Long known for its history of mass emigration Italy is today one of Europe’s migrant hot spots, with an estimated 4.6 million foreign nationals residents amounting to 7.5% of the total population. Yet Italy has struggled to define a path to deal with this historic reversal.
Recent media attention has focused on migrant arrivals on Italian shores. The country has been depicted as a transit zone for migration to northern Europe—a place of arrival and reception—as migrants aspire to reach more prosperous economies and welfare states. What is often forgotten is that many do remain and seek (and struggle) to make Italy their home. Although migration to Italy began in the 1970s, it was not until the 1990s that mass migration set in, attracting a diversity of migrant groups to work in the northern factories, agriculture and in domestic spheres. Filipinos, for example, stereotyped in the public imaginary as docile migrants, took up many of the jobs in the care sector. They now constitute one of the largest migrant groups just behind North African, Eastern European and Chinese communities. The second generations have grown up in the 2000s and are now entering the work force with Italian qualifications in hand.
But another group of migrants who constitute some of Italy’s oldest and newest migrants has almost been forgotten. Italy was once a colonial power in Somalia, Eritrea and Libya, and it occupied Ethiopia, a fact that is rarely acknowledged in Italian public debates. Italy’s history had been intertwined with that of the Horn long before the recent arrival of East African migrants on its shores.
In March this year we conducted a short stent of research with Somalis in Rome. Somali communities in the capital city are polarised between the more established communities—who came to study and work in Italy after the 1970s—and recent arrivals that escaped the civil war that broke out in 1988 in Somalia. Many of the latter are referred to by the more established Somalis as ‘titanic’, drawing parallels with the mass emigration of Italians in the 19th Century. The label is also used to evoke the perilous journeys on which Italians once embarked to reach the Americas, and those that Somalis endure today to cross the Mediterranean. In retaliation, recent arrivals have developed their own names for these older communities: ‘mezze lire’ (half liras) is used to deride Somalis for having lost their roots and culture in becoming ‘half Italian’.
The mezze lire
The more established Somalis are mostly professionals working as doctors and engineers. Among them was Yusuf Ali now 75 who grew up in Mogadishu under Italian colonial rule, and looks back fondly to this time. Having spent some time in Italy prior to the civil war in Somalia, he resettled his seven children and wife in Turin in 1993, where he worked as an engineer in a large factory. He is now retired and lives near Rome’s Termini station, where he spends his days at the local run Somali café. Most of his children have now left Italy, but he prefers to stay, regarding Italy as his home now. Many like Yusuf who were raised during colonial rule had ties to Italy through the colonial educational system and moving to Italy was seen as a homecoming. ‘Italians and Somalis are the same’ Yusuf remarked.
Yet many did not share Yusuf’s sentiment, having settled in largely white Italian urban areas during the 1970s and 80s and confronted with racism and discrimination. They quickly came to realise that Italians did not consider them co-nationals. This has continued for many second generations born and raised in Italy. Novelist Igiaba Scego, whose father was a former Foreign Minister in Somalia who came to Italy for study and training, describes in her books and articles the difficulties of being accepted as Italian. Her autobiographical book La mia casa e’ dove sono (My house is where I am) deals with her enduring attachments to Somalia, and her own struggles of growing up in a country where she was considered foreign for the colour of her skin.
Race and Italianness
During our stay we also met with Amin Nour a young Somali actor recently featured in Spike Lee’s 2008 film Miracolo a Sant’Anna, Claudio Noce’s 2009 Good Morning Aman. He spoke little Somali and preferred to talk to us in Italian. He moved to Italy when he was 3 with his mother who worked as a housekeeper for an Italian family. In his primary school in Colle Verde, a residential area outside the city centre, he was the only black student. His Somali childhood friends have all left Italy for the UK and Norway: ‘they left because they didn’t have anything here… what are you going to do in Italy, they don’t accept you’. But Amin has made a point of staying in the country: ‘I never wanted to leave. I’m Italian and I don’t want to be the millionth person to leave without having given anything to the fight… the struggle’ he told us. Through his art he hopes to change the situation for future generations.
Although Amin has been in the country for most of his life he only recently applied for asylum and is now waiting on his citizenship application. Citizenship laws were made more restrictive in 1992 and children of foreign nationals born or raised in Italy are not granted citizenship and must wait until they are 18 in order to apply. Amin’s mother had never considered acquiring citizenship, so Amin only applied for a study visa when he turned 18. This, however, limited the number of hours he could legally work, and he was forced to turn down job offers in film when employers realised his visa restrictions. Having grown up in Italy he suddenly realised he was a foreigner. In recent years the second generation campaign group ReteG2, and other initiatives, such as the change.org campaign supported by hip-hop artist Amin Issaa, have been calling for a change in the law.
But Amin like many others realise that being Italian is more than a legal status. Despite identifying as Italian he knows that he will never be recognised as such. According to Amin the term second generation is unhelpful as it denotes foreignness: ‘I hate the concept of second generation, I don’t feel it…my origins are Somali but I feel black Italian… I grew up here’. Mario Balotelli, the Italian-born 24-year old Liverpool striker has endured a similar fate. He was not eligible to play for the Italian national team until he applied for citizenship aged 18 despite having been fostered by Italian parents, and has endured all manner of racist attacks in stadiums across the country.
Amin struggles to break free of the stereotypical roles he is given in Italian cinema. ‘In Italy black people always play the losers, the victims…’ In one of his recent auditions they were looking to cast an African who spoke Italian with a foreign accent and Amin put it on for the audition. ‘When I was on the set a week later I spoke Romanaccio (with a Roman accent)! That was my revenge!!’ he giggled.
He has recently set up his own production company which produces, what he calls, ‘politically incorrect’ films. His recent Babylon Fastfood explores the ways in which Italianness is essentially a matter of race. In a scene where Amin is cooking on an outdoor grill a bistecca fiorentina (steak Florentine style) he is approached by a group of recently arrived migrants who are on their lunch breaks. They ask why he is cooking his steak in this way rather than according to his own tradition and Amin defends himself with ‘I’m Italian so I want to cook this way!’ as the others laugh at him incredulous. As a black man he is not recognised as Italian despite talking and cooking as one.
Mass migration to Italy is a relatively recent phenomenon, and migrants have been largely invisible, working late night shifts or in domestic settings away from the public gaze. But young people born and raised in the country, such as Amin, have begun to make it onto Italian TV screens. They have challenged Italianness as a racialized identity and worked to loosen the cultural definition of what it means to be Italian in the 21st Century. In March this year over 30 associations presented a Manifesto for the Second Generations to the President of the Senate with suggestions on improving integration in the areas of work, education, culture and civil society. Perhaps there is hope that Italy is changing and beginning to recognise that migrants are here to stay and that those like Amin really are Italian.
Giulia is currently working on a manuscript on changing religious engagements among two generations of Somali women in London and Ismail is writing a book on Somalis in Europe. They can both be found on Twitter: @liberagiulia and @IsmailEinashe
Author affiliations: Ismail Einashe, freelance journalist and researcher