Cecile Kyenge, Italyâs first black government minister, proposes a law that would give citizenship to the children of immigrants if they are born on Italian soil.
Born in the Congo, Kyenge moved to Italy in the 1980s to study medicine in Rome, before obtaining a position in a hospital in Modena. She met her husband, a native Italian with whom she has two children, after he underwent surgery in her department. Kyenge was at the forefront of a dramatic demographic shift in Italy. As recently as 1991, just 1 in 100 residents held a foreign passport. Today, it’s 1 out of every 12. For every five children delivered in the country, one is born to a foreign parent. Unlike Kyenge, most of Italy’s recent arrivals are poor and employed in jobs that Italians refuse: construction workers, maids, caregivers for the elderly. The foreign-born middle class has yet to establish itself, while the first generation of immigrant children born and educated in the country is just moving into the workforce.
While Italians don’t like to think of their country as racist, the experience of non-white Italians and resident immigrants illustrates a culture that has found it hard to welcome increasing diversity. “How many times have I been told, ‘You’re so beautiful, you don’t even seem truly black?’” says Medhin Paolos, 23, an Italian of Eritrean descent and a member of Rete G2, a group campaigning for a reform of Italy’s citizenship laws. “Where I come from, this is not a compliment.”
A study by the University of Messina and the anti-discrimination group ARCI found that a substantial majority of the children of immigrants reported being insulted on the streets, talked down to by teachers, watched with suspicion in shops, turned away from restaurants and treated rudely by immigration officials. In 2002, the Italian government passed a law requiring all non-Italian residents to have their fingerprints taken, as part of the process for applying for residency.
“There’s the idea that black people stink,” says Jean Zongo, 28, the son of African immigrants. There was a period when he was younger, Zongo was afraid to take the bus at night, for fear of encountering racial violence. More than once, he has climbed aboard to hear a group of young men grunting like monkeys. It’s a charmless display of racism that has migrated from Italy’s soccer stadiums — where Mario Balotelli, the Italian football star of Ghanaian heritage, has famously faced chants of “There’s no such thing as a black Italian” — to youth culture at large. Zongo has traveled to France, Spain and England. Only in his own country, he says, is he made to feel second class. “[Discrimination] is present in just about every aspect of life, in every circumstance,” he says.