Efosa – A Migrant’s Story

Standing on the side of a street under the porticos in Bologna is a man selling little packages of tissues. He is in the same location every day except for Sundays. He is cheerful and engaging, regularly speaking with people as they pass him by. Professor Pagano had called my attention to this friendly man and recommended that I speak with him to learn about his migration story. Professor Pagano and I walked over to meet him. After shaking hands and making our introductions, I learned that he is called Efosa. We had a short conversation, in which we shared information about where each of us were from and made plans to meet on Piazza Maggiore the next day to continue our conversations. When I went to buy tissues from him, he refused payment and instead, unexpectedly, offered me a packet for free. I was caught off guard as I had been accustomed to people asking for money throughout the city. It was a gift.

The next day, I was looking forward to meeting Efosa who had intrigued me with his magnanimous gesture. At the appointed time, he was standing in Piazza Maggiore with his bike, ready to tell me where he had come from and the journey he had experienced prior to arriving in Bologna.

Courtesy of www.bolognawelcome.com

I wanted to take him to a cafe but he refused and preferred that we sit on the steps of the San Petronio Basilica. Again I found his lack of want surprising. Later, I found out that his name in his native tongue means “God’s wealth,” it would seem that his name is a reflection of his character, generous even though he has very few material possessions.

He is Nigerian and speaks English and Italian in addition to his native language. In his country, he had trained to become a technician and had worked there.  He left Nigeria in 2009 in search of better conditions and to help his family. He has a wife and three children. It was a hard decision but one he felt he had to make as there was no work; the economy was poor and there was government corruption. We used my phone to look at YouTube videos of Nigeria’s political and environmental climate, and he explained to me the conditions there and even discussed the natural hazards. When he left Nigeria, it was a harsh journey. He first went to Niger and then to Libya where he found work and for a while he was making sufficient money, enough to send some home to his family. He was in Tripoli, Libya during the rule of Muammar Gaddafi, and when violence broke out, he and many others escaped by boat to Italy as it was their only safe option. There was no food for many days during the treacherous crossing. They were rescued by the Italian police who brought them ashore and fed them. He then began a series of jobs working in Taranto and Napoli. After a while, work ran out in Napoli and he had a friend who invited him to come to Bologna to try and find a better life here. The Catholic Church here in Bologna has helped him and feeds people for free. He is grateful for the support the Italian people have extended him. He did express his concerns and his hopes for continued and better employment so that he could support himself as well as see his family again.

We talked about music – a universal subject, and the types of music he liked. He asked me about life in America and if it is better than in Italy. I could honestly say, the food in Italy was magnificent and we both had a good laugh about that.

Efosa is there every day – doing what he can to get by. To me, he is no longer a nameless stranger, he is someone whom I have come to know if only a little, during my stay here. Like so many immigrants, he is looking for a better life for himself and his family. He works hard and maintains an attitude of resiliency that, considering all that he has been through, is inspiring. He, like millions of others who have reached Italy’s shores, like my Grandfather before him, is the recipient of Italy’s ancient and deeply rooted generous nature.

If I have learned anything here during study abroad, it is that while the migration problems that challenge Italy remain, there are many hands at work trying to help resolve them – from the government, to educational institutions, to churches to individuals. Italy is rich in so many ways – history, art, (the food!) but mostly in heart.

From Field Report to Feel Report

Professor Pagano, Director of the K. Robert Nilsson Center for European Studies in Bologna, had kindly arranged for me to meet with Giulio Asta, an Italian teacher for the Mondo Donna Scuola di Italiano per stranieri, “emergenza sbarchi” (A school for teaching migrants living in Bologna and a part of the Emergency Landing Team).  I arrived at L’Ortica, a restaurant/bar where we were to meet to discuss my migration research/blog project.

I was ready for my meeting, I went early and was armed with my pre-approved research questions.  After exchanging our greetings, I set about laying out my agenda with Giulio and explained how I envisioned the research being conducted.

Questions that I would ask the migrants included things like:

  • Did you know what to expect when arriving in Italy?
  • How has your experience been to date?
  • Do you think education in cultural differences and similarities would help ease tensions?
  • Do you have any ideas of how your experience could be better?

What I suppose was my idea of a rudimentary field report – defined here as describing the observation of people, places, and/or events and to analyze that observation data in order to identify and categorize common themes in relation to the research problem underpinning the study – wasn’t going to be feasible according to Guilio.

He explained that surveying, questioning, and videotaping his students was, culturally speaking, too aggressive and that it was highly unlikely that they would open up to a stranger that readily. He let me know that if I changed my approach from a research-based questionnaire to meeting migrants on a social level, I would be able to better understand their struggles and situation.

So, what started out as a straightforward Q&A and a video field report has now transitioned into what I am coining a “feel report” — a much more realistic and culturally-sensitive, immersive interchange.

The conclusion from this eye-opening meeting was that I, and perhaps many of us in America, are perhaps conditioned to think in specific results-oriented ways. We want to quickly dive into matters, and try and scientifically calculate or tabulate information. We draw our conclusions on things we have read in the media or hear via political “sound bites,” and rarely have boots on the ground when we analyze or take a stance on an issue.  In the half hour conversation I had with Giulio, I can say I personally learned more about migrants than the collective number of articles I have read on migration.

Ultimately, we are talking about compassion and understanding.

I am eager to get to know a migrant on a personal level and to hear his or her story. It is by connecting with one person at a time that we can come to better understand human conditions and problems. Having a frank and deep conversation with one person will provide me with deeper insight into migrant views, life and their situation than any stats I could compile.

I look forward to sharing with you my feel report.

Pope Francis Visits Migrants in Bologna: “Integration, begins with knowing the story of the other”

By the afternoon of Friday, September 29, you could feel the excitement building in the Piazza Maggiore here in Bologna. There were many street performers including musicians, dancers, and baton twirlers. The tiny streets were lined with barricades. This was no ordinary weekend. Pope Francis was going to be visiting Bologna on Sunday, October 1.

From the early hours of the morning, the streets were thronged with thousands of people of every size, color, and shape. We were all jammed in close, talking and laughing – waiting together for hours to see this Italian-born Argentine immigrant, this international leader and head of the Catholic Church to arrive. Where would he go, what would he say?

Pope Francis arrives in Bologna

And then he arrived!

He came and met with thousands of migrants and refugees in Bologna, and had a message for the leaders of Europe and in fact, for all of us. He spoke to everyone.

His message couldn’t be simpler. With migrants, he shared with them their pain of being looked down upon, feared, and viewed with coldness. He remembered those who died at sea or in the desert during their journey.  He reminded them that they are “fighters of hope.” He wished that their hope should never turn into despair, and he thanked all who are helping them. The Pope asked migrants to work hard, and to follow the laws of the land.

Pope in Bologna – meeting with migrants; courtesy of Vatican Radio News, AP

Here are some of the key points from his speech:

Pope Francis called for “vision and great determination to prevent distortion or exploitation which, becomes even more unacceptable because they are committed on the poor.”

He urged countries to take up private and community support programs for refugees in more difficult situations. He asked that refugees be  spared exhaustive waiting periods.  He noted that “integration, begins with knowing the story of the other.”

This excerpt from an Associated Press article, captures his ability to relate to the migrant community, “He drew cheers when he ad-libbed that he knew the migrants were desperate to have identification documents, and again when he insisted that each one had a name and a story of the tragedies endured to arrive in Italy. He donned the same plastic ID bracelet that the migrants were wearing and led hundreds in silent prayer for those who died in the journey.”

He even had a message for the students of Bologna, urging us all to “not conform to small dreams, dream big.”

Pope Francis left thanking the city of Bologna, noting, “The city is not afraid to donate the five loaves and the two fish. Providence will intervene and everyone will be satisfied.”

His humbleness and openness, the importance and significance of his words to all audiences cannot be understated. In a world of divisiveness and polarity, his was a steadying voice of reason, balance, and unification. I for one, am truly grateful to have witnessed his reassuring presence.

From migrants to Italian citizens to those visiting Italy to those studying abroad, everyone felt welcome at this event.

Cultural Integration or Pasta with Professor Pagano

In my last blog, I mentioned how I thought that music, art, and food (!) is surely playing a significant role in extending a bridge to Italy’s multi-cultural population. While this observation was intended to be viewed through the eye of the migrant, little did I know that I would have the chance to personally experience how these elements draw us closer to a foreign culture. As an American student in Italy, and through the care of my professors, I have been immersed in cultural integration.

Photo Credit: Paola Emilia

Professor Pagano, our upper level Italian Language Professor invited us into his wonderful home where we had a classical Italian dinner.  We didn’t just eat dinner – we made it! Over the course of four hours we made pasta from scratch. It was a hands-on project, with my fellow classmates and I mixing eggs and flour together (up to our elbows in dough). After we finished this process, we began to flatten and roll out the pasta by using a traditional macchina per pasta (pasta machine).

After the pasta had dried, we were able to use the machine to separate the pasta into thin strips and cook it. The fresh pasta only took about five minutes to cook, which was very convenient as by then we were all very hungry. We shared stories while we made pasta about our previous experiences (or in some cases lack thereof) with cooking and how some of us had actually used a pasta machine before. The experience was a first for me, however, and I felt very at home while hearing about my classmates’ experiences, and learning from our Professor and his wife, how to do something brand new. The pasta making experience set in a gracious home environment, has to be one of the purest forms of cultural immersion and integration. It set the stage for sharing stories, learning from and teaching one another, as we participated in the most Italian activity possible – and had an enjoyable meal together.

Building on this example of how food can be a force for cultural integration with migrant communities, we can look at what the town of Novellara, in the province of Reggio Emilia and not far from the city of Parma – famous for its Parmigiano Reggiano cheeses – has done. Sikh immigrants from Punjab, India arrived in the late 1990s in Italy at a time when a generation of dairy farmers were dying out, and the younger generation was not interested in dairy farming.  Familiar with the skill, and the hard work and hours, Sikh dairy farmers became immersed in the local culture through their common understanding of cheese production – and in fact, they have been credited with maintaining and preserving the area’s traditional cheese production.

Photo credit: Rocco Rorandelli

According to 22-year-old Jaspinder Saini, in his interview with CityMigration, “Like Italians, for Punjabis, food is an important part of their tradition – from the flavors of food to the energy that goes into preparing it, and the delight of sharing it with family and friends. In Italy, eating is a tradition, so as in Punjab. We mix it up and eat both Indian and Italian food.”


Photo Credit: AFP

This is echoed by Amritpal Singh in this BBC article, whose family moved to Italy from Punjab when he was five years old; he considers himself Indo-Italian, “because you can’t cut your roots so I keep them alive inside me, but the rest is Italian. Obviously, I don’t eat meat but at home we eat both Indian and Italian, and we often go out to eat.” And according to the article, their meals, of course, include Parmigiano Reggiano.

Learning Italian through Song

Outside of food as a cultural bridge, music can also serve as a powerful connection. Case in point, Professor Pasqui is having our Italian class, in addition to normal lessons, learn Italian through song. “Come un Pittore” (Like a Painter) by Moda was the first song we listened to. As an optional extra credit assignment, students could learn and perform the song for the class. As a musician, I couldn’t resist this opportunity (plus the extra credit). The song’s lyrics focus on comparisons of emotions to colors and our natural environment. With recognizable lyrics and an extremely catchy tune, this song was perfect for having us understand the language, as well as relate to and appreciate its common sentiments. Music has played an important role in my own personal Italian cultural immersion, and I’ve found myself singing this song from my apartment balcony and hearing my neighbors join in.


Italy’s Cultural Bonus

The significance of cultural integration was certainly not lost on the Italian government. Following the November 2016 November Paris terror attack, Italy began a Cultural Bonus program, offering all Italian 18-year-old residents 500 euros to spend on cultural events, concerts, movies, books and museums. The goal is to educate and to help the growing number of young immigrants assimilate into local culture, and dissuade alienated youths from following radical Islam. According to NPR, Stefano Dambruoso, a member of the Italian Parliament said, “The Western world is bound to host more and more people because of mass immigration. We’re not funding the Culture Bonus because we’re such a good country. It’s simply in our best interest to integrate people. “The article goes on to quote, Hassan Mehdi, a migrant from Bangladesh, who sells phone chargers at Porta Portese, an outdoor flea market in Rome, who says, “It’s a great idea. I could buy books, improve my Italian, maybe get a better job.”

These are just a few examples and my personal experiences of how sharing food, music, and art are bringing people closer together, and helping them integrate with local culture. There are several more examples I look forward to sharing with you in my next post. Time for some homemade pasta!

Italy: “Bridging Cultural Divides and Preserving Individual Rights”

The 2017 World Economic Forum Global Risk Report recently examined key threats to the stability of nations. Among the findings are what the German newspaper Handlesblatt calls the “polarization of societies fearing mass migration and loss of cultural identity.” The Global Risk report states that “decades of rapid social and economic change have widened generational gaps and amplified issues of national identity and cultural values,” and it states that the “challenge is to find inclusive ways to bridge sharp cultural divides while preserving individual rights.”

As noted in my previous post, I was going to take a look at what Italy is doing to bridge these divides and preserve these rights as it copes with absorbing the massive number of migrants to its country. Many different organizations, and various branches of the government are trying to address these issues, and tackle the bigger picture. Actions are being taken also by individuals, and through grassroots efforts. Here are just a few of what I expect will be many more examples to come.

Understanding each other is a critical first step

To help migrants and local interpreters better understand each other and not just from a verbal perspective, the University of Bologna has initiated a Humanitarian Interpretation training course, the first of its kind. The free course provides the Bologna Commission for International Protection interpreters with the necessary skills for consecutive interpretation and professional ethics. The pilot program is being attended by interpreters for Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Nigeria, Pakistan, Senegal, Tunisia, and Ukraine. It will be interesting to see how the program develops and if it will expand to other parts of Italy.

Integration vs. Isolation

University of Bologna is actively involved in migrant integration – Courtesy of makemystudy.com

In the past two years, Italy has absorbed a large number of Syrian refugees, but because of its atmosphere of inclusion and openness, it has fewer Islamist radicals than other European countries. It also does not have isolated Muslim neighborhoods and people are encouraged to share common cultural interests. While Italy does not recognize Islam as an official religion, the Italian government is proposing interesting new ideas to integrate Muslims within their country. According to International Business Times, a new program has been developed in conjunction with the University of Bologna to help create a climate of increased tolerance between members of multiple religions and cultures. In an interview with the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica, Professor Giovanni Cimbalo said, “The aim is to foster a dialogue between religions and cultures, contributing to the construction of a peaceful and non-violent society.”

Local Action

According to a recent AFP article, asylum seekers in Belluno, Italy are doing community service while they await to hear about their requests to stay.  Some are happy with this arrangement while others don’t like the idea of working without pay. For some, it is a relief from boredom or anxiety. Carlotta Sami, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), who is quoted in the article, says, “Many cannot bear not doing anything, so making themselves useful for a few hours a day for the community that is welcoming them can be a good thing for them psychologically.”

A Remarkable Use Case from the “Toe” of Italy

Just this past Tuesday, in my Dickinson in Bologna Politics of Migration in the EU class, Professor Ceccorulli noted that according to a recent study by The European Union Institute for Security Studies, international migrants and asylum seekers want to live in nations where they can integrate into local communities through businesses that they create, based on their own culture and where political systems are open.

Afghan woman displaying her native embroidery in Riace – Courtesy of NPR

Riace, a little town near the toe of Italy’s boot exemplifies this concept.  It has turned itself into a model global village welcoming more than 6,000 migrants over the past 18 years. Its three term Mayor, Domenico Lucano, who recognized the aging population of his town and its high unemployment, set about constructing a revival.  He offered refugees abandoned apartments and job training. What was once nearly a ghost town is now a thriving village.

According to an NPR interview, Lucano has an open mind when it comes to understanding of the role of migrants throughout history, “So many civilizations have left their mark on this land. The ancient Greeks and Romans, the Arabs, Turks, and Saracens. And this has helped us have very few prejudices about other peoples.”  While the Riace experiment isn’t a perfect fit for everyone, Lucano offers his perspective, “To those Europeans who fear migrants bring disease, take away their jobs and sense of security, they bring us their culture, their world, their colors and their knowledge.”

Land, Agro and the Gift of the Bees

Ciminna farming program – Courtesy of Huffington Post

In Ciminna, Sicily, Father Sergio Mattaliano, from the nonprofit Caritas International organization runs an agricultural program that provides farming job skills to migrants and refugees from Gambia, Senegal, Mali and Liberia. They help produce olive oil, fruits and vegetables, and take care of the chickens, rabbit and sheep, and sell their produce at the Palermo farmer’s market every day. According to Huffington Post, Father Mattaliano is proudest of their olive oil, stating they produce 5,000 liters per year. He marvels at the fact that the product has been made by “hands that have suffered tremendously and yet are working toward a new beginning.” 

Migrant worker at the Bee My Job program – Courtesy of Voice of America News

In Alessandria, another group, called Bee My Job is training Sub-Saharan migrants as beekeepers.  According to VOA, “efforts by European leaders to stem the flow of migrants from Africa ignores the fact that Europe needs these workers. According to Oxfam, Italy alone will need 1.6 million migrants over the next 10 years.” This innovative program run by the Italian Cambalache Association trains migrants and refugees as beekeepers and finds work for them in Italy’s agribusiness industry.  And while the workers miss their families they “hope the honey business can make tomorrow at least a bit sweeter.”

This is just a short list of some of the incredibly innovative and inspiring efforts being made by the Italian government, organizations and individuals alike to help “bridge cultural divides and preserve individual rights.”

I’ll next look at the more personal and more intimate aspects of how today’s migrants and local Italians are integrating cultures. My guess is that music, art, and food (!) will play a significant role and offer a means of individual expression to Italy’s multi-cultural population.

Italy: A Story of Migration

The Oxford Dictionary defines migration as the movement of people to a new area or country in order to find work or better living conditions. Migration can be voluntary or involuntary, and it can be because of war, or for political, cultural, environmental and economic reasons. Human history is overwhelmingly a story of migration.

From prehistoric times and right up to today, Italy has been a destination for migrants. Due to its geography and place in the Mediterranean, Italy serves as a land bridge to and from Europe attracting invaders and migrants alike. From 5,300 years ago when Ötzi, the now famous Copper Age glacial mummy crossed Tisenjoch/Giogo di Tisa in the Schnalstal/Val Senales Valley, into South Tyrol, to a historical parade of Indo-Europeans, Etruscans, Greeks, Romans, German tribes, Visigoths, my ancestors – Attila and the Huns, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Lombards, Hungarians, Arabs and the French alike – all migrated to Italy.

Ötzi the Iceman, courtesy of South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology

Migrants throughout the ages have brought with them their culture and customs. These unique attributes have enhanced, enriched and strained relations with local communities.

From a positive and cultural perspective, if we look back over history, we can say that migrants such as the early Greek colonies have been proprietors of Italian culture, helping influence Italian art and architecture with their classical styles. History records another example, the migration of Syrian artisans and craftsmen who helped develop Venetian glass techniques. There are countless records of how various peoples over the ages have helped enrich, advance, and shape the very fabric of Italy. There are also countless historical examples of how migrants have clashed throughout the ages.

An example of a Syrian glass cosmetic bottle in the form of a dromedary with a pack on its back. 8th-9th century.

Today, Italy continues to attract migrants from North Africa, the Middle East, and from Western European nations that are suffering economically and as in the past they are leaving their mark on Italy as they integrate into major cities, with their own food, music, religion and artwork.

According to The Economist, this year alone, Italy has absorbed an overwhelmingly large number of migrants arriving in Italy by sea, over 17% more than in 2016, totaling 93,335. Unlike in 2015, when Syrians fled from war and persecution, these migrants are arriving on Italy’s shores for economic reasons.

Italian officers rescue a woman from a crowded wooden boat. Courtesy of BBC

They come primarily from Bangladesh and Nigeria and are undocumented, presenting Italy with a tremendous humanitarian burden. Carlotta Sami of UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, who is quoted in The Economist article estimates that more than 170,000 migrants are in Italian reception centers or are being housed by local authorities. Even from this year’s April map of migrant flows to Europe below – we can see that Italy is overwhelmed in comparison to the rest of Europe.

Migration Flows to Europe, April 2017; Courtesy of the International Organization for Migration and the UN Migration Agency

To say that these are incredibly difficult times for migrants and local Italians is an understatement. While Italy needs migrants to bolster its declining birthrate, this country with a big heart needs help from the EU to help migrants and locals alike find a hopeful solution.

In my next blog, I’ll look at what some migrants are doing and ideas that Italians have put in place to aid with cultural integration.

At the Heart of the Immigrant Experience


70 years ago, the young man in the photo, my grandfather, left Communist Hungary on a student visa to study abroad.  When his official papers didn’t arrive in time for him to extend his stay in the country he was studying in and he was to be deported, it was a kind-hearted and generous Italian student and his family that took him home, and shared the little they had with him.  My grandfather’s immigrant adventure — the adventure of his lifetime — began with the kindness of a stranger.  70 years later, his grandson returns to Italy to study and to learn about immigration.  In this blog, I’ll examine current day feelings of locals and refugees, and the subject of immigration, which is even more pressing today.