New Italians: Leadership in the immigrant communities

A recent seminar for future immigrant community leaders in Rome showed what a positive impact Italy's 'peaceful influx' might have, provided the language of the Northern League and other anti-immigrant elements can be kept at bay
James Walston
6 November 2011

Lele Luzzati’s picture of the she-wolf playing with children of different colours while looking after her foundlings is a perfect image of an Italy we hope is being created. And with a little help from our friends, we made a tiny contribution to this last month – with a two-day seminar for potential future immigrant community leaders working with the Rome city authorities.

The biggest single change in Italy over the last twenty years is not Berlusconi, despite the coverage he gets. It is the dramatically changing face of the country to immigration, the first peaceful influx of people since the Roman empire.

So far, the experience has been largely positive, for Italians as well as for the new arrivals and their children, but there is no reason to presume that it will always be like that. Already the Northern League has started trying to ride a racist tiger and other politicians are tempted by an easy, vicious populism. There have been no riots like the ones in Lancashire in 2001 or in the Paris banlieues in 2005, but the Italian immigrant experience is hardly twenty years old. There are a lot of us who would like Italy to learn from the mistakes of the rest of Europe and of north America – put frivolously, to make new mistakes and not the same ones that the British, the French, the Americans have made.

According to the latest Caritas report on immigration in Italy, there are 4,570,000 regular immigrants, or more than 7.5% of the population. Italy has changed dramatically over the last 20 years. When I came to Italy in 1974, there was one foreign restaurant in the whole of Rome (Eau Vive, a French restaurant run by Vietnamese nuns) and a non-white face in the street was a rarity. Today, Rome is still not comparable to London, New York or Paris, but it is on the road to multiculturalism. There are ethnic restaurants everywhere, businesses run by immigrants, carers from eastern Europe and Asia and building workers from eastern Europe. Even in the village in the country where I do my weekend shopping there is an internet and remittance centre in the square run by Bangladeshis and round the corner, a new shop selling Romanian groceries.

Despite the language used by the Northern League and other anti-immigrant politicians, immigrants contribute massively to Italian society: with their labour, which generates growth for the Italian economy, and with their presence and that of their children. But Italy is declining both economically and demographically.

The issues are how to integrate this presence. 

Since 2003, Rome city council has had four adjunct councillors elected on a continental basis – from the Americas, Africa, Asia and (eastern) Europe – by resident non-EU citizens. (EU citizens have had the vote and the possibility of standing for election since 1997.) They have a voice but no vote in the council.

Over the last few years, they have presented parts of their constituencies’ cultures, mostly in the form of food and music (it’s more difficult to be anti-immigrant in the middle of a party). This year the fourth edition of “I mondi a Roma” enlisted The American University of Rome to organise a seminar for future leaders.

There are something under a million “new” or “second generation” Italians; twenty-four from this group attended two full-day seminars along with a wide variety of others. The aim was to give participants some of the knowledge and skills they might need as leaders, as well to encourage the feeling that immigration in Italy is an opportunity and not a problem. They were asked to complete exercises, some on real issues (how would you spend a €500,000 EU grant to support media campaigns for integration?); some on more hypothetical but controversial issues (how would you deal with a riot in a poor part of Rome after a policeman shot a young immigrant?); or less controversial (how would you mediate the different community needs in the urban renewal of a city square?).

There were presentations from the Italian Ministry of Labour and Social Policy which approached the question from both angles. The legal aspects immigration were covered by the International Organization for Migration and remittances by the FAO.

The four concillors gave accounts of their experiences. Madisson Godoy, from Ecuador, spoke about how the Latin American diaspora contributes to politics at “home” and in the adopted country. Tetyana Kuzyk, from the Ukraine, talked about role of women – the majority of immigrants for eastern Europe are women – and her surprise that Italian women only got the vote in 1946. Victor Okeadu addressed the broader qualities needed for leadership and Romulo Sabio (with a name like that, his destiny was obviously sealed) explained how a toothpick could become a symbol of office – when the council votes on the hundreds of amendments to the annual budget, the majority has to vote ‘no’ each time so before the divisions, the group leader distributes toothpicks to jam the ‘no’ button on the voting panel. As the adjuncts have no vote, that toothpick took on the significance of a royal mace or sceptre.

In the distant past, the Empire had non-natives at its head. Three of Rome’s greatest emperors were foreign born: Trajan in Iberia, Diocletian in Illyria and Septimius Severus in Tripolitania. The Roman Church was rigorously Italian in its leadership from the 16th century until John Paul II, but the new Italian nation was formed with the help of Garibaldini from all over the world; and one prime minister, Sydney Sonnino, had a Welsh mother.

There have already been some naturalised Italian members of parliament, but usually by marriage. At the moment, there is one deputy originally from sub-Saharan Africa and one originally from North Africa. With luck, there will be more very soon in the Chamber and in the city council.

The immediate issue is Italy’s citizenship laws, which still make it easier for an Argentinian or Australian with an Italian grandparent to become a deputy than it is for a child born in Italy of immigrant parents. When the so-called ius sanguinis (right of blood) is changed, immigrants will become full citizens – then, the face of national and local assemblies will change, not just the streets.


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