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

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.