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Italy’s race relations between white Italians and its African migrants and black Italians, while not stellar may not be as dire as race relations in America, but economic opportunities afforded to blacks in Italy, are certainly not as promising as in the United States.
About 10:30 p.m. in the streets of Milan, close to Porta Genova at the metro hub, in the middle of nowhere, I realized I had taken the wrong tram. After disembarking I try to get directions from the men I see, who are elderly but can’t speak any English. The streets are almost empty on this Wednesday night, but after I crossover to the bus stop, an elegantly dressed and pretty Italian lady in her 20s, who noticed I was lost offered me assistance saying she could speak English. After explaining where I needed to go, I was beckoned to follow her, as we boarded another tram. She dropped me off and walked me to the Duomo, where I now recognized, and which was walking distance from where I lived, and then went back on her way.
This impressed me, considering I knew better than to approach a young white woman at 10:30 pm in the streets of New York, in my homeland. I would at least have gotten screamed at, if the cops weren’t sicced on me. This was another taste of what I had deemed Italian (or Milanese) kindness and courtesy, which I mostly experienced everywhere in my 6 months of law school in Milan. It was a fortiori given just a few days before, there was news of a drug-dealer Nigerian migrant who’d allegedly hacked an 18-year-old Italian girl to pieces and stuffed her dismembered parts in several suitcases dumped in the streets. This gruesome news is said to have triggered a xenophobic outrage in which an Italian gunman, 28-year-old Luca Traini, randomly shot and injured 6 black African migrants. While these tragic events did not sully my experience in the Boot (sobriquet for Italy because of its shape on the map), my Italian roommate from Rome cautioned me that he feared there was increasing racism and anti-black migrant hostility because Sicily and southern ports were inundated by African migrants.
Even my female Italian classmate, eager to match me up with an Italian girlfriend would also caution me about the provincial sentiments of those she considered ignorant Italian folks (and less educated, as she put it), who sought to preserve the Italian bloodline and did not want Italians to intermarry with foreigners. It is ironic given the diversity of Italians and their history of mixing, evident in the diversity of their physical features. A ginger-haired classmate would explain to me that the distinctive red hair of many Italians was possibly an inherited trait from an old Celtic conquest of the Lombardy region. Arabs would populate Sicily to grow citrus fruits in commercial quantities for trade with the British, after its medicinal value in treating scurvy was discovered. The northern region bordering Switzerland and Austria had Italians with blonde Nordic features. And there was a long history of integrating North Africans.
However, the new influx of sub-Saharan African migrants escaping wars, persecution and hardship in Africa has been resisted. One refugee from Nigeria named Efe, who subsists by panhandling, holding out a trucker hat to collect change from kindhearted Italians, informed me that he was starting to experience racism in Milan. Once I asked him why I had not experienced the same thing, he responded, “You are rich, and are bringing in money to their school and so they treat you well.”
My Italian classmate and roommate had said something similar, informing me that African Americans were admired in Milan where hip-hop and other black music suffused the sound waves, and there was also an increasing classism going on among the nouveau-riche Italians. (Coming from America, where I have lived for over 20 years, I was considered African American by Italians.)
However, Efe, a graduate of a Nigerian 4-year polytechnic college, insists that Italians are better than the tribalistic people he left back home in Nigeria. He, like many other Africans on the cadge in Milan, has his Italian documents in order, but he remains unemployed as he claims that racism exists although it is not the openly hostile and violent type that prevails in the United States. He explains that his continued unemployment after 3 years of living in Italy, is a result of what he calls an Italian resistance to strangers. Thus, jobs, he says, are retained for traditional white Italians and even North Africans are integrated, and gainfully employed, but there is a resistance to blacks.
Every morning before he starts his mission of scrounging for a living, he sweeps the streets and surrounding areas of the shop where he stands to beg pedestrians for change. His labor is for free. Similarly, another Nigerian migrant, Osa, whom I have seen often on my morning jog, arranging tables for a pizzeria and sweeping the floors of the surrounding area, is not paid for his labor. After the owners of the pizzeria had started to look at us in a suspicious way as we engaged in our conversation, Osa gestures that he needed to return to “work” sweeping the floors and setting up the tables for the pizzeria. He said that although he was not paid for his labor, the shop owner expected him to do it regularly like a job as an implicit condition to allow Osa to beg pedestrians for change in front of his store. Consequently, the shop owner was saved from having to hire an extra hand to do the work that the African migrant did for free. On another day, on my morning correre, I saw Osa setting the tables around 7 a.m. and stopped for a chat. After a while, the shop owner actually called him out and expressly told him to get back to work and arrange the tables and sweep the floors. Osa told me he is not paid, and the shop owner does not even give him any food from the pastries or pizzas he stocks.
My roommate from Rome had complained about the cheap and often free labor of the African migrants supposedly infiltrating some Italian industries and making it difficult for traditional white Italians to secure jobs as an employment crisis exists in Italy. He believes the mafia is responsible for trafficking African migrants to provide inexpensive labor to Italian industries.
It is against this backdrop and a promise to stanch the migrant flows from Africa which is increasingly a burden on Italians, that a populist far-right government has been swept into office. In June 2018, Matteo Salvini, the Minister of the Interior and Deputy Prime Minister, violated international law when he barred a ship, MS Aquarius, carrying 629 refugees from Africa to dock. The standoff was eventually resolved after the Spanish government demonstrated compassion by allowing the distressed vessel to dock in its harbor. I spoke with a half-German and half-Dutch friend, who was in Italy for two years studying Italian, and she informed me that Mr. Salvini’s speeches and proclamations denouncing certain groups and enunciating ethnicities and types of people he wished to bar from Italy, made her skin crawl.
She said he markedly reminded her of Adolf Hitler. Like Hitler, he is a demagogue and a school dropout. He is also given to histrionics and signs of xenophobia. Despite the anti-immigrant and seemingly racist rhetoric of Mr. Salvini, his party, Lega Nord would secure electoral victory to install Toni Chike Iwobi as the first black Italian Senator in parliament in Italy’s 2018 general election. Toni Chike Iwobi, married to an Italian woman, immigrated 40 years ago from Nigeria, his native country, after securing a student visa. He holds several university degrees, ranging in fields from economics to computer science, from the United States, Britain and Italy.
However, the newly installed black Italian Senator from Nigeria, who is said to have established his own technology company in Italy, traveled a different path to the Boot from that taken by another fellow Nigerian, Godwin, who survived for 3 days on an inflatable boat (he called it a balloon) on the Mediterranean Sea before being brought ashore to Sicily, by an Italian rescue team. Godwin now eked out a living working 8 hours a week cleaning a school, but his wages cannot sustain his wife and daughter or pay his over 1,000 euro a month rent in Milan. Consequently, with his open hat in hand and after sweeping the streets and a stretch of the sidewalk by a supermarket on Via Giambellino for free, Godwin supplements his income via begging generous Italians for their change.
Godwin who speaks eloquent English, informed me that he is a graduate of a Nigerian university—Imo State University. Godwin, like the black Italian Senator, Toni Chike Iwobi, is from the Igbo tribe in Nigeria, famed for their entrepreneurial abilities. He told me that he had come to Italy with the expectation that he would be able to secure skilled employment with his university degree and diligence.
After paying about 800 dollars for his passage through the desert he arrived in Italy about 3 years ago. He’d set out from Kano in northern Nigeria, traversing Niger and traveling through the Sahara Desert in an opened pickup truck, in which about 55 passengers wrapped their limbs around a 10-foot pole impaled into the boarding of the bed, where some kneeled or sat with their knees pressed firmly to their chest. In the weeklong drive, dodging paramilitary and border officers who randomly shot at migrants to prevent them from illegally passing through, Godwin saw the sandy trails littered with corpses of travellers like him, who had fallen off unable to hold on, or had been discarded after falling severely ill. They were each given a gallon of water to subsist on for the week through the desert. Individuals who ran out sometimes resorted to drinking their own urine to quench their thirst in the scorching desert heat. According to Godwin, some passengers who had to squat in the uncomfortable position in the truck bed for hours and days became paralyzed.
Godwin would eventually make it to Tripoli alive and subsequently found work as a paid laborer for about 4 years, before Libya was bombed by NATO forces, and a state of anarchy ensued, which left Nigerians enslaved in Libya. Godwin claimed that Libyans weren’t racist but had been kind to Nigerians who occupied their professional cadre during Gaddafi’s regime. The one thing that marred Libya, he said, was because their women were not permitted to mingle with foreigners for cultural and Islamic reasons, the large presence of West Africans precipitated a prostitution ring where Nigerian girls, including teenagers and even university graduates were trafficked with the lure of a pathway to Europe. In reality, the captive girls were made to have sex with about 40 men a day, every day for about 3 years, to pay off their debts, which often escalated once the journey had started and they had no means to go back to their homes. They became sex slaves in brothels called “connection houses.”
Godwin said often the girls were not asked to pay money upfront, but simply to take an animist oath administered by a Babalawo, promising to pay an open (undisclosed) amount once they arrived in Libya. Failure to comply with the contract would incur death. It was a blood pact. Thus, many of the girls were unwittingly forced into prostitution. Some died after a few years, some got terminal diseases such as AIDS, while those able to pay off the debt that was demanded in Libya and were able to remain healthy after 3 years of service as unpaid sex workers, crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Italy, where they often continued in prostitution, having been accustomed to the trade.
Miraculously, Godwin had traveled with his wife all the way from Nigeria, and they both made it alive, through the desert storms, and the tempest of the Mediterranean Sea to arrive in Sicily, where his wife was already pregnant and would deliver their daughter in the camp in which they lived for 8 months until they were cleared with their papers. Goodwin and his wife each received 75 euros a month, free health services, and food while in the refugee camp in Italy. Godwin informed me that he had obtained papers enabling him to stay because he had been a political dissident involved in student protests against the government in Nigeria, in part due to the crisis in the Niger-Delta, where he is from.
Ironically, the Niger-Delta area where Godwin told me was his home, is an oil-rich region that produces most of the oil revenues in Nigeria’s monocultural oil economy. (While only about 10% of Nigeria’s 1.1 trillion-dollar GDP comes from the exportation of crude oil, it still constitutes about 70% of the government’s revenues.) The largest Italian energy company, Eni, is currently embroiled in a corruption scandal and court proceedings in Milan, arising from its executives’ oil deals and bribes allegedly paid to government officials in Nigeria.
But the Nigerian common folk remains indigent and without hope in his native country, rich with the world’s most valuable resources, while an unconscionable and exploitative cabal of ex-generals, civil servants and politicians live lavishly off stolen funds—worth billions of dollars. The type that get accepted in Europe and in Italy, where their offspring lavish scores of thousands of euros on expensive education and a jet-set lifestyle, are the Nigerian-big men and their children, who should be lavishing in jail for embezzlement instead of being celebrated by their retinue of sycophants. Thus, given Italy’s increasing classism, a dichotomy exists in the treatment of Africans corresponding to a demarcation between those Africans with loot or money by any means, and those without, who invariably arrive on the shores of Italy by escaping a deathtrap via the desert, forests and the Mediterranean Sea.
Black refugees are often imperiled even as they near the seeming shores of safety. My roommate from Rome told me there was a time there were “murmurings” among Italians in the streets that perhaps an expedient solution to stemming the flow of African immigrants was to shoot them once sighted approaching their shores, as he claimed some other European nations did (Greece perhaps and the now penitent Spain once did). Thus, if these refugees are undeterred by the risk of death constantly in their paths, why would labor without wages not stop them, I ask? Is a condition of providing free labor as an impecunious adult not akin to slavery, which should be avoided at any cost considering it is dehumanizing? (Incidentally, an Italian classmate had asked my opinion of an offer extended to her for an unpaid internship at a prestigious American law firm in their Milan office. Such internships and summer associate positions typically pay similar law students 40,000 dollars in the United States—a tidy sum for any student for just 3 months of work. Labor without remuneration appears to be slavery.)
Furthermore, the prevalence of Africans hat in hand, being forced to beg Italians for their change inadvertently reinforces white supremacist dogma and the dated trope of Africans being the white man’s burden. The sight of healthy able-bodied young black men looking demoralized by having to panhandle dehumanizes and emasculates black African men in relatively patriarchal Italy. These African men risked their lives to use their skills for gainful employment. Not to beg. They could have stayed in Africa to beg their wealthy oppressors, had their motives been to beg for a living. Mamoudou Gassama, nicknamed “Spiderman of Paris”, for having climbed up four stories to lift a 4-year-old French boy to safety, as he dangled precariously on the banister of a high-rise balcony, similarly passed through Italy with luck of finding work. After his heroic feat the French President, Emmanuel Macron favored him by making Gassama an automatic French Citizen and giving him immediate employment as a fireman. How many more spectacular men and women among its African migrants, who have bravely crossed the Mediterranean, is Italy missing out on? People able to grow the Italian economy and not mooch off it.
Although Italy is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) Article 4, which specifically prohibits slavery, servitude and forced labor, Mr. Salvini’s flagrant contravention of international law, by refusing the refugees to dock at Italian ports may be an indication that he will be violating laws that Italy is bound by. My Italian law classmates expressed their concern that the populist Five Star Movement party rankles with agitation from seemingly disenfranchised young Italians in the remote areas for an Italian exit of the European Union. Furthermore, in its alienation of African migrants, circumventing them from being gainfully employed, there is an argument that Italy already violates Article 14 of the ECHR, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race and national origin among others.
While Osa indeed believes he is in a helpless state, being forced to panhandle for a living on condition that he sweeps the sidewalk of the store where he is allowed to ask pedestrians for money, he still thinks is better than an alternative which some Nigerians are forced into because of their unemployment: selling drugs. This was the case for the Nigerian drug dealer alleged to have hacked an Italian teenage girl, who was his customer, after she had overdosed on cocaine he had allegedly supplied her. For Osa, there is no going back to Nigeria. He even alleged that Nigeria is ruled by leaders who are diabolical, and do not care about their people or the common folk, like the Italian government does.
They were off the consensus that in time, their Italian born children would secure equal rights to white Italians, as they become integrated into Italian society. He said although there was the traditional Italian nationalism and cultural dislike of strangers, he could see growing signs that younger Italians in their twenties and their teens, were increasingly more comfortable and familiar with black Africans. However, 24-year-old Italian-born, black male, Claudio, does not share their optimism for a cultural change that will integrate blacks. Claudio, whose parents are of Ghanaian origin, said he had lived and mingled with white Italians all his life, and his best friends are white Italians. He informed me that even though he was born in Italy, living in the south the only work available to him is factory work. He said that access to skilled employment and the professions, even with a university degree in Italy, apart from Milan, was through family connections and a network which simply bars the children of Africans. He said he understands that he will not have the same opportunities open to his white Italian friends because he is precluded from them as a black person. He said he plans to emigrate to London, where he has family and use the opportunity of his European Union nationality to enter England without a visa and to eventually settle in cosmopolitan and more inclusive London.
As for the panhandling diehards who’d lost all hope in Nigeria, when I asked one of them if he was not bothered by the cautionary lessons of history indicating that when a nationalistic majority has felt its economic security threatened, a discrete and conspicuous minority has often been targeted. The Holocaust happened to Jews in Nazi Germany even after Jewish assimilation and social integration into German society, where they thrived and produced the likes of the most accomplished folks, such as Albert Einstein, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. Did the fear not exist that their black descendants could face a parallel experience in the future? Efe responded that such a tragedy could never occur in Italy.
Efe claimed that Italians did not possess that sort of malevolent racism which the Nazis demonstrated, but rather are simply more insular and culturally protective of their identity in their nationalism. He claimed they are in fact polite and sensitive to the sufferings of migrants, but simply wish to maintain their closed culture and their jobs for white Italians. I asked the Igbo one among them, why he could not start a small business, since his people are known for being enterprising. He said it is very difficult for foreigners to start small businesses in Italy, as taxes, licenses and a culture resistant to foreigners are near-insurmountable hindrances. Yet he is optimistic, that through many years of panhandling, he will be able to build two houses in his hometown in Nigeria, where he plans to retire after seeing that his children have been well taken care of in Italy.
Preparing to return to America, the land of the free, as my stay in Milan comes to an end after completing my studies, I ponder over the complexities of Italian nationalism, the demonstrable politeness and even kindness I believed I experienced from Italians I interacted with and the conflicting xenophobic position of the co-ruling party Lega Nord (Northern League), which had helped elect the first black Senator in Italy’s history, the Nigerian-born Toni Iwobi. Generously, my Criminal Law professor, F. Vigano, who had been called by the President of Italy to become a Justice of Italy’s highest court had awarded me the grade of e lode, as the highest scoring student, although I was the only black person in the class.
Stepping into the kitchen after a long day at the library, I found a ray of hope to resolve my ambivalence, after I opened my refrigerator. I found my shelves in the fridge stocked with groceries bought for me by my new Italian roommate from Calabria, who had noticed that my usually stocked section of the fridge was uncharacteristically empty. He’d heard that a misfortune had befallen me after my bank account was depleted on a recent European tour. I was told the groceries were for me. As I thanked him for his generosity, Giuseppe my roommate, waves it away, saying, “Don’t worry Olu.” Tranquillo is the Italian phrase meaning “to stay calm.”
Reggio Calabria, where Giuseppe hails from, is one region in southern Italy, whose mayor said he would defy Salvini’s order and allow the Aquarius to dock in its seaport. I chose to read more to my Italian roommate’s words. I took it to be a reassurance that the League’s xenophobic stance was not a foreshadowing of the future endangerment of African migrants living in Italy, and those still braving the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea.
Olurotimi Osha is a citizen of the United States and Nigeria. He obtained a Juris Doctor degree from George Washington University Law School; an MBA from Troy University, USA, and studied at Columbia University in the City of New York, Oxford University, and Bocconi University in Milan. He is editor-in-chief of Olustories.com.