The pope’s visit to Lesbos and the invitation to the Great Mosque in Rome

Today the Vatican announced that Pope Francis is to visit Lesbos on 16 April in a gesture of solidarity towards asylum seekers and refugees there.

The announcement came just two days after initial reports of a possible trip to the Greek island which, like Italy’s Lampedusa, finds itself on the front line in efforts to handle the huge influx of men, women and children from Africa, the Middle East and Asia seeking international protection in Europe.

The joint visit with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I would appear to have been organised in record time.

It is fantastic that Pope Francis is putting such effort into highlighting the terrible plight of migrants and refugees.

His first official visit as pope in 2013 was precisely to the tiny island of Lampedusa that is closer to North Africa than it is to mainland Sicily, and which has seen a staggering 400,000 migrants pass through its ‘doors’ in the last 20 years.

Last September, after European consciences were stirred briefly by the harrowing photographs of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up dead on a Turkish beach, Francis invited all Catholic parishes to take in refugees.

Most recently, he chose to hold the Holy Thursday feet-washing rite at a reception centre for asylum seekers (CARA) in Castelnuovo di Porto, just down the road from Monterotondo.

However, as I read the news of the upcoming Lesbos visit I found myself wondering why the pope couldn’t put the same zeal into arranging an equally important and long-awaited visit to the Great Mosque in Rome.

He received a formal invitation from the Islamic Cultural Centre of Italy, which houses Europe’s largest (and extremely beautiful) Muslim house of prayer, on 20 January.

The invitation came in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks by Islamic fundamentalists in Paris, even though both sides were said to have been working on the visit for around ten months.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said at the time that the invitation had been accepted ”with gratitude and it will be considered. The Pope will see what to do.”

He also urged caution in speculation about a date, though qualified sources told ANSA that the parties were “working towards 10 April”, a Sunday.

Since then, with the exception of a couple of reports that Francis will visit the mosque “shortly”, there has been total silence.

This is a shame considering that Europe’s refugee crisis and fundamentalist Islamic terrorism are in many respects two sides of the same coin, and also that the vast majority of refugees and asylum seekers entering Europe right now are Muslim.


Angelo Vassallo, the fisherman-mayor

Italy is full of unsung heroes, ordinary people who do extraordinary things and pay for it dearly, often with their life.

Il sindaco pescatore – the fisherman-mayor – is one of these.

Angelo Vassallo, a fisherman by trade, was elected mayor of the struggling coastal municipality of Pollica in the beautiful Cilento area south of Naples in 1995. At that time the local environment was in a state of degradation as a result of pollution and building speculation and the economy was in ruins.

During three successive mandates Vassallo turned the town around with intransigence and determination, making the pursuit of legality and defence of the environment his guiding principles.

He activated the abandoned local water purification system, organised an efficient local rubbish recycling scheme, created pedestrian areas and introduced hefty fines for dropping cigarette butts, among other things.

Slowly, tourists started to return to the area, the municipality won the prestigious international Blue Flag eco-label and national Legambiente ‘5 Vele’ award and the economy flourished.

Meanwhile, Vassallo’s administration became a model of good governance all over the world.

However, the influx of money and tourists into the area brought with it other problems, most notably drugs. And, like all other problems, the fisherman-mayor faced this one head on. This may have been his undoing.

In March 2010 Vassallo was elected to a fourth mandate with 100% of the vote. The following September while driving home one evening he was gunned down.

Four years later, in February 2014 an Italian gangster named Bruno Humberto Damiani was stopped at Bogota’ airport on an international arrest warrant for drug pushing in the Cilento area.

Police said the suspect, who was alleged to have connections with the Camorra operating in Naples’ Scampia neighbourhood, met with representatives of a family of hoteliers and criminals just hours before the fisherman-mayor was riddled with bullets.

Last month prosecutors opened investigations into a further three people in connection with the assassination.

The four suspects are all being probed for aggravated complicity in murder.

Vassallo’s story came to my attention by chance a few weeks ago, when I learned that pupils at a primary school here in Monterotondo are doing project work inspired by him.

While the Vassallo family, the community of Pollica and Italy as a whole wait for justice to be served, this surely has to be a fitting tribute to his memory.

Richiedente asilo del Gambia violentato da italiano

Talvolta sono i migranti e richiedenti asilo a compiere aggressioni e abusi ai danni di donne e uomini nei paesi di accoglienza, come nella terribile notte di Capodanno a Colonia e in diverse altre città della Germania.

Ma a volte succede anche il contrario, ed è bene dirlo per correttezza e completezza d’informazione e per mettere freno ai populismi che cercano di imporre la loro narrazione semplicistica e monodimensionale ai danni della coesione e della solidarietà sociale.

E’ il caso di un richiedente asilo diciottenne del Gambia, giunto in Italia dopo una traversata in mare e ora ‘ospite’ (passatemi il termine) del centro di accoglienza per i richiedenti d’asilo (CARA) di Mineo, la cui triste vicenda è riportata oggi dall’agenzia Ansa.

Sarebbe stato violentato da un 23enne italiano nella stazione di Termini Imerese mentre si stava recando in visita da un suo connazionale. Il giovane è riuscito infine a dare l’allarme e l’aggressore è stato identificato e arrestato con l’accusa di violenza sessuale grazie ad alcuni dati sul cellulare. La polizia scientifica ha trovato tracce biologiche nella sala d’attesa della stazione che potrebbero confermare l’aggressione, permettendo forse al ragazzo gambiano un giorno di ottenere giustizia.

La protezione internazionale è un’altra storia.

La Repubblica on refugee reception by parishes and the difficulties faced by Muslims in explaining Islam

Two articles in today’s La Repubblica newspaper caught my eye.

One was an article by Jenner Meletti on the number of parishes across Italy that have responded to Pope Francis’s September call to open their doors to refugees. The answer is: painfully few. The reason may also have to do with legal and bureaucratic constraints – to the best of my knowledge the church is being involved in the primary reception (accoglienza primaria) of people whose immigration status is as yet uncertain – but it nonetheless remains a sad testament to the difficulty of showing concrete solidarity even in the face of such urgent need.

(For the record I have myself enquired about the possibility of hosting refugees in my own home and I have been told that families can only accommodate people once their application for international protection has been processed; offers of accommodation should be made to and are handled by the diocesan Caritas).

The other article was a frank and thought-provoking comment by the writer Mohammed Hanif that first appeared in the New York Times about the difficulties faced by so-called ‘moderate’ Muslims in explaining Islam following atrocities such as the November terrorist attacks perpetrated by Islamic fundamentalists in Paris. It is a must-read.

Allerta a Bruxelles di Raffaella Greco Tonegutti

Ricevo e pubblico volentieri il contributo di una mia cara amica, Raffaella Greco Tonegutti, scrittrice, cooperante internazionale ed esperta su temi della migrazione e dei diritti umani, attualmente residente a Bruxelles.

Le ho scritto dopo gli attacchi terroristici di Parigi per chiedere un aiuto a decifrare quanto era accaduto in Francia e successivamente anche nella capitale belga – finita suo malgrado nell’occhio del ciclone come cosiddetta ‘culla del jihadismo’ in Europa – e le loro conseguenze per tutti noi.

Quello che mi ha mandato Raffaella non è – come mi ha scritto lei stessa – “né una riflessione, né un’analisi, ma solo quattro piccole (ma purtroppo non isolate) assurdità viste/vissute in queste settimane ad alta tensione”. “Assurdità” che aiutano a capire le mille implicazioni della rinnovata lotta al terrore per tutti coloro che con il terrorismo non c’entrano niente, e dimostrano che un’altra narrazione, diversa da quella mediatica e propagandistica, non solo è possibile, ma anche necessaria e fondamentale.

Buona lettura


Allerta Uno

“Madame! Je me suis perdida…”

Avenue Albert, incrocio Chaussée de Waterloo. Normalmente un brulicare di persone che vanno e vengono, escono dalla metro, si dirigono verso la “barrière” de Saint Gilles, scendono al mercato, riprendono la metro, affollano i localini a poco prezzo di questa zona centrale eppure molto popolare della città. Avenue Albert, oggi, è completamente deserta. Fa freddo, gli ippocastani in fila lungo il viale hanno perso tutte le foglie con le folate di vento di queste notti di autunno rigido. La donna ha un vestito beige di cotone troppo leggero per la stagione, non porta calze e hai piedi ha ciabatte da cortile nere con la suola rialzata. Lancia una richiesta d’aiuto ingigantita dall’evidenza che siamo le uniche due persone in giro, questa mattina.

“Mi hanno fatto svuotare questo…”, dice tendendo il polso da cui pende un sacchetto di plastica chiuso con un nodo. E’ seria. Ha dita grandi e poco curate, le unghie tutte rotte. Parla in un portoghese misto francese misto stanchezza misto spaesamento.


“La poliziotta che parlava fiammingo. Era così agitata!”

Non ha visto il telegiornale, madame? Scuote la testa, mi guarda perplessa dietro spessi occhiali dalla montatura marrone. Poi si avvicina e mi si appende addosso. “A Barrière…”. Mi stringe il braccio mentre ci incamminiamo nel cuore del quartiere e lei comincia i racconti su suo marito che faceva il muratore ed è volato giù dall’impalcatura, “ma era tanto tempo fa”, sulle sue sorelle tornate nella valle del Minho “que saudade!”, su Saint Gilles dove vive da cinquant’anni, come tanti altri portoghesi arrivati a lavorare la terra, la calce, il carbone, e dove, da qualche tempo in qua ha cominciato a perdersi quando esce di casa.

“Mi hanno detto di tornare subito a casa…”. Si ferma: “Ma io non so tornare, che disgrazia! E quella s’è messa a urlare. Che disgrazia, la vecchiaia!”

Penso che non voglio andare verso il Parvis de Saint Gilles, c’è allerta 4, bisogna evitare il mercato, i luoghi pubblici. E poi dovevo solo andare in farmacia, Fernando si starà preoccupando. Arrivate a barrière, faccio per sfilare il braccio. “Meno male che ti ho incontrata. Che Dio benedica te e tutta la tua famiglia”. Non lascia la presa. “Era tanto tempo che non facevo una bella passeggiata. Grazie di essere venuta con me, brava ragazza. Bruxelles è tutta nostra. Che bel silenzio! Che bel il sole!”

Allerta Due

Bouchra è arrivata a prendere Sambetto all’ora stabilita. Non è sempre puntuale ed è solita scusarsi in un misto di arabo e francese, giustificando nel dettaglio le ragioni dei suoi ritardi che generalmente hanno a che fare con tram fermi per interminabili minuti in aree non previste lungo il tragitto, signore che la trattengono a fare pulizie oltre orario, figlie che tornano in ritardo da scuola. Oggi Bouchra tiene lo sguardo basso, non accarezza Sambetto sulle guance ripetendo nome di Allah come usa fare ogni giorno da tre mesi in qua, ossia da quando ha cominciato a fare la babysitter a casa nostra.

Si scusa, abbassa il capo, si sistema il velo nero intorno al viso. A voce bassa, dice che se non vogliamo più che lavori per noi lei lo capisce, che anche lei farebbe lo stesso. Dice che se abbiamo paura a mandare nostro figlio con lei a Saint Josse, se non vogliamo che lei lo porti fuori con il passeggino, per lei va bene lo stesso, è stato un piacere lavorare per noi in questi mesi, lei non se la prende, capisce benissimo. Ha bisogno di questo lavoro ma sa, mi dice, che è pericoloso adesso stare con quelli come lei. Lo dicono tutti. Sull’autobus la gente si sposta. La polizia fa irruzione nelle case dei suoi vicini, fa la posta agli angoli delle strade del suo quartiere. La scuola di arabo e corano dove sua figlia Sofia frequenta un corso del fine settimana è stata chiusa, non si sa quando riaprirà. È cambiato tutto e lei, mi dice, capisce benissimo di non essere più la benvenuta.

La invito a entrare, a sedersi sul divano. Le confermo gli orari della settimana, quando venire e quando riportare Sambetto. Lei sorride, il suo viso tondo si colora di rosso.


Grazie a te.

Allerta Tre

Rebecca e Giulio mi hanno informato che si trasferiranno a Bruxelles. Scrivono preoccupati per sapere cosa sta succedendo in città. Hanno ricevuto dal loro agente immobiliare, lo stesso che utilizzano tutti gli expat in arrivo in città, un’informazione che li dovrebbe rassicurare. “We have found for you a beautiful, furnished apartment in SAFE area (Ixelles, Chatelain) / Appartement meublé dans une zone relativement SURE (Ixelles, Chatelain)”.

Apro una pagina con la cartina di Bruxelles, copio e incollo su un documento word. Metto due frecce rosse a indicare la via dell’appartamento in questione e la strada in cui abito con mio marito ed i miei due figli. Cinquecento metri di distanza, forse meno. Aggiungo uno foto scattata il giorno stesso mentre giriamo in bicicletta sul viale che unisce i due punti segnati in rosso. Qui Bruxelles e tutto va bene.

Allerta quattro

La metro è chiusa. Il tram metropolitano funziona solo per le poche fermate in superficie. Gli autobus sono pieni da scoppiare e passano in ritardo. Le giornate sono molto fredde ma l’assenza di nuvoloni grigi fa ben sperare. Mi copro gola e orecchie e attraverso la città a piedi. Le strade sono insolitamente libere. Fatico a riconoscere gli incroci dove solitamente stazionano due o tre vigili per organizzare il caotico viavai di macchine e biciclette. Neanche un minuto d’attesa a Janson, tutto liscio persino a Stephanie. Allora perché c’è quel crocchio di pedoni fermi in mezzo alla piazza? Non resisto alla curiosità, mi avvicino. Dietro il sipario di schiene e cappucci, un carro armato. Tra le lucine di Natale dei negozi chic della città, quella ferraglia verde militare con il suo cannone verso il murales della donna nuda a gambe aperte di Avenue Louise è la rappresentazione meglio riuscita dell’assurdo che Bruxelles ha vissuto per un’intera settimana. È Allerta quattro, babe.


Raffaella Greco Tonegutti (Roma, 1979) vive tra l’Africa e l’Europa, dove attualmente lavora per la Commissione Europea a Bruxelles. Ha al suo attivo L’Espagnole (Editori Riuniti, 2013), una storia di migrazioni al femminile ambientata a Bruxelles, Silenzio su Bamako (Editori Riuniti, 2013), un saggio scritto con Robin Edward Poulton sul golpe in Mali e l’intervento armato internazionale, e Racconto a due voci (Infinito edizioni, 2015), un’opera teatrale scritta con Giordana Morandini e tratta liberamente da L’Espagnole, vincitrice della terza edizione del Premio Barbara Fabiani per la Storia Sociale. Inoltre, è in uscita per Edwin Mellen Press (New York) il volume “TERRORISM or PEACE in the SAHARA? Soldiers, Jihadists and the Failure of Malian Democracy”, scritto con Robin Edward Poulton e previsto per febbraio 2016. Si può contattare all’indirizzo


The courage of Lea Garofalo

Today Italy commemorates the life and death of Lea Garofalo, an iconic figure in the fight against organised crime whose decision to break ties with Calabria’s powerful ‘ndrangheta mafia led to her murder six years ago aged 35.

Lea’s is a story of courage and hope. Courage to rebel against the rules of the ‘ndrangheta family into which she had been born and leave her mafioso partner Carlo Cosco in order to seek a better life if not for herself, for their young daughter Denise. Hope because through her sacrifice she showed that the mafia code of silence can be broken.

Lea’s story ended brutally on 24 November 2009 with her murder in a plot orchestrated by Cosco as much in revenge for the ‘dishonour’ of being abandoned as because she had broken ranks. However, the fact that testimony provided by Denise against her father following her mother’s disappearance (Lea’s remains only came to light in 2013 as a result of evidence emerging at trial) should have led to his life imprisonment is a source of inspiration for all.

The tale of the two women returned to the fore in Italy last week with the television premiere of Marco Tullio Giordana’s film ‘Lea’ starring a spell-binding Vanessa Scalera in the lead role and Linda Caridi as Denise.

The film not only gave a fascinating insight into the workings of the country’s most powerful mafia organisation, but it also highlighted the need for adequate support and protection for people wanting out.

Lea was born into the Garofalo clan in Petilia Policastro near Crotone in 1974. Her father and brother were both local bosses and met their death in feuds with rival clans. Cosco was an ‘ndrangheta affiliate with dealings in Milan.

Lea decided she had had enough of the mob lifestyle in 1996, when Denise was just five, but she only began collaborating with investigators as a testimone di giustizia (a citizen informant without a criminal record, not to be confused with a collaboratore di giustizia or pentito, namely someone who turns state’s evidence after being arrested or convicted of a crime) in 2002.

She and her daughter subsequently entered a witness protection programme and lived under a false identity in various locations around Italy for the next four years until their protection was removed on grounds Lea’s testimony had not been sufficiently effective.

Lea appealed against the decision and was readmitted to the programme, but she opted out voluntarily in April 2009 for reasons that remain unclear (there are suggestions that she feared for her safety and was frustrated with the apparent reluctance of investigators to take her testimony seriously). This is when she made the tragic error of renewing contact with Petilia Policastro and Cosco.

Her estranged partner orchestrated an unsuccessful attempt on her life in May 2009 before luring her to Milan allegedly to discuss their daughter’s future the following November. Her lawyer Enza Rando urged her not to go but she ignored the advice, insisting that with Denise’s presence her safety was ensured.

On 24 November while Denise was with relatives Lea was abducted, tortured and killed. Her body was then burned and the remains buried on a plot in Monza outside the Lombardy regional capital.

Denise, then 17, reported her mother’s disappearance and accused her father of murder. In March 2012 six people including Cosco and his two brothers were jailed for life at first instance for the crime, even as the defense continued to claim Lea had abandoned her daughter and moved to Australia.

One of the convicts, Denise’s ex boyfriend Carmine Venturino, subsequently made statements allowing investigators to uncover Lea’s scant remains, which were laid to rest following a civil funeral in Milan in October 2013 attended by several thousand people.

In May 2013 a Milan appeals court upheld the life sentences against four of the defendants including Cosco, reduced Venturino’s sentence to 25 years and overturned the guilty verdict against a sixth defendant on grounds there was no crime to answer.

These sentences became definitive in a supreme court ruling in December 2014.

Meanwhile Denise has been living under a new identity in a secret location under the same witness protection scheme that ‘betrayed’ her mother.

“The protection system for informants has undergone a series of improvements in recent years […] but testimoni di giustizia have a dignity of their own and deserve a specific law,” said Rando after the film Lea’s television premiere on 18 November.

Currently provisions for testimoni and collaboratori are set out under a single law, leading to confusion between the two.

“Informants and collaborators should never again be confused and a law would help resolve the current critical points,” the lawyer continued.

Davide Mattiello of the Democratic Party (PD), a member of Italy’s bicameral anti-mafia commission, agreed.

“If the mafia kills a magistrate the roles are clear and the law works for family members, but if the mafia tears to pieces those who rebel from within their own circle the law comes unstuck,” Mattiello said.

“A person who wants to break with those family ties, even if they don’t have precious information for the judiciary, must find the State.”


(A copy of this article has also appeared in the Italian Insider)

New UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi must ensure refugees do not become scapegoats after Paris attacks

On 18 November the general assembly of the United Nations endorsed the nomination of long-serving Italian diplomat Filippo Grandi as the next UN high commissioner for refugees.

He replaces former Portuguese prime minister Antonio Guterres on 1 January.

Born in Milan in 1957, Grandi has spent most of his career in the UN, working for the UNHCR in Sudan, Syria, Turkey and Iraq among other places and leading the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) from 2010 until 2014.

His nomination not only continues the proud tradition of Italians in key international positions – Romano Prodi as president of the European Commission from 1999 to 2004, Mario Draghi as current president of the European Central Bank and Federica Mogherini as the European Union’s current high representative for foreign affairs – but it can also be seen as recognition of the front-line role played by Italy in Europe’s worst refugee crisis since the second world war.

Last month UNHCR said it expected 1.4 million refugees to arrive in Europe in 2015 and 2016 in search of “safety and international protection” from terrorism, war and persecution in their home countries. The vast majority are Muslim.

Grandi now has the challenge of ensuring that these people are not turned into scapegoats as western countries ratchet up the ‘war on terror’ following the 13 November attacks by Islamic jihadists in Paris in which at least 129 people were killed.

The day after the tragedy Poland’s future minister for European affairs said it would be “impossible” for the new conservative government to accept previously agreed EU-mandate quotas for refugees amid subsequently confirmed reports that one of the Paris terrorists had transited through Greece in October. The others were all allegedly French or Belgian nationals.

Similar sentiments have been expressed in Italy by Matteo Salvini, leader of the anti-immigration and anti-Europe Northern League, and he is not alone.

However, as the speaker of Italy’s Chamber of Deputies and former UNHCR Italy spokesperson Laura Boldrini pointed out, refugees are often “the first victims of terror”.

“Those who want to send them back are giving Islamic State a gift by allowing it to step forward as their only protection,” she said in an interview to L’Espresso magazine published 18 November.

“Those who say all Muslims are the same make a few thousand militiamen representative of billions of people. It’s madness,” she added.

David Grossman e la sua ‘Umanità nascosta’ a servizio di una riflessione su #Parigisottoattacco

Nella mia ricerca personale su come reagire alla tragedia di Parigi mi sono imbattuta in un articolo bellissimo dello scrittore israeliano David Grossman, che ora desidero segnalare ai lettori.

L’articolo si intitola L’umanità nascosta negli occhi dei siriani e racconta la reazione del suo paese alle immagini dei profughi in fuga.

La sua riflessione risale a prima degli attacchi terroristici a Parigi, ma offre degli spunti interessanti per capire meglio i rischi insiti nel contesto in cui ora ci troviamo e individuare una possibile via d’uscita.