Italy: everywhere you have the good and the bad
02 February 2015

Italian classes at Centro Astalli Catania (Oscar Spooner / Jesuit Refugee Service)
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Since I have been here, however, I see that most people are not friendly when they see black skin. When you talk to them, they don't respond, they snub you, ignore you, if you go to ask them something in the street... they look at you as if you smell or something.
Sicily, 2 February 2015 – The attitude of the Sicilian people is obviously a key factor in determining the wellbeing of the migrants on the island. There is no doubt that Sicilians display concrete solidarity towards those who arrive to their shores: daily gestures by individuals, NGOs and communities bear witness to their compassion.

In just one of countless examples, a parish priest told us how his parishioners buy food detailed on his "shopping list" for meals that they themselves prepare and serve to homeless people, among them refugees. Centro Astalli (Jesuit Refugee Service Italy) has no experience of hostile acts by Sicilians towards refugees and other forced migrants – quite the opposite in fact, mutual solidarity is strong even in these tough times.

Our interviewees differed in evaluating the response of the local community: some were glowing with praise because they had known only kindness and had made friends, while others had been the butt of racist behaviour and so verged towards the negative. Then there were those who were philosophical, taking the good with the bad.

Testimonies

In 2014, Centro Astalli helped to organise a formation course for 60 migrants in Catania, Palermo and Modica. The project was called Itinerari d'incontro – Azioni per l'inclusione socio-lavorativa degli immigranti (Journeys of encounter – Actions for the socio-employment inclusion of immigrants). In practical terms, the participants were trained to be care-workers with elderly people or children. Such endeavours are great because they give migrants the chance to share their talents and gifts and to find work in areas where jobs are available. Plus, they create the possibility of positive encounters between refugees and Sicilians.

Bob:
"The people I sit down with, I did not see any act of racism from them, they take everyone as equal."

Godwin:
"When the police gave us an expulsion order and pushed us into the streets, we were two, three days with no food except some bread that people gave us because they were sorry for us. Then an Italian man came and asked us what our problem was. We explained and showed him the expulsion paper. He said this was a very bad act and that he had not seen this kind of thing in Italy before. He went and called some journalists, and we told them what happened.

"There were many Italian sympathisers who came to meet us, to bring clothes or food. Even some police who met us said they were sorry, that they had not heard about such things happening. The journalists found a lawyer and accommodation for us.

"Since I have been here, however, I see that most people are not friendly when they see black skin. When you talk to them, they don't respond, they snub you, ignore you, if you go to ask them something in the street... they look at you as if you smell or something. I don't know what they think in their minds, so I live my life and they live theirs. But there are still good people, and this is natural, everywhere you have the good and bad."

Matthieu: "I'm learning Italian and would like to make Italian friends. Some treat us like brothers and are so generous while others insult us, calling us 'cornuto' (bastard). It happens. Yesterday, when I was walking in the street, two children spat at me, but I didn't take it seriously because they were just kids."

Issouf: "I have Italian friends. We met in the many courses I went to, Italian classes and so on. In my work, since I am an interpreter, I meet Italian people every day and translate for them. My friends are very, very good and I pray to God to be friends with them all my life because they take care of me, and I try to help them too.

"However I have also met some Italian people who were racist in their dealings with me. I used to work as a waiter in a restaurant and once, when I went to serve someone, he told me he would not eat the food because I am black. We are all human beings so we are supposed to leave these things aside. It is God who created people with their colour, me with my black colour, but we are all the same."

Dr Livio Marchese, Modica, course tutor: "The project broke through political slogans and other barriers just by getting things done."

Loriana Mola, Centro Astalli: "Initially there was resistance when the refugees went to do their work experience because they went into an area that until then had been exclusively Italian. But this resistance melted so fast, the work experience actually translated into work opportunities for some."

Matthieu: "When we finished our course placement as care-workers, the elderly people did not want us to leave and nor did the staff. It became like a family because we worked well together. We learned a lot that we didn't know before."

Mary: "This has been the most beautiful time of my life because I got on so well with the elderly people. In my culture, we do everything for the elderly and we really love them. They didn't want us to leave. They said, no, why are you finishing, stay with us!"

The full report is available here.