All of those bodies.

All of those young lives.

“It seems we are looking at the worst massacre ever seen in the Mediterranean, “ UNHCR spokeswoman Carlotta Sami said.

Carlotta Sami

Carlotta Sami

Understatment. And sadly, almost certainly, not the last incident we will be witness to.

Have we not learned anything from the horrific Lampedusan tragedy of October 3 , 2013 where the deaths of Eritrean nationals, was said to be upwards of 363? The  sorrowful platitudes echoed for months afterwards, heads sadly and slowly shook from side to side, eyes downcast, fists beat against breasts.

And yet.

For years the refugees have been coming, heading for port cities, anyplace to  to build their  new lives. .   Does this seem an obvious point to make? I make it people begin need to begin  to pay attention(in case they have been living under a rock somewhere) when something incredibly awful happens, when the news media flood our eyes with terrible images. But the thing is, this is not new—-and—do you see what I am getting at? Anyone?

When does the breast-beating end and real solutions begin?

European Union???  The world is waiting.


As the political analysts weigh in, doing what they do, prognosticating with furrowed brows from a distance, the refugees will continue to flee desperate situations despite they danger and arrive in places in which their lives’ will be far from what they had hoped that they would be. A place where their very lives’ are very, very big business, for those who know how to make a living off of the most vulnerable. And there are many who are doing just that.

I have been in refugee camps and refugee centers and have witnessed the deep sadness, nearly pathological in the eyes of those whose future is uncertain at best. How does one even begin to think of a future when one’s most immediate past are memories of a journey full of fear, deprivation and exploitation?

Until then, the world will keep count.

But no one will be able to pretend, any longer, that this hasn’t been a tragedy all along, that each new massacre isn’t the first of its kind.




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Sengalese Author, Pap Khouma: No Longer a Stranger in a Strange Land, But Still Fighting for Others


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.

Pap Khouma

Pap Khouma

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.

Pap Khouma talking

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.

Umberto Bossi

Umberto Bossi


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.


Sengalese Vendor in Italy

Sengalese Street Vendor in Northern Italy


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.

 I Was An Elephant SalesmanYou 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.


Pap Khouma at work

Pap Khouma at work


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:

Google Chrome

“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. ”



African refugee in Italy

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When Death Comes, it Will Come in Hoards: Italy Ends Mare Nostrum

The logic always seems a bit twisted and I suppose it would take the wisdom of a modern day Solomon to figure things out.

Disregarding the fervent pleas of those who work with refugees in Italy,  the country effectively ended the “search and rescue” mission Mare Nostrum and, instead, will now enact operation Triton—a mission led by Frontex, the European Union border agency. This will be a “limited” mission, but what that means, exactly, no one (yet) knows. Italy, having long ago lost both patience and compassion for those making the treacherous, to say the least, journey through the Mediterranean, claims that is has, in fact “done its duty.”

The horrible tragedy of October 3, 2013 in Lampedusa, remains in the forefront in the minds of so many around the world, a tragedy that brought attention to the plight of refugees crossing the Mediterranean. In this case, the boat was leaving Libya, with migrants from mostly Eritrea, but also from Somalia and Ghana. With thanks to the Italian Coast Guard, 155 of those making the journey survived, though it is believed that more than 360 human lives’ were lost. That is an astounding number by anyone’s count.

Italian police recover the body of a migrant who drowned after a shipwreck, at La Playa beach in Catania on Sicily island

After this tragedy, people seemed to take notice. When death comes in hoards, people pay attention. But yet, the loss, indeed, of even one life, in the liquid coffin that is the Mediterranean is enough to make one soul sick. I have spoken to so many on the ground in Sicily, who feel the strain of the arrivals in many different ways. I have heard the arguments that say “What more can we do?”   “How much more do we have to give? As well, “Why does the burden fall to us?” I understand a bit of each argument. And while I understand it, I do not necessarily agree with it.   I believe that there is inherent racism in these arguments and I often wonder if the boats were carrying white people, if the reaction would be the same. The truth is, it is difficult to be an outsider in Italy—specifically in Sicily, where, on a daily basis, one can be tolerated, and befriended, but will never belong.   What I feel is missing from the conversations, when, in fact, they occur, regarding, in particular African migrants, is how incredibly difficult their journey really is in terms of what they have fled, what awaits them.

African in Italy


In all of my  many interviews with refugees and migrants, as atrocious as the journey is, and make no mistake, it truly is, struggling and learning to live in an environment, a society that either despises your presence (most common) or merely tolerates it (less common) is a battle that never ends. The utter shock that most refugees and migrants arrive in a state of, is not alleviated in their new life, but is often compounded, as they look for jobs (of which there are rarely any) or housing (in which they are more often than not denied) or where a mere stroll down the street is cast in a suspicious light.

While refugees are often given the basics, such as food and shelter, there is a paucity of access to mental health services that the migrants and refugees are in desperate need of. They have often been trafficked, beaten, raped, held against their will in prison camps in Libya and their families have been threatened to send money to their captors. They have left their native country, left jobs, mothers, fathers, children, and wives. They arrive with a fragile sense of self and a lot of fear.

Admittedly,  while the Italian response to the Lampedusan tragedy was commendable, the decision to end Mare Nostrum is questionable and regrettable. Ending search and rescue missions, in my humble opinion, cannot guarantee that it will discourage those from making the journey. But it will guarantee that those who do will have even less of a chance than they did before.

It must be admitted that while many, many Italian citizens have offered those in need employment, housing friendship and compassion, the national rhetoric goes against that impulse, often fanning the flames of fear and distrust.

So then I ask, what price human life?


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Tunisian Activist Leila Hidri: Victim of Destiny Now Fighting Prejudice and Injustice

The role of women activists has become increasingly important on the global scene.  Women in Tunisia have traditionally enjoyed more freedoms than many other Muslim countries, but there is still room for improvement.  Leila Hidri, a Tunisian activist living in Rome fights passionately for social justice and human rights.

Tunisian flag

Tunisian flag

Leila was only 11 years old when her mother’s sister, living in Naples and working for a powerful family, helped her to find a job in Naples.   Eventually, she got a cleaning job and divorced her husband, thus escaping the misery that destiny, thus far, had reserved for her.    Leila and her brother stayed behind with their older sister who had just become married.   As a result, the brother and sister harbored a wish to join their mother in Italy and live what they thought was a glamorous life.

Every month their mother would send them money and beautiful Italian clothes, but deprived of her and desperately wanting to be reunited with her, they could only think of Naples.   They received the invitation to join their mother in 2001, but before they left , as a supreme act of faith Leila gave away all of her Italian clothing in the hopes of buying more in the place that will be her new home.

Leila and Mother

Leila and her mother

Sometimes dreams are just that—dreams, which have no basis in reality, but instead are just beautiful wishes.  Upon arriving in Naples, Leila felt her dreams shattered. The reality of  Naples to the uninitiated can be stark, especially when she realized that her mother lived in a poor neighborhood and that her vision of Italy as the “promised land” was a mere distortion, the wishes of a young girl. Her mother felt the pain of her daughter’s disappointment and made it her daily objective to send her back to Tunisia where she felt she truly belonged and should be raised.

Leila explains that most North Africans, particularly Tunisians migrate to Italy to improve their economic lives’, but roughly only 20 percent actually achieve that objective.    She claims that for most of them the Italian “dream” remains a mere mirage.

As she grew older she began working in a variety of jobs such sales clerk, hairdresser, house cleaner and others, until she discovered her interest in social justice and began working with various organizations as both an interpreter and mediator.  Very slowly and with a lot of dedication and hard work, she built her CV, moved to Rome by herself and started her life there. Once established, she invited her family to leave Naples and join her in the capital.

During a summer visit to Tunisia, she met and fell in love with the man who would become her husband.   She gave birth to two children and was determined to provide a stable future for them.   She has great hopes for their education and future employment.

Leila with her children

Leila with her children

Leila has known her share of discrimination and hard times. As an activist she fights hard for the rights of others within the infrastructure of various human rights organizations. Immigration and social justice are the two areas, which are dear to her heart.  She fully understands the plight of immigrants, their isolation and challenges and the resistance they often encounter in Italy.

When the “Arab Spring” began and the dictatorship of Ben Ali came to an end, her love of her homeland became rekindled, a new awakening of sorts, and she began to participate in activities with the Tunisian community that had arisen after the revolution.     Today, she is the hard working president of the Patriotic Free Union (UPL) in Italy, a political party that began in Tunisia, founded by the billionaire, and former refugee “Slim Riahi”.  The UPL positions itself in the center of the political spectrum and espouses economic liberalism.

Leila and Slim Riahi

Leila with Slim Riahi

Leila explains: “ I accepted this position because I am sure that Tunisia and Tunisians abroad are facing a big challenge—we need to keep thinking with a revolutionary mind —-we need a participative and active citizenship.”   In fact, Leila says that she believes in a secular democracy in Tunisia, and one that can offer full and equal rights to women.  She adds, “In fact, the Tunisian constitution has confirmed the equality between genders, and we are so happy about that.”

Leila Hidri in Office

Leila Hidri in her office

It is clear that Leila is a passionate and dedicated activist and human being.  She is involved in many efforts that are designed to help immigrants in Italy to gain their rights. As well, with her new position, she has plans to help to change the quality of life for Tunisians in Italy.  Her deep desire is to make people more aware of their rights and what they can contribute to both their new homeland and their motherland, Tunisia.

“ I see myself as a victim of destiny that has managed to make from weakness, something strong to begin the fight against prejudice and injustice.”

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Stirred but Not Shaken? A Philosophical Rant on Italy’s Reception of Asylum-Seekers, Refugees, Immigrants and Migrants and the Color Black.

Or is that the other way around?  Shaken, but not stirred?

This is my first blog since the end of August 2013.   I have been wondering, since then, the value of doing anything to alleviate suffering…not because it is not our duty as human beings, but because there is so very much need/agony/suffering in the world, it seems like a mere drop in a vast, vast ocean.  I needed time to process.

After spending time in the refugee camp in early October and in the wake of the horrific Lampedusan tragedy where more than 360 desperate Eritreans lost their lives’, I became overwhelmed by two things:  my sense of duty as a human and as an activist and the feeling that I was just bumbling around in the dark.    I saw anger, confusion, displacement, sickness, and fear of the unknown and profound homesickness in the camp.  I saw this up close and personal.  I had people wanting to tell me their stories.   These refugees were the Syrians.  They abandon their homes.   They were young, old, sick, lame, and pregnant.  You name it. They were akin to microcosms of their villages and reminiscent of the Palestinians’ flight years ago.   In fact, most of the refugees I met were Palestinians, living a relatively good life in Syria.  They support Assad.  They fear the rebels.  Everything I assumed was wrong in this picture. They were educated. They were well spoken.  They had dignity. They knew the unfairness with which they were being treated.  They were not unduly grateful. They very clearly wanted out of Sicily.


After the visit I experienced a strange shift of emotions.  I felt depressed.  Looking at my field notes became painful.  Reading hard cold statistics lacked the narrative I felt (and still feel deeply) is lacking in truly understanding the refugee problem not just in Italy, which is my focus, but worldwide.  I am not a quantitative researcher.  While I am acquainted with the statistics, they do not impact me as much  looking into the eyes of a refugee, trying to find out who they are individually,  listening closely and plucking them from the masses.


A refugee boat in Sicily

Anger is a strong emotion, and there is no dearth of media outlets that delight in reporting the right wing disgust at the refugee situation ( I refuse to use the word “emergency”) in Italy.  Days ago, an MP from the despicable Northern League, in one of the most disgraceful displays of xenophobia that I have ever heard of, “blacked up”—used black makeup to darken his face to protest Congolese-born Cecile Kyenge’s post as minister, who he accused her of  “favoring negritude,” while  claiming (God help me) ,“reverse racism,” because they are given free accommodation.  Perhaps someone should acquaint this idiot with what an asylum-seeker or a refugee really is.   The Northern League, refusing to be silenced or marginalized, has made in the past, and will continue to do so,  a stinking  roar over anyone of color aiming to find a better life in Italy.   How many times should I ask where is the outrage, but seriously, where is the outrage?


Gianluca Buonanno “Blacking up”.

Are we shaken, not stirred to action?  Are we stirred, but not shaken enough to action?

Let’s not forget that last year, Cecile Kyenge was called an orangutan by another idiot in the Northern League.   While in Italy, I have seen her on television, quiet, wide-eyed.  I have heard her criticized by people whose opinion I value:  she is not doing enough, she is not qualified for her position, she is a token.  I feel disgusted by the rhetoric.  One wonders how she and her family, her Italian-born husband and children bear up under such blatant hatred.


A stunned Cecil Kyenge

I spent a good amount of time in the refugee camp in Sicily just a few weeks ago. What I encountered there were the same conditions as befire, but the players were different this time.  No women, just men, mostly from Africa: Gambia, Senegal and Sudan, prominently among them.  These were the newly arrived.  On one day, I made mental judgment of the trauma I saw in some of their eyes. It frightened me. Their unwillingness to talk.  Or wanting to talk too much.  The hands that shake, the vacant stares, the proud bodies with shoulders slumped out of exhaustion, boredom or fear.    How anyone can spend any time with them and see what they have sacrificed, see the trauma they have suffered and how many years it will take for them (if they ever can) rebuild their lives’ deprived of their family, friends, culture, mother tongue, and meaningful work—and  still begrudge them the little (strong emphasis on little) assistance they get?  What manner of man or woman can do that?

Not me.

Am I emotional?  Okay, yes, I am emotional. Leave the statistics to someone else, leave the policy makers to do what they do best.   I write as a witness.  I write as an activist.  This is not an intellectual exercise for me.

Social justice is not socialism.

I return to my field notes, just 10 days after arriving home.  It takes strength to face the stories that I heard, the experiences I had there.  But it is nothing, nothing compared to what these men have already faced and what they have ahead.

The triumph of the surviving that difficult crossing by sea is short-lived.  They find this out almost immediately.


I remember, in October, watching the big groups of Syrian refugees in the camp, preparing to leave.  While asylum must be filed for in the first country in which one arrives, the directors of the camp looked the other way as men, women and children, walked through the iron gates and down the long and barren road where the  cars with German license plates would be waiting to take them to where they would be offered automatic asylum—Sweden, for a price.  They would never be as vulnerable as when they left that camp.

The long road in the long road out

And I watched as the different levels of police—literally turned their heads as they left so as not to be witness . One boy had tied around his waist all of the family’s winter coats.  It was October but still frightfully hot in Sicily. They moved slowly, but did not look back.

After witnessing that, I am incapable of ever being indifferent again.  In fact, it is hard to imagine how anyone could. I  simply can’t unsee or unhear.

Shaken and stirred.

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“Time to Turn the Tide of Italian Racism”

If you listen to the right-wing groups in Italy, —or anywhere in Europe for that matter,  who vehemently oppose immigration , what you will really hear is that they are opposed to anyone who is not like them.  More accurately, those that do not look like them.   Immigration is rarely mentioned when  those entering the country are white.

The so-called “Emergency” of immigration most notably during the interestingly named “Arab Spring” was , really, no “emergency,” at all, but rather Italy’s failure to put in place any kind of measures that would be able to handle those coming to their shores.  How is Italian society culturally interpreting immigration?  We know that the hegemonic structures in place call the shots by naming things as they see fit. And those names are not good.  So in no time at all, waves of (not unexpected ) immigration become ” a human tsunami” and those vulnerable are “clandestino’s”  (yes, by all means, let us keep them in the shadows) and those selling their wares become the “vu cumpra,”  not simply men and women trying to survive by their wits like so many others.  This his how the discourse amongst the “gente” shape reality.  Difference creates fear, doesn’t it?  And where do Italians get the   idea that they are  and have been some mono-cultural entity?  So much so that the culture must be “protected”against the modern “African” invader?  I have yet to get a satisfactory answer to that question.

Is this a "human tsunami"?

Is this a “human tsunami”?

When my Italian ancestors came from Italy they were bowed but not bloody. They worked hard despite the insults , degradation and exclusionary practices that were so firm in place, they could live no where but the margins of the town in which I still live.   Italians and African-Americans lived side by side , most notably in the south of the town that I grew up in .   They banded together, cared for one another , looked out for one another because the enemy was a common one:  anyone who was against them.  And if anyone thinks that this was easy because they still were able to make a living and raise their families, think again.  There was no shortage of misery.   In an attempt to blend they stifled their language—-the most plausible reason I know of why so many Italian-Americans do not speak Italian, and why my grandparents  and so many others spoke of the “old” country—they  tried, some quite reluctantly,  to put Italy behind them. Their children would scorn the old , traditional ways, because the pressure to assimilate, to be a “real” American was very real.  It would not be until one or two generations later where Italian-Americans could feel comfortable with their ethnicity, with their dual mindset.  “Home”, the United States, though, was a  place where one often felt they were not really accepted.

Italian comic

People begin to act in ways that are expected of them.  So of course, Italians banded together.  No one but your family and your paesani could understand who you really were, what was in your heart.  I read a long time ago that when Mario Puzo received an advance for his infamously successful novel “The Godfather” his mother,  unable to conceive of such a large amount cautioned him: “Don’t tell nobody.” Italians were not supposed to make that kind of money. They were not capable.   That kind of money not only put them on equal footing with “real” Americans, it did something worse: it put them above some of them.

Puzo's Godfather

The media in Italy is an amazing machine—and often one of great distortion.  My friend Ramzi has expressed great irritation over the fact that I often post on those who have made the perilous journey to Italian shores in rickety little boats, often being rewarded with death for their efforts.  He once told me that these voyages , horrific as they are, are such as small percentage of immigration.   “The Italian media at work,” he said to me one day.  Then:  “Don’t be fooled.”  And , in fact, he is right.  I know a fair amount of immigrants in Sicily.  None of them are treated as outsiders.  All of them have jobs.  None of them have encountered any kind of racism.  All of them are white.  And so , the  media is not immune from an inherent or expected kind of prejudice—in fact, they keep it alive.  It is sensational.  It feeds the fear.  It sells the papers.  Fear is  influential.  It perhaps pleases certain politicians.


The media helps to construct the identity or the perception of the identity of the invaders, the enemies, by implying that any number of social ills (and Italy has many) are caused not by any inherent flaw in the national character, but instead those who have come uninvited and unwelcome.  What has happened to the Italian imagination?  Can they not imagine an new society, a multicultural place in which diversity strengthens society?  Italians are not even reproducing themselves, they need the newcomers!  They have never been non-multiethnic–why pretend they can be now?  The prevailing opinion is that immigrants created a vortex of fear—that impression can actually “create” the kind of violence and crime Italians fear. How?  Because despite evidence to the contrary, any crime, no matter how small , will be reported widely in the media, complete with photos and details if the crime was committed by an immigrant—most notably those from Africa.  Crimes committed by ordinary Italians will often omit names.  The exception to this is, perhaps, crimes committed by the Mafia—from the highest capo to the most insignificant foot soldier.   Clandestini come out of the shadows only to be shamed, it seems.

There is so much work to do, but how to change a culture?  How to change perception? The growing racism in Italy is not going to go away any time soon because of fear, because of increased immigration that shows no sign of letting up, because of the fairy tale of a mono-ethnic society, which is being invaded by the unwanted , who should really just “go back to where they came from.”   Can we not see how rich immigration has the potential to make Italian society?  White, Christian and European is on its way out in Italy, there can be no denying the fact.  It is time to embrace a new culture, which should start with institutions and education.

YEAH it does.

YEAH it does.

The only thing that should be kept in the shadows is the old way of thinking and the old way of being:  racist and narrow-minded.  Time to change the atmosphere of aggression and potential violence into one of acceptance , change and education.  To do otherwise is just to stave off the inevitable and compound misery. And God knows, the world  already has more than its share.

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“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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Clearly, Delusion is a Disease and it is Catching

In 2011 more than 1,500 people drowned or went missing in an attempt to cross the Mediterranean.  The United Nations High Commission for Refugees began keeping statistics on crossings in 2006 , which has made 2011 the deadliest year in the Mediterranean.  Lately, Spain , Italy and Malta have experienced the largest sea arrivals.

in the ocean

Waves  of refugees continue to sail onto  both Italian and Maltese shores.  Of late, authorities have found four boats with a total of 342 migrants.  Of those four boats, three were intercepted by Italian coast guards—a total of 260—and were taken to Lampedusa.  Most of the migrants were said to be from Somalia.  They send out a distress signal as the engine in their dinghy failed, as they often do on these treacherous trips.

I know enough to understand that surviving the journey through the Mediterranean , while horrific to both mind and body , sadly, is not the hardest part for those seeking a better life.  Landing on shore may provide a momentary relief until real life sets in and the lack of what one has or hopes for both increase one hundred fold.

men in boats

There is reality and then there is REALITY.

And the reality for refugees is that there will be minimal help patriating them as they try to mentally, physically and socially try to recalibrate their lives.  They will no longer be seen for who they really are.  They are no longer really individuals and they will be largely avoided in the streets.  They will become the “unseen”.  They will become, by virtue of their non-person status, indistinguishable from one another.  They are now lumped together as “refugees” , those without work, sometimes without a home.  They will be pitied , but avoided, reviled , mocked and used as a scapegoat for terrible economy that has assailed most of the European Union.

In the midst of boats arriving from African nations , immigrants are now rethinking their decision to live and work in Italy and are now turning their backs on Italy and it’s recession.  Italy is now experiencing its longest postwar recession, making the climb back a long and hard one.  Italy’s low birthrate (nearly the lowest in the world) needs immigrants in the workforce, but there seems to be no work. Italy’s demographics has largely depended on immigrants to bolster its numbers.


Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi fears the a government of leftwing Democrats which he believes would lead to instances of gay marriage and borders open to illegal immigrants.  Democrats would answer these fears by leading the polls with a promise to grant citizenship to the children of immigrants born in Italy.

Racism is rampant in Italy.  Those immigrants who cannot abide in a weak and failing economy will ask for assisted repatriation in their countries of origin. The hardworking Chinese are leaving in droves.  The vulnerable who arrive in dinghy’s, on rickety boats, who are sun-sick, thirsty and half-crazed with fear and the missing of loved ones, will be the scapegoats for those who think that they are the real problem.  Worse, they will forever be seen as sad “cases”  instead of  men and women who had real lives, lives of meaning  before arriving in Italy.

My good  friend Mody , who I have written about so many times here before,  a refugee from Sudan recently spoke passionately about his lot in life  to a group of my students in Sicily. He moved a room full of students to tears, because he dared to show who he really is, refused to allow them to see him only as a “victim” or as a non-person whose previous life , before he came to Italy, was wiped away.  Mody is still unemployed, devoid of hope, disgusted with the system, angry with Italy in general,  but a man of great intelligence and  and even more dignity.

Among many other things, he told them:

This is not the whole story of me, what you see here of me in Italy.  I am a man who had a country.  I have a mother.  Sisters. Brothers.  People who love me.  I had a job. Things that were important to me.  This is not the whole story of me. 

Racist attacks in Italy are on the rise.  The reasons? Because immigrants have jobs.  Because immigrants don’t have jobs. Because they are black. Because they talk funny.  Smell funny.  Look menacing.  Are responsible for the rising crime rates.  Because they cause instabilities in  long established neighborhoods. Name your reason.


It is all a mixed and crazy bag of sad circumstances.  Clearly, delusion is a disease and it is catching.

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