Tag: Italy

African asylum seekers in Sicily dream of soccer glory

Like many young men in Italy, the soccer players who put on their cleats for an afternoon match in this small Sicilian town dream of international stardom on the field. But for this group, having made it this far is already an achievement.

Each member of the 25-man amateur squad ASD Mineo is African. They risked their lives to cross the sea from Libya in overcrowded boats last year, a journey that killed hundreds of others in shipwrecks, in the hope of finding political asylum.

Their team – the first of its kind in Italy – was created and funded by the managers of the Mineo centre for asylum seekers, one of Europe’s largest such shelters.

ASD Mineo, as the team is called, is registered in the lowest category of Italy’s official football pyramid, which groups 600 divisions and in which, in theory, any team can rise to the top of the league, or Serie A. The team is on track to advance to the next division in its first season.

“We can make it all the way to Serie A,” 19-year-old Musa from Gambia said after defeating another – all-white – local team 4-0 on a recent Sunday. Like his teammates, Musa declined to give his full name for fear of reprisals against family members back home as he seeks political asylum.

Members of the ASD Mineo soccer team at a training session at the immigration centre in Mineo. (Pic: Reuters)
Members of the ASD Mineo soccer team at a training session at the immigration centre in Mineo. (Pic: Reuters)

In this country of soccer fanatics, ASD Mineo has become a test of racial integration. Though many Sicilians criticise local, national and European authorities for failing to provide enough resources to cope with the influx of immigrants, ASD Mineo has not suffered public resentment.

That’s not always the case at the national level, where racism has been a constant problem in football. Though top-flight teams include black and Muslim players, stadiums often echo with monkey chants. One of Italy’s best footballers, Mario Balotelli, a Sicilian-born son of Ghanaian immigrants who plays forward for AC Milan and Italy’s national team, has sometimes been on the receiving end.

Some argue that the problem is made worse by immigration rules which make it difficult for those whose families come from abroad to be accepted as Italians. Balotelli, for example, was not able to gain citizenship until he was 18.

Italy’s first black government minister, Cecile Kyenge, has tried to introduce a law allowing anyone born on Italian soil to become a citizen. She herself has been a target of racists – likened to an orangutan and pelted with bananas in public.

“Immigration is a terrible battleground for politicians,” says Maurizio Ambrosini, sociologist at the University of Milan. “But soccer can be a very effective tool in the fight against racism.”

Gateway to Europe
Sicily, an island that on a map looks like a ball about to be kicked by the Italian “boot”, has been used as a stepping stone to the European mainland for millennia by, among others, Phoenicians, Greeks and Arabs.

Today it is a gateway for migrants and asylum seekers from as far away as India, Pakistan and the Syrian civil war. Most migrants come from Northern and sub-Saharan Africa. Italy has struggled to provide basic services to the 40 000 new arrivals last year amid its worst recession since World War Two.

The asylum centre in Lampedusa, Sicily was badly overcrowded last year. A video showing migrants standing naked in the cold while being sprayed for scabies stirred outrage and prompted authorities to transfer them out in December.

Many of the migrants ended up in the Mineo asylum centre, which sits in an isolated valley southwest of the smouldering, snow-capped Mount Etna volcano. Some 4 000 migrants from 40 nations occupy about 400 two-floor villas that once housed U.S. Navy personnel who worked at the nearby Sigonella NATO air base.

There has been occasional trouble: in October, residents of the shelter blocked the two-lane highway that runs next to the centre, threw rocks at police and destroyed cars to call for faster asylum and temporary permit procedures.

Many of the shelter’s residents had been waiting up to two years for documents needed to leave the camp and find work. Several of ASD Mineo’s soccer players have been waiting 10 months, though Italian guidelines say it should take between 45 days and six months to get through the asylum-request process.

‘Balotelli’ and ‘America’
Nineteen-year-old Mohammad from Togo – a defensive player on the team – was orphaned at age 12. Both his parents died of infection after what he described as a black magic ritual in which he and his parents were cut with machetes. He survived with deep crisscrossing scars on his thighs.

“In my village some people called me Balotelli, and then when I arrived in Italy they started calling me Balotelli,” says Mohammad, who sports a similar Mohawk haircut to the AC Milan star. The teenager says he left his village and, after crossing the Sahara desert, was stopped by police and imprisoned in Libya for not having legal travel documents. He managed to wrangle an exit from jail and get on a boat to Lampedusa.

The idea of forming a soccer team was hatched by the shelter’s director Sebastiano Maccarrone after he watched residents’ pick-up games. He asked a former professional player and employee of the shelter to form a team of the best players.

“Putting one team on the field was hard because there were so many good players to choose from,” saidGiuseppe Manzella, one of the two coaches. Those who made it got new soccer shoes and blue-and-white jerseys for games, and a red sweat suit.

“There are many people in the camp, and we are the lucky ones playing,” said Abu Anifa, a 19-year-old Ghanaian winger. “We are living better here than we did in Africa.”

Before stepping on the field one recent Sunday, six players removed their cleats and knelt for early afternoon Muslim prayers beside a ceramic statue of St. Agrippa, patron saint of the village. A handful of fans performed the same ritual on the sidelines. As the match started they shouted “Go America!”

“America” is the nickname of 19-year-old Ghanaian Abdullahi, top scorer in the league with 18 goals in 14 games. He chose the nickname because “I love America and want to go there”.

He did not disappoint, scoring two goals. ASD Mineo’s coaches say he is good enough to become a pro, and scouts from Catania’s Serie A team have showed an interest in him.

After the game, the African and Italian players shook hands. Some embraced, and they posed for pictures, winners and losers both smiling, arms around each others’ shoulders.

Steve Scherer for Reuters

Italy: African immigrants use films and books to fight racism

Seven years ago, Dagmawi Yimer was “between life and death” when Italian navy officers rescued him and 30 others from a skiff in heavy seas between Libya and the island of Lampedusa.

Today, Yimer directs documentary films about immigrants like himself from the home he shares with his Italian partner and their two-year-old daughter in the northern city of Verona.

He is part of the fast-growing immigrant population that is changing the face of Italy, just as it has transformed the populations of more northern European countries such as Britain, France or Germany.

He is also one of many foreigners who are trying – through cultural initiatives such as films and books – to change the racist views of many Italians of the immigrants in their midst.

Contrary to popular perceptions, immigrants are making their mark across the Italian economy, politics and society. African-born author Kossi Komla-Ebri, a 59-year-old medical doctor, has published six books, all in Italian.

“Many immigrants think our emancipation is only economic and political, but we are convinced it’s cultural and that we can have a more profound influence through culture,” he said.

It isn’t easy. Italy’s immigration wave is swelling just as the country is struggling to emerge from its deepest economic downturn in the post-war era.

Nearly eight percent of the population here is foreign born, and in 50 years the number will triple to 23%, according to a projection by Catholic charity Caritas.

To help pay the pensions of an ageing population and to ensure long-term growth, Italy needs to integrate its immigrant population into the workforce, economists say.

Anti-immigrant sentiment
But high unemployment, especially among non-student young people, has fuelled anti-immigrant sentiment among the Italian mostly-white population.

Italy’s one-million strong Afro-Italian community, a fifth all legal immigrants, got a high-profile representative last April when African-born Cecile Kyenge became the country’s first black minister.

It did not take long before she was likened to an orangutan by a well-known politician and had bananas thrown at her at a public meeting.

Cécile Kyenge. (Pic: AFP)
Italy’s Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge. (Pic: AFP)

Many white Italians view the Afro-Italian community and other immigrants as cheap labour or petty criminals – partly because many work as domestic help and farm labourers or sell counterfeit goods in the streets of big cities.

Moreover, children born to immigrants do not automatically receive citizenship even if they are born on Italian soil, attend Italian schools and spend their whole lives in Italy. They must wait until they turn 18 to apply.

Though Italy was a colonial power in Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries and migrants have come to Italy for decades, the country has mainly served as a transit route for the rest of Europe and so remains an overwhelmingly white country.

Over the past two decades, another factor has thwarted attempts to develop a comprehensive and inclusive immigration policy: the anti-immigration Northern League, once a key ally of Silvio Berlusconi’s former coalition governments.

Backed up by TV images of overcrowded boats being rescued off Italian shores, Northern League politicians portray migrants as invaders coming to steal jobs – rhetoric that neglects Italy’s history as a country of immigrants to North and South America in the 19th and 20th centuries.

It was high-ranking Northern League member Roberto Calderoli who likened to Kyenge to an orangutan last year.

Members of the neo-fascist Forza Nuova, or New Force, party were suspected by police of throwing bananas at her during a public round table on immigration. It denied responsibility.

The party also left mannequins covered in fake blood outside a Rome administrative office, urging her to resign because “immigration is the genocide of peoples”.

Kyenge seems to have taken it all in her stride, never losing her calm in public and sticking with her goal of making it easier for immigrants’ children to gain citizenship.

Only last month did the 49-year-old she reveal that she too had been a “badante”, or house servant, for six years to pay her way through university, saying it had been one of the most difficult times in her life.

Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo to a tribal chief with 38 children and four wives, she ended up an eye surgeon until she became a lawmaker and minister earlier this year.

“I’m not coloured, I’m black,” she told Reuters in an interview in her office in central Rome, rejecting the phrase “di colore” or “coloured”, which many think is the politically correct Italian term for blacks.

“It’s the proper term because it forces everyone to face the reality of a multi-ethnic Italy.”

‘Boiled elephant knees’
Italy’s immigration policies are ill-equipped to deal with the thousands of immigrants who show up – with scant identification and on rickety boats – on its southern shores.

Rules dating to 2009 and Berlusconi’s then conservative government make entering without proper documentation a crime, requiring officials to report clandestine migrants.

As a result, those who survive often treacherous journeys – at least 366 Ethiopian migrants drowned while crossing to Italy in October – often linger for months in makeshift immigration centres and then disappear withinItaly or eleswhere in Europe.

During the first 11 months of this year, 40,244 illegal migrants reached Italy by boat, almost four times as many as a year earlier, according to Save the Children.

The number living in Italy is not known with any precision, but the OECD has estimated that, alongside the 5-million legal immigrants, there could be as many as 750 000 illegal ones.

One of the community’s oldest cultural initiatives is the “African October” festival inaugurated 11 years ago in the northern city of Parma and now celebrated in Rome and Milan, showcasing African artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers.

“The meeting between Africa and Italy is very important,” says festival founder Cleophas Adrien Dioma, who was born in Burkina Faso. “Culture is born out of such encounters.”

Komla-Ebri, who came to Italy in 1974, is a doctor in a hospital north of Milan and writes in his free time. This year his book Imbarazzismi – an Italian neologism merging the words “embarrassed” and “racism” – was printed by Edizioni SUI, a publisher owned by an Eritrean-born Italian.

In the book, Komla-Ebri writes about when his white Italian wife took a walk in the park and a stranger complimented her for adopting two “African orphans”, or the time her friends ask her what he eats, “no doubt with the chilling thought of a menu of smoked snake or boiled elephant knees”.

“My irony is a defence mechanism,” he said.

The anecdotes capture the often naive quality of racism in Italy, infamously exemplified by Berlusconi’s 2008 remark – made in jest, he said – that the newly elected Barack Obama, was “young, handsome and suntanned”.

Yimer (36) harvested grapes in the south and later handed out fliers to university students in Rome until he took a video production class offered to immigrants by a non-profit group.

His fifth documentary film – released this month – is about three Senagalese men recovering from racist attacks.

Entitled Va Pensiero, after the chorus of an opera by Giuseppe Verdi about an immigrant’s nostalgia for home, the film follows the men as they try to come to terms with the hate and violence they endured.

The first man was stabbed and left for dead by a skinhead at a bus stop in Milan. Passersby ignored him for more than an hour. The other two were randomly shot by a radical right-wing thug who hunted down and murdered two other Senagalese men on the streets of Florence in 2011, and then committed suicide.

At an early screening of the film for possible distributors, the reaction was that of having been “punched in the gut”, according to one representative of the state-owned TV network, who suggested softening the tone.

Yimer and his Italian partners on the film, who have founded an association to collect the testimony of immigrants called the “Archive of Migrant Memories”, stood their ground.

“I’ve experienced a lot of prejudice,” he said, “and I see a worrying trend in Italy where racism is becoming more ideological.”

Steve Scherer for Reuters

Italy’s first black minister is here to stay

Three mannequins stained with fake blood were dumped last week outside a town hall where Cécile Kyenge was due to make a speech, the latest in a stream of racist protests and insults aimed by furious Italians at the country’s first black government minister.

After being likened to an orangutan by a former government minister and having bananas thrown at her while on a podium, it is getting tougher for Congo-born Kyenge (49), to keep up her oft-repeated mantra that Italy is a tolerant country – but she is trying hard.

“I have never said Italy is racist, every country needs to start building awareness of immigration and Italy has simply arrived very late,” she said on the day the mannequins were discovered.

Cécile Kyenge. (Pic: AFP)
Cécile Kyenge. (Pic: AFP)

Judging by the venom directed at Kyenge since she was named minister for integration in April, Italy needs to do some fast catching up as the ranks of foreign residents in the country swell to around four million, about 7% of the population.

But from her office in Rome, Kyenge insisted that children growing up in Italy’s burgeoning melting pot are free from the prejudices of their parents. “It’s easier for the young who have grown up with a different mentality, who have come across people from other places,” she said. “If you ask a child in a class who is their friend, it is more likely he will say ‘the one with the green jumper’ rather than ‘the black one’.”

That is not quite how Forza Nuova, the far-right party that left the Ku Klux Klan-style mannequins at the town hall, sees things. Kyenge’s work on behalf of immigrants, said party member Pablo de Luca, was aimed at “the destruction of the national identity”.

Such views are keenly shared by members of the Northern League, Italy’s anti-immigrant party, which propped up Silvio Berlusconi’s government until it collapsed in 2011.

MEP Mario Borghezio set the ball rolling in May by claiming that Kyenge would impose “tribal conditions” on Italy and help form a “bongo-bongo” administration. Africans, he added for good measure, had “not produced great genes”.

Public insults
In June, a local councillor for the party called for Kyenge to be raped, while in July Roberto Calderoli, a party member and former Berlusconi minister, compared her to an orangutan before bananas were lobbed at her as she made a speech.

To top a vituperative summer, a rightwing deputy mayor in Liguria compared Kyenge on his Facebook page to the prostitutes – often African – who line a local road, while a well-known Italian winemaker, Fulvio Bressan, shocked wine lovers by reportedly calling Kyenge a “dirty black monkey”.

It has been a tough reception for a woman who moved to Italy to work as a home help while she trained to become an ophthalmologist, marrying an Italian man and plunging into local politics in Modena to push for greater rights for immigrants before winning a seat in parliament in February.

“When I arrived in 1983, I was one of the few; I was a curiosity. Then, in the 1990s, when mass immigration started, immigrants began to be seen as a threat,” she said, recalling patients who had refused to be visited by her. “The process needed to be accompanied by more information in the media, in schools, better laws.”

A shock survey in 2008 found that when people were asked who they found “barely likeable or not likeable at all”, 81% of Italians mentioned Gypsies, 61% said Arabs, 64% said Romanians and 74% opted for Albanians.

Then came the crippling economic downturn, which sliced 15% off Italy’s manufacturing sector, pushed the unemployment rate up to 12% and further hardened perceptions of “job-stealing” migrants.

Citizenship law
What is really upsetting the Northern League is Kyenge’s work to overhaul Italy’s citizenship law, which currently forces the children of migrants born in Italy to wait until they are 18 before they can apply to become Italians, leaving a generation of children growing up feeling like Italians, talking local dialects like Italians, but unable to be Italian.

It has been dubbed the “Balotelli generation”, after black footballer Mario Balotelli – who was born to Ghanaian parents in Sicily and is now a mainstay in the Italian national team, but has faced stadium chants of “a negro cannot be Italian”.

Kyenge points out that she is not pushing for a US-style law that hands a passport to anyone born in the country, but for a toned-down version that would require the child’s parents to have spent some time in Italy or to have taken integration courses.

Meanwhile, she has backed new measures simplifying the bureaucratic nightmare faced by the children of immigrants, who have one year to complete a blizzard of paperwork needed to gain a passport when they turn 18. “You have from the age of 18 to 19 to apply and requests are often turned down due to a few missing documents,” she said.

It is just part of an ambitious programme to which the soft-spoken Kyenge has committed herself, stretching from working on housing issues for nomad families to inter-religious dialogue designed to make it easier for Italians to adopt overseas.

Her key task, she said, is convincing a country that has no shortage of culture – from its food to its art – that there is always room for more. “Diversity, sharing something you don’t have, offers a huge amount,” she said.

Turning to her own field, medicine, she said: “There are small examples of foreign customs which are being adopted by hospitals, like carrying your baby on your back, which can help children with ankle ailments as well as increasing physical contact with the parent while helping the posture of the parent.”

Critics have rounded on the fact that Kyenge’s father was polygamous, fathering 38 children by numerous wives, a custom she said she would not trying to encourage in Italy. “Let’s be clear,” she said, laughing, “this is a form of marriage I don’t agree with.”

Rather than threatening Italian traditions, Kyenge said the asylum-seekers now heading for Italy from sub-Saharan Africa and Syria could be taught to revive trades now being abandoned by Italians, especially if they were allowed to set up shop in the medieval hilltop villages that are rapidly being abandoned up and down the country.

Take, for example, the Calabrian town of Riace, which has reversed depopulation by welcoming the migrants landing on rickety boats after a perilous Mediterranean crossing and setting them up in trades such as dressmaking, joinery, pottery or glass-blowing.

“This is a good practice, using depopulated villages where there are many empty houses, where old farms, shops and workshops can be reopened,” said Kyenge, who visited Riace in August. “It offers a welcome to migrants, it’s good for the national economy and good for saving trades that risk disappearing.”

Back in Rome, as she works to get her message across, Kyenge is getting ready to dodge the next bunch of bananas as she continues to insist that Italy is not a racist country, just learning fast.

“Balotelli and I are both opening new paths in our fields,” she said, “and anyone who does that will face huge difficulties.”

 Tom Kington for the Guardian