Sunday, May 15, 2016

Lucca's Big Little Dirty Secret 

I want to start out by saying that I love Italy. My family could have moved anywhere in the world from New York -- and we chose Lucca. When we discovered that my daughter had diabetes, it was the Meyer Hospital that saved her. So you can say that really I owe Italy my life.

But there is something happening in Lucca right now that is very distressing. At first, I thought it could not possibly be true. In fact, my contact at the Red Cross told me it could not possibly be true. But we were wrong.

A number of English speaking Nigerian refugees who realized that my husband and I are English teachers, told us that they had no other way to provide for themselves other than begging on the street. I thought at first that they must be clandestini, but then they showed me their valid permessi di soggiorno. It did not make any sense. One refugee after another told us the same story. They did not know each other or who we had talked to previously. Who would live in filth and beg all day, if they were not forced to do so?

My Italian friends and officials from both Caritas and the Red Cross educated me as to the fact that immigrants who arrive from African generally are followed by one of the two philanthropic charities and that they receive food and money and shelter. I brought a group of six people to Caritas to inquire as to why they were not included.

It was explained to me that in 2011, Italy was not prepared to receive these immigrants and that those who were not welcomed by SPRAR were hosted by hotels run by the regions which soon became overcrowded. Like so many refugees, several people in my group accepted 500 euros from those at the hotels to make room for the new arrivals, not understanding that by accepting the money that was pushed into their palms, they were sealing their fates forever. They left the various camps where they had first been processed, and, unlike their friends who left for other European countries, they came to Tuscany where they discovered the money would not last very long and that they had no one to help them to survive. They were ashamed to beg, but they had no choice. They were ashamed to live in filthy, overcrowded quarters for which they are overcharged by nefarious landlords, but they had no choice.

If they could have stayed in Libya when the war broke out, they would have. They risked their lives to get onto those boats. Many were already orphans or had lost one parent to violence or disease. They had no idea that even if they were allowed to stay in Italy, they would never be allowed to integrate legally.

Almost everyone in the group of six belongs to a different church. My husband said we could not save everyone so that we should just choose a group of six. Each of the churches has about 150 people who arrived between 2011 and 2014 and have never received aid. That leads me to believe that we are talking about somewhere between 200 and 400 people who have permessos but no other form of assistance. That is a lot of people who are legally being allowed to starve.

In the past weeks a new ordinance was passed which is being enforced by the nucleo operativo antidegrado. Now all these people who have no choice but to beg to survive are being charged with 50 euro fines and any money they have on their person is being confiscated, if they are caught even standing still inside the walls of Lucca.

It is one thing to outlaw begging for immigrants who receive aid and it is another to deny people the only way of obtaining money that is keeping them from homelessness and starvation.

Why did Italy grant them a permesso di soggiorno in the first place, if then they were going to let them die from starvation anyway?

I know about financial crises. My husband lost his job in America during a crisis when I was still home taking care of our young daughter. I know that Italians have had to withstand a horrible financial crisis and that many are unemployed. I do not know many Italians who are looking for jobs as dishwashers, street cleaners, caregivers, and farm workers, and, therefore, I do not understand when people say that Italians have enough problems obtaining jobs for themselves. African people and Italian people want to do completely different kind of jobs. In fact if the African immigrants did the jobs that Italians don't want to do, the money they make would be funneled back into the Italian economy which would be good for everyone and would create more jobs for Italians.

As a social worker and food program organizer for the homeless in New York for many years and former employess of the Coalition for the Homeless, my husband and I know that when problems of this magnitude get addressed with a bandaid, they only get worse. Yes, you can give a multa to everyone who stands in front of a store in Lucca, but those people will not go back to Africa. They will not disappear. They cannot afford to pay the fines that are being levied on them. They will just appear in a different community and they will be ever more desperate.

For every person ignored, Lucca is losing the 30 euros, roughly 27,50 for Italy and 2,50 for the individual African, that is collected for immigrants who arrived after 2014. If the refugees get sick from starvation, Lucca hospitals will have the economic and logistical burden of caring for them. If their permessos are taken away due to failure to pay the fines and they are caught without documents, the jails will have the same burden. It is a short sighted way to deal with a problem that in the end will cost the good people of Lucca in many ways that will effect their quality of life.

The people of Lucca have hearts and consciences or they would not reward those forced to stand for hours and hours a day, humiliating themselves, with change from their pockets, which in the end usually comes to less than 20 euros a day towards paying the 200 euros they are forced to pay per person in rent for houses that are not considered worthy or large enough to give them residency, thus further depriving them of benefits.

Let us come up with a more humanitarian, cost effective way to acknowledge the existence of people who definitely do exist. I am ashamed of how America has denied that its entire history and every one of its achievements is due to the work done by immigrants. I am ashamed that the fear that Americans have about climate change and terrorism has been funneled into a frenzied attempt to find a more beatable enemy and hatred against people of different races and religions.

If there were a way to grant carte di soggiorno to this group of immigrants, which has not been treated the same as other immigrants from the beginning, most of them would leave Italy immediately to try to find work in other European countries.

If that is too thorny a process, why not invent a point system whereby immigrants can earn points towards reintegration by participating in Italian classes in exchange for food care packages or job training programs for work that Italians do not want?

We came to Italy because we were so impressed with the value that Italians put on family. I hope that we do not become a society that ranks which mothers, fathers, and children deserve to live decently and which ones do not.

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