Bilal, a story of modern-day heroism

Every once in a while a book can have a profound impact on the way you see the world.

For me, this has been the case with ‘Bilal. Viaggiare, lavorare, morire da clandestini’ (BUR Rizzoli, 2007) by L’Espresso journalist Fabrizio Gatti, one of the most powerful eye-openers I have read in recent years.

In it, the prizewinning undercover reporter chronicles the long and hazardous journey made by tens of thousands of African migrants each year in search of work and a better life in Europe, and what awaits them in Italy if and when they eventually arrive.

Sadly, we have become all too familiar with the images of boatloads of desperate and exhausted migrants being brought ashore in southern Italian ports.

But how much do we really know about the journey that got them there in the first place? About the perilous crossing of the Sahara in unforgiving temperatures and at the mercy of ruthless people smugglers and unscrupulous soldiers who extract payment at every roadblock, leaving their victims stranded? Or about the conditions in the migrant detention centre on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, the first – and often the only – port of call in Italy for those who make the sea crossing alive? Or about the slavery-like conditions reserved for migrant farm labourers in the tomato plantations around Foggia in the southern Puglia region?

In his book Gatti sets out to find out, and he does so by pretending to be one of them.

“Only by sharing the same spaces and the same hardship is it possible to break down the barriers of skin and enter into confidence,” Gatti explains to his Nigerian travelling companions as they await departure from Agadez in central Niger for Libya via the Dirkou oasis on the traditional slave route.

His mission involves crossing the impervious Téneré desert region in north eastern Niger by crammed lorry or pick-up truck no less than four times, secretly jumping off cliffs on Lampedusa and then posing as a migrant from Iraqi Kurdistan – the Bilal of the book’s title – when rescued in order to gain access to the local migrant detention centre and spend a week there, and getting himself hired by a caporale, or gang master, to pick tomatoes in Puglia’s lawless ‘triangle of slavery’ between Orta Nova, Stornara and Stornarella.

The result is a page-turner that is a great lesson in both journalism and humanity, as with perspicacity and skill Gatti treads the fine line between personal conviction, objective observation and profound compassion.

The book also has the important merit of blurring the ‘moral’ distinction between so-called economic migrants and refugees. Most of the migrants Gatti encounters and befriends on his journey are travelling in order to secure a better future for themselves and their families – parents, wife, children – back home. They are, in his opinion, undertaking an act of heroism and, given the huge risks they run and hardship they bear along the way, who can say he’s wrong?

The tragedy is that all too many of these modern-day heroes do not make it to journey’s end, and those that do often feel so betrayed by the reception they are given that they end up wanting to go home.


Becoming an Italian citizen / 6

Today has been by far the most disheartening day so far on my road to Italian citizenship.

Shortly after filing my on-line application in February I received a summons (see photo) from the interior ministry to present the original copy of my birth certificate and sworn translation for verification at the Rome prefecture between 9 am and 11.30 am this morning.

I breezed in at 9.20 am assuming it would take only a few minutes, only to leave over two and a half hours later with an appointment to return next week to present ‘missing’ documentation.

The trouble started before I had even reached the citizenship office on the first floor of the labyrinthine building on Via Ostiense.

I stepped out of the lift to find myself in a long, low-ceilinged and untidy corridor containing two lines of people, one for the citizenship office and the other for immigration.

The queues were being ‘policed’ by a badly dressed and extremely unpleasant man in his late 30s who I later discovered to be a plainclothes policeman. He was wearing trousers that were too tight and too short, sneakers and no socks (it was Fabrizio Gatti in his journalistic masterpiece Bilal who alerted me to the importance of checking for socks) and he was treating the citizenship applicants – particularly the non-European ones – with shameful disrespect.

He handed me a number and directed me to a packed, windowless room at the end of the corridor, where I sat down to wait; there was not the usual digital display unit showing the turn being called, but rather the clerks came out of the office in person to bark out the numbers above the din.

An hour and a half and about 15 numbers into the wait I learned that I would be required to present a print copy of the completed on-line application form for signing before the clerk.

There had been no mention of this in the summons, which said the only document I needed to present was my birth certificate. Looking around, however, I noticed that the walls of the waiting room were plastered with hand-written notices informing applicants of this additional requirement – a bit late for those of us who had already arrived.

I quickly learned that there is a place just down the road that does a roaring trade in last-minute print-outs for €5 a shot. However, I failed to register the directions and ended up in the nearby drama faculty of Roma Tre university, where I asked a friendly-looking student if I could have access to a computer and printer. Mercifully, he said yes. At that point I was able to log on to the interior ministry website and print out the required form…. Half an hour later I was back in the queue with still three numbers to go.

When I eventually took my seat before a standoffish young clerk another problem arose: my ID. I was carrying my British passport, which I have just had renewed and which consequently did not match the copy of the passport I submitted with my application. Signora, lei ha una fotocopia del nuovo documento? No, I didn’t. Thankfully the clerk took pity on me and made a copy himself.

He then asked to see all the supporting documentation – not just my birth certificate, but also my police certificate, €16 tax stamp and receipt of payment of the €200 application fee. This I didn’t have, since I made the payment on line and converted the receipt directly into a pdf file for upload without also printing a copy.

Moral of the story: make sure you take a copy of everything to the prefecture, over and above what you think you need to present.

This ‘oversight’ cost me an entire morning as I now have to go back to the prefecture next Tuesday to present the ‘missing’ documentation. The clerk made a point of telling me he was meeting me halfway by giving me this ‘chance’.

However, it is not so much the time wasted as the total lack of respect for applicants that so upset me; lack of respect shown by the failure to provide correct and complete information on what documentation would be required, in the full knowledge that many applicants travel from outside Rome and so that to make a return journey would be both time-consuming and costly; but also by the scornful arrogance of the prefecture staff who clearly see what applicants consider to be a right as little more than a bureaucratic concession, to be issued on a whim. It was frustrating and humiliating to be treated in that way and it was even more frustrating and angering to see other future Italian citizens from non-European countries being treated even worse simply – dare I say it – because of the colour of their skin.



L’8 marzo e la violenza sulle donne

Pubblico di seguito un pezzo che ho scritto lo scorso mese per un neonascente periodico locale incentrato sulle tematiche femminili, il cui primo numero sarebbe dovuto uscire proprio oggi ma purtroppo è stato rimandato per causa di forza maggiore.

Violenza sulle le donne senza fine. Tra il 31 gennaio e il 2 febbraio – tre giorni qualsiasi che hanno coinciso casualmente con l’inizio della stesura di questo giornale – si sono verificati tre casi eclatanti di donne ferite gravemente o uccise dai loro compagni o ex.

Una 38enne all’ottavo mese di gravidanza lottava per la vita nel reparto grandi ustionati dell’ospedale Cardarelli di Napoli dopo che il compagno le aveva dato fuoco davanti alla loro casa a Pozzuoli. La bimba, nata con un taglio cesareo, sembra stia bene.

A Misterbianco, nel catanese, una donna di 41 anni, madre di tre figli, è stata strangolata dal suo ex dopo una lite; l’uomo era già stato condannato per omicidio passionale e nel 2012 era stato messo agli arresti domiciliari in seguito ad una denuncia (poi ritirata) presentata dalla ex compagna per lesioni personali.

A Brescia, un uomo ha sgozzato la moglie 56enne per poi suicidarsi schiantandosi in auto contromano.

Che le statistiche diano i femminicidi in diminuzione (127 donne uccise nel 2015 secondo i dati del ministero dell’interno, contro le 152 nel 2014 e le 179 nel 2013, riportate dall’istituto di ricerca Eures) è una magra consolazione, se si pensa che in sette casi su dieci il nemico è ‘in casa’: marito, compagno o ex, amante, fidanzato. Secondo Eures, il principale movente degli omicidi compiuti per mano del partner è quello del ‘possesso’, spesso come reazione alla decisione più o meno formalizzata della donna di interrompere o chiudere un legame.

Negli ultimi anni l’Italia ha preso maggiore coscienza del fenomeno emanando una serie di leggi specifiche, tra cui la ratifica nel 2013 della Convenzione di Istanbul di 2011 sulla violenza di genere (i cui provvedimenti hanno trovato spazio anche nella contestata legge sulla Buona Scuola, nella parte che riguarda “l’educazione alla parità tra i sessi, la prevenzione della violenza di genere e di tutte le discriminazioni”) e la relativa legge del 2013 contro il femminicidio, che rende più incisivi gli strumenti della repressione penale dei maltrattamenti in famiglia, violenza sessuale e atti persecutori (stalking).

Tuttavia, non è solo un problema di sicurezza, ma anche sociale e culturale. “Fino a quando non saremo capaci di superare una concezione e un linguaggio che ci relegano in una posizione sostanzialmente marginale – ha detto Lorena La Spina, segretario nazionale dei Funzionari di Polizia, a Repubblica in occasione della Festa dell’8 marzo 2015 – continueremo a costituire una minoranza che necessita ancora di specifiche forme di protezione ed ha bisogno di una festa con cui ricordare a tutti che la violenza contro le donne è un abominio, che deve essere fermato e che ci costringe a dubitare del livello di civiltà del nostro Paese”.


Becoming an Italian citizen / 4

On Friday I collected my sworn translations (traduzioni giurate – apparently the only acceptable level of legalisation for citizenship applications in Italy) from an agency that curiously specialises in translations from Romanian to Italian, for the modest sum of €135,70… and so I was all set to make the on-line application – or so I thought!

I logged into the Department of Civil Liberties and Immigration (DLCI) section of the interior ministry website and clicked on Cittadinanza and then Compila e invia domanda in the left-hand menu bar.

I immediately ran into the first problem: deciding the grounds for my application, residency or marriage to an Italian.

By law as an EU citizen resident in Italy for at least four years (in my case 17) and married to an Italian for at least two I could have gone for either option, although I felt applying on grounds of residency (so-called ‘naturalisation’) better reflected the personal journey that has brought me to this point in the first place.

However, in the end pragmatism carried the day: citizenship through marriage is considered a right providing certain conditions are met, while ‘naturalisation’ is granted on a discretionary basis, so I plumped for the first option, reckoning it would be the quickest and easiest way to go.

And thank goodness I did: after clicking on the relevant application form I discovered that I would ‘only’ have to go through 17 steps, rather than 23!

However, it soon became clear that I would have to provide a lot more information than had been specified in the introductory section on the ministry website. Specifically, I was expected to give a full residency history, including dates, from the age of 14, and also my migration history with respect to Italy, including the details of my very old and fading green permesso di soggiorno (which I applied for in 1998 and had renewed indefinitely in 2003, and which miraculously I still have).

At step 15 I was asked to provide the details of a marca da bollo telematico (official revenue stamp) which had only been given passing mention in the introductory blurb, and which I had naively assumed to be the €200 application fee (see Becoming an Italian citizen / 1) – but no! The instructions manual that accompanies the on-line application form shed no light on the problem, and it was only by searching on internet that I discovered I also needed to buy a separate revenue stamp for €16.

At that point I gave up in frustration.

The following morning I went to the Monterotondo registry office to see if I could access my residency history for Italy. I naively hoped my local public administration might ‘talk’ to the one in Rome, where I was resident at no fewer than three (possibly five – who can remember?) different addresses over the course of 11 years. Of course it does not. The clerk told me smugly that he could give me the information for Monterotondo, but that for my Rome residency history I would have to go to the central registry office in Rome. Ugh.

So I then set about exploring the possibility of accessing the information on-line, via the Roma Capitale website. Having established that residency history is indeed among the certificates available on internet I applied for the official credentials needed to log into the system, only then to discover that the service is available exclusively to people who are resident in Rome.

Not to be fazed (17 years in Italy must surely count for something!), I called Poste italiane to see if their Sportello Amico service designed to simplify dealings with the public administration might provide such a certificate. Apparently, it does!

So tomorrow I will go to the post office first thing in a final bid to avoid the traipse into Rome.

If I am successful, I may even get my application in by lunchtime!

My only consolation is that had I made the application on grounds of naturalisation I would also have had to provide a record of my declared personal income and that of my husband for the last three years, as well as details of property ownership in Italy and the UK.

For Becoming an Italian citizen / 1 click here

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Becoming an Italian citizen / 3


My legalized birth certificate and police certificate were delivered by DHL courier at 12.21 today.

Next step: to have the documents translated into Italian and the translations legalized via an agency in Rome

(There is still a doubt in my mind about the level of legalization I need; on the interior ministry website it says ‘traduzione legalizzata’,  while the translation agency insists that I need a ‘traduzione giurata’, and says they aren’t the same thing. I’ll have to sort it out when I take the documents in…)

It remains to be seen whether the Italian civil service will be as efficient as the civil service in the UK.

Certainly in the process of gathering the documents needed to apply for Italian citizenship I have been at a big advantage compared to people who come from countries where the civil service functions less well.

For Becoming an Italian citizen / 1 click here

For Becoming an Italian citizen / 2 click here

New murderous attacks against women rock Italy

There seems to be no let-up in the litany of murderous violence in Italy perpetrated against women by their current or former partners. Three horrible incidents in less than two days. One woman, 38, is fighting for her life in a Naples burns unit after being set fire to by her partner outside their Pozzuoli home. The couple’s child, delivered at 34 weeks by C-section after the woman was admitted to hospital on Monday, is reportedly doing OK. In Catania a 41-year-old woman was strangled by her ex after a row allegedly over the management of their four-year-old son. And in Brescia a woman, 56, was stabbed to death by her husband, reportedly also after a fight. The man then killed himself by deliberately driving the wrong way down a motorway.

Here is the link to my round-up for Ansa

Becoming an Italian citizen / 2

My police certificate arrived by post on Friday, exactly 18 days after I made the on-line application to the ACRO criminal records office in the first step towards becoming an Italian citizen (see Becoming an Italian citizen / 1).

Much to my relief the certificate did carry an official signature of sorts, so I was able to proceed with the next step of having this document and my birth certificate legalised.

This involved sending the two certificates together with a completed legalisation application form (downloadable from the website), a blank A4-sized envelope and confirmation of payment (£30 per document plus £14.50 to have the documents returned by courier) to the Legalisation Office of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Milton Keynes.

The documents went into the post this morning and the application should take 48 hours to process, so with any luck I should have them safely back by early next week.

In the meantime I now need to investigate appropriate certified translation services in readiness for the third step towards becoming an Italian citizen.

For Becoming an Italian citizen / 1 click here

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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.

Becoming an Italian citizen / 1

Today I took the first concrete steps towards becoming an Italian citizen.

It is something that I have been considering for many years – in fact, since 2003 when I became entitled to apply for Italian citizenship on grounds of being a EU citizen resident in Italy for four years.

However at that stage my future in Italy still felt too uncertain.

I returned to the prospect more recently, in 2010, when I became doubly entitled to apply for Italian citizenship after being married to an Italian national for two years.

But at that time I had more pressing things to do, with my first child on the way and no desire to spend endless hours pursuing the necessary documentation between Italy and the UK.

Now, at the start of 2016, much has changed. I’m definitely here for the long haul and I now feel an urgent need to engage more fully in the civic and political life of my adopted country (one of my ‘projects’ is to apply to take part in international electoral observation missions and another is to enter local politics on a non-party political basis). The October referendum on the constitutional reform bill currently before parliament (it cleared its second identical reading in the Chamber of Deputies today) is looming, and while I do not believe my ‘no’ vote would make much difference to the final outcome I still feel compelled to take part. I would also like to vote in the next general elections to choose a replacement for Renzi…

Then there is the issue of the probable exit of Britain from the EU and the many practical consequences that this would have for me as a British citizen living in Italy. In the event of ‘Brexit’ I would presumably be stripped of my European citizenship rights, which would boil down to the right to be here in the first place on my present terms. Life could suddenly become quite complicated.

Nor do I want to lose my European citizenship on principle; I have benefitted hugely from the concept of the EU – it is thanks to this that I was able to move to Italy without hindrance in 1998 to make a new life for myself here – and I am firmly committed to the values of respect for human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights that it purports to represent.

Like many, I have also been deeply affected by recent challenges facing the EU, from the Greek economic crisis to migration. I have been saddened and frustrated at Europe’s inability to act decisively and with one voice… But I see this as no reason to abandon ship; rather, it seems all the more important to lay my cards on the table, roll up my sleeves and get stuck in.

So, today I filed an application to the ACRO Criminal Records Office for a police certificate for immigration purposes (NOT to be confused with a criminal record check, which is something different), one of the supporting documents required by the Italian ministry of the interior in the application for citizenship (the others are a full birth certificate, duly translated into Italian and legalized, receipt of payment of the €200 application fee and a copy of an identity document).

I had to present two proofs of my current address, my full address history with dates for the last 10 years, my last UK address, a passport photo, a copy of my passport and endorser details and pay £45.00 for the service.

I made the application via the ACRO website (very easy provided you have all the information and documents ready to upload) and the certificate will be sent to me by post. I just need to keep my fingers crossed that it will carry an official signature so I can then send it to the FCO Legalisation service to be legalised, before getting it translated (and the translation legalised) into Italian…

And this is only step one…

It was my dear friend Barbara Fabiani who first made me aware of the “beauty” (her word) of the Italian Constitution, way back in 2003 – long before actor and director Roberto Benigni sung its praises in his televised performance La Più Bella Del Mondo in December 2012. I remember her talking about the painstaking work of synthesis carried out by the constituent fathers to create a fundamental charter that might truly balance the aspirations of all the political forces that had opposed Nazi Fascism in Italy during the Second World War and protect the country against dictatorship in future. I went home that evening and read the fundamental principles and part I – rights and duties of citizens in one breath. It was love at first sight…

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