Over the years, thousands of Africans migrated to Italy for better lives. What they often experience is hell.
The first African-born Roman Emperor was Septimus Severus, hailing from Leptis Magna, or present day Libya. Opinions are divided on his claim to African origin. Yet in 193 A.D., the Roman Empire as he knew it, included citizens from the Continent, along with Europe and the Middle East. Strikingly, the ethnic diversity of the old world differs drastically from today’s “xenophobic” Italy.
Currently, Italy is 95 percent white. Combining immigrants who come from African countries, they only constitute 1.5 percent of the 60 million Italian population, while constituting approximately 38 percent of all migrants. As well, most of their immigration applications seek asylum.
“For someone to leave their country because of poverty, war and economic crisis, it’s not easy to start a new life in a different country with a different culture and language,” asserts Nigerian born, Black Italian, Lola*.
Lola’s claims are certainly true when Africans attempt to find work. That said, it is unclear how many such migrants are formally employed; especially since labour relies on your immigration status. Because it is difficult to acquire legal residency and citizenship, there are documented reports of migrants being exploited in food production and other industries. According to a 2020 report by the European Union (EU), employed migrants contribute 9.5 percent of the annual GDP or €147 million Euros, which is about US $168 million.
Researchers say if the regularization of undocumented migrant workers would take place, this income would increase by €360 million Euros per year or US $411 million. In its analysis, the study confirms that the taxes and contributions of migrant workers to the economy amounts to about €18 billion Euros or US $21 billion.
Yet and still, those born in Italy are not automatically Italian citizens unless a parent is one. That is because full citizenship is passed through blood. Hence, forcing those born in Italy of immigrant parents to seek permanency at 18, or at the age of majority. However, the country’s scenic beauty along with famed cuisine and rich cultural heritage continue to provide an international magnet to pursue “la dolce vita.” In spite of the difficulties, relative social stability and perceived economic opportunities appeal to those from war-torn countries.
To live in two worlds—your home and host country—is based on the sentiments similar to DuBois’ dualism and the strong sense of social alienation. Looking to Black Italians, do they see themselves as such? The short answer–it is complicated, as they experience complex questions of identity.
The 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the so-called birthright citizenship based on jus soli. It states that all persons born or naturalized in the country are automatically U.S. citizens, regardless of parental origin.
Contrastingly, things are different across the Atlantic. Italy joins a growing number of countries including the UK and France, where citizenship is not automatic for a child of parents born outside its borders. Consequently, the road to citizenship for all such citizens is a long and narrow one. The central requirements state that they must live in the country for a decade or actually be born on the land for their children to be able to apply when they reach 18. Even still, the window of opportunity to do this is just one year. The qualifications for becoming an Italian citizen differ according to the status of the applicant. Citizenship can be obtained in different ways, including the following: birthright jus sanguinis, meaning blood rite; and jus solis or law of the soil. The aforementioned can be attained, through marriage or naturalisation, among other special circumstances.
The qualifications for becoming an Italian citizen differ according to the status of the applicant. Citizenship can be obtained in different ways, including the following: birthright jus sanguinis, meaning blood rite; and jus solis or law of the soil. The aforementioned can be attained, through marriage or naturalisation, among other special circumstances.
Expectation versus reality
Black Italian migrants fall into two broad categories: Economic migrants and Asylum seekers. The most recent statistics of Italian asylum seekers indicate almost 60,000 entered the nation by sea between January and November 2021. Reports show they arrived from the north, west and the Horn of Africa, undeterred by the COVID pandemic.It could be argued that they were also naive and unprepared for the challenges to gain asylum and Italian citizenship.
Although, many Black Italians recognise citizenship as impossible even when you are a highly educated professional and a fluent Italian speaker to boot. The African economic immigration experience varies between pride and complete alienation. For instance, Lola’s Nigerian family were economic migrants. First, they spent 10 years in Brescia, a city in the northern Lombardy region. Where did they live next? Lola* now lives in the UK and works as a qualified accountant, often vacillating between feeling Italian and alienated.
While school posed no major problems for her, applying for work as a young Black woman was a minefield. “I think you become aware of your Blackness especially when you start looking for employment,” explained Lola. In Italy, employment availability is a tier system that also involves an inherent bias. Non-citizens and those processing paperwork are heavily restricted with the type of employment they can obtain. Plus, few Black Italians are awarded management or director jobs, thus causing a void in a Black middle class, or the ability to become economically viable, even when you have assimilated.
“You might feel and sound Italian, but you always get the looks when you actually attend an interview in person, or even when you send your CV…you always had to attach a picture of yourself to the application [back then]. You’re already judged before they even [get] to know your skills, strength[s], weaknesses,” Lola told Ark Republic.
The practice of showing your identity also occurs when leasing a flat or home, which makes landing quality housing a challenge too.
Indeed, even those in high government are not excluded. The Bel Paese’s first Black Cabinet Minister, Cecile Kashetu Kyenge, arrived in 1982 from the Congo to study medicine. Now a practising Ophthalmologist, she was a Cabinet Minister from 2013-2019.
Also, she lobbied unsuccessfully for the citizenship right of children born to immigrant parents to be granted on a birthright basis. Ultimately, her appointment prompted a barrage of racial hatred from citizens including Senator Roberto Calderoli from the Far Right League. In January 2019, he was sentenced to 18 months in prison for aggravated racist comments against Kyenge, referring to her as an “orangutan” at a July 2013 political event.
Jacky* fled war in Cameroon with his family and worked for two decades before moving to the UK. He shares Lola’s mixed feelings about Italian identity or even migration. “I would never encourage Cameroonian people to look for a better life in Italy.” He expressed. “They should look somewhere else because a lot of time they said to me and my family, “‘Go back to your country you black monkeys, there are no [B]lack Italians.’”
“[A]lthough I like Italy and have sympathy for [residents], I cannot shout ‘Viva Italia’ because they didn’t treat me like a normal citizen.”
The expectation of ‘normality’ was also shared by Fela*, a Nigerian panhandler I met outside the Duomo in Verona in October 2021. He arrived as an economic migrant and expected more help. Disappointed and destitute, he is navigating his way back home to Nigeria.
While Africans are the most shunned immigrants in Italy, Nigerians are at the receiving end of the worst vitriol. Stereotyped as the most criminal, they find grave difficulty in finding any legitimate work, or quality housing. The recent death of Nigerian-Italian vendor, Alika Ogorchukwu, 41, who was beaten to death with his own crutch by 32 year old Filippo Ferlazzo, is one example. At the time of the murder, Ogorchukwu was hawking wares in Civitanova Marche, a beachside town on the Adriatic coast because he could no longer work at his previous employment due to an injury.
Italian roots and broken branches at school
Regarding school, Black Italians described varied experiences, from loving and caring teachers with no major incidents, to overt racism and microaggressions. Unlike Jacky* and Lola, African migrants seeking European residency, Tatiana Gomes Fernandes is a Portuguese citizen with parents from Guinea Bissau.
When she was 5 years old, she left Portugal to join her family in Italy and was baffled by her teachers’ ethnocentric ignorance of African geography.“I remember one of my Secondary school teachers telling me that Guinea Bissau didn’t exist and I meant to say Papua New Guinea and she sounded so confident while saying it,” recounted Tatiana. Ironically, Italy relies on its historical preservation of its art, architecture and annals in developing democratic governance, all that have ties to Africa. Yet, the educational system often fails to incorporate Africa into much of its curriculum
“ [W]ell, I had to explain to her that Guinea Bissau did exist and that it was a small country in West Africa.” Although maintaining varying degrees of pride in their Italian heritage, migrants like the Fernances express revulsion at the persistent racial abuse and the lack of opportunities based on race were glaring.
The arts break down barriers
“We believe that art can offer a concrete possibility of growth, dialogue and union,” said Roberto Cossettini, who is the founder and director of Il Faro,’ The Lighthouse’, an organisation which intentionally uses sculpture as a tool to share artistic practice to break down barriers between artists all over the world. Established in 1987, The Lighthouse, invites stone sculptors from every continent, sans Antarctica and Australia, to collaborate and create new works using local stone.
Since then Cossettini and his team have committed time and resources to find and host artists from all over the world. “Precisely with Africa, it is often difficult to communicate and obtain the necessary documents to get them to the Republic. We have looked for local collaborators able to point out sculptors from different countries but with varying degrees of success.” Cossettini explains.
For three weeks in the Summer, global artists gather in Vergnacco, Udine, to live and create sculptures together. “Thanks to them, we have been able to know habits and customs very different from ours, great openness and freedom, a lot of willingness to compare and also a way of facing life more joyful and less anxious than in other cultures,” Cossettini added.
The International Symposium of Stone Sculptures is one of many international events hosted in Italy including the globally famous Venice Biennale artistic festival. However, this is hardly enough in the face of Italy’s growing Black population.
That said, Tatiana is proud to see the Black youth increase its visibility and representation through film. “In my time, there was no representation, but now I know things are changing thanks to Black Italians from my generation who are putting themselves out there and seeking more opportunities to demonstrate their talent – it shows how important representation is especially to young people.”
Italy continues to battle a myriad of socio-economic challenges.These include economic decline due to the migrant challenge and the lowest population growth in Europe. While Blacks in Italy experience a multitude of issues in acquiring citizenship, they are part of the region that has a more positive birth rate than whites. Although birth-to-death ratios amongst white Europeans have remained disproportionate, Blacks are part of the African diaspora that shows a positive birth-to-death rate, meaning they are having more children. Nevertheless, Ola, Tatiana and Jacky all agreed that “Black Italians need to make themselves important in society so that Italians understand that being Black is not second class.”
One component of the cocktail is the Black Italian migrant struggle to obtain citizenship and to assimilate or acculturate themselves to Italian society. From the obstacles met by those in the story, like thousands of people who have toiled for a proper status and basic rights, they blame the media and right-wing politicians for creating a false narrative. Similar to U.S., anti-immigration sentiments, several institutions and political figures conflate the idea that all migrants are recipients of the Italian government’s largesse, even as ordinary Italians struggle economically.
In the face of this, many are alienated and have taken flight to other countries where larger Black Diasporic enclaves exist. More so, those with more perceived opportunities. Unfortunately for many visitors, they look back at Italy with a combination of nostalgia and relief.
*Names changed to protect privacy of interviewees. | Writing is in British English to preserve the author’s voice.
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