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!