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The New Sicilians
by Maria Luisa Romano

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Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the publishers or editors of Best of Sicily.


Colors of the NEW Sicilians.How many people from outside the European Union (and Switzerland) live in Sicily? Statistics are hard to find, and given the illegal nature of most immigration into Italy the official figures are rarely very accurate. Even so, the available statistics (from ISTAT, the government's national statistics institute) are surprising. Well over a million Arab immigrants reside in Italy (where they've built Europe's largest mosque), and around a million Romanians (mostly women who work as housekeepers). Over the last fifteen years, tens of thousands of Albanians have arrived in Italy. Less information is available on other Eastern Europeans, but simple observation would imply that there are hundreds of thousands of them in Italy. An afternoon stroll along Milan's trendy Via Dante will turn up a number of (usually attractive) Russian girls present in Italy without visas or stay permits. Milan has become a mecca for young Russian and Ukrainian women seeking entry into western Europe, and some are courted by Italy's hungry media and men's press (magazines bearing names like Fox Uomo feature monthly pin-ups of pretty girls from the "east"). Hundreds of thousands of Asians --mostly Chinese and Indians-- have established restaurants, shops and other businesses in Italy. In Palermo, Via Lincoln and parts of Via Maqueda and nearby Via Oreto are literally full of such establishments. Most of the city's internet point/call centers are operated by Indians or Pakistanis. Most of the Africans present in Sicily are Tunisians and Moroccans, but many are from Nigeria, the Ivory Coast or other areas.

The effects of this immigration are not difficult to gauge. Italians themselves are having fewer children, while the foreigners (particularly the Arabs and Indians) are having large families of children born and raised in Italy. In terms of actual integration, the statistically significant influx of women from eastern Europe will soon upset the gender balance in Italy's "native" population of around 59 million (presently 51.2% female), and within a few years middle-class Italian women seeking husbands will face a clear threat from foreign ones with the same objective --a "problem" with no solution because rather few Italian women are likely to mimic the example of their Slavic sisters by seeking husbands in Saint Petersburg or Kiev. Even in provincial Palermo (not to mention more sophisticated Rome or Milan), foreign wives are fast becoming part of the local landscape. Statuesque Svetlana and Tatiana are likely to hold university degrees obtained in Russia and speak at least passable English, while Concetta and Ambra are probably --at best-- products of Sicily's mediocre universities.

This brings us to an important point. In Sicily, most of the immigrants, though poor, seem to value education more than the "average" Sicilian, who may be envious of his foreign neighbour's economic successes. (Compulsory education has helped when it is enforced; Italy's minimum school-leaving age is 16, raised from 14 just a few years ago, and it will soon be 18, but in Palermo's vast poorer districts of Borgo Vecchio, Brancaccio, the Kalsa and Via Oreto you'll encounter hundreds of children each school day who are well under that age.) Sicily's precise level of unemployment is unknown, though probably at least 23%, but in any event alarmingly high, and a recent national survey (published in September 2005) placed southern Italian families living at the country's poverty level at around 26%, with Sicily's at an even more frightening 31%. Italy's coming socio-economic federalisation ("devolution" or de-centralisation) policies, coupled with Sicily's lagging entrepreneurial spirit and endemic public-sector financial corruption, paint a gloomy picture of our island's future, at least for the next decade or so.

The situation of education does not help matters. Recent national statistics (November 2005) indicate that a startling 9% of Italians are functionally illiterate, and this figure may be slightly higher in Sicily. One imagines that most are older people (over 70), but this may not be the case. According to local statistics, in Palermo (Sicily's largest city) as many as one in every six children aged 12 to 14 simply chooses not to go to school, and nobody (neither parents nor the state) compells them to attend. In stark contrast to this, the children of immigrants (with the exception of the gypsies) usually attend school. Integration or "mainstreaming" is normal among Sicily's new immigrants. Indeed, part of the immigrant population represents the only social segment of the general Sicilian population which actualy seems to be prospering economically. Most of Sicily's businesses are small and family-run, so the immigrant entrepreneurs fit in well.

Many of the immigrants have a particular "intellectual" advantage over most Sicilians: English. Very few Sicilians speak English with anything approaching proficiency, despite its mandatory instruction in Italian schools. (Unsurprising, considering that most English teachers in Italian schools can barely speak the language they are supposed to be teaching!) To hear a Pakistani, Ethiopian, Romanian or Nigerian speak flawless English while a university-educated Sicilian can barely utter a few words is proof of the terrible state of Italian education and an indication of the advantage these newcomers enjoy when dealing with a foreign clientele --whether it's American tourists in Palermo or an import partner in Singapore.

Immigration into Italy reflects a wider European Union trend not without its problems (the French riots of November 2005 come to mind), but until recently it was not something that Italians were accustomed to. One of the ironies in the recent immigration phenomenon is that Italians themselves still emigrate in search of greater economic or professional opportunities abroad, though this is becoming more difficult as countries like the United States close their doors. The United States government now holds an annual lottery to award excess stay permits such as the coveted "green card," while Argentina, Canada and Australia have large populations of newly-arrived Italians under forty years old. Here in the European Union, Italians seem to be everywhere. In London, for example, it is not unusual to encounter young Italians working as shop girls or waiters.

Immigration has strange effects which are easily ignored until you actually see them. In today's world, younger immigrants (especially children under 12) tend to assimilate their new environment rapidly and easily. An Asian girl raised and educated in Sicily is likely to grow up dressing more like a native Italian and more fluently speaking Italian than the Italian immigrant's daughter raised in Australia, Canada or the United States. After a generation or two, many so-called "Italians" outside Italy are, in a cultural sense, Italian only in name, while many immigrants present in Italy reflect the current flow of Italian life, society and culture, not the shadowy ancestral memory of Italy circa 1940, 1960 or 1980.

Some Italians claim that the foreigners are stealing "their" jobs. This is nonsense because most foreigners do all the work that the haughty Italians categorically refuse to do. As we'll see, the Sicilian Work Ethic is a seriously endangered species. Meet the New Sicilians:

Nigerians. Agriculture is still an important part of Sicily's "legitimate" (private sector) economy --the one outside the Italian welfare state's infamous Articolisti, LSU (Lavoro Socialmente Utile) and other publicly-subsidized "make-work" programmes. Who harvests the grapes and olives? Usually it's foreigners like the Nigerians. This prompts an unpleasant but bluntly realistic observation. Amazing as it seems, unemployed (or under-employed) Sicilians usually refuse even a little extra work. It's as if all the paupers had become impoverished princes.

Tunisians. As with the other Africans, it's a case of the Arabs doing the work that the Sicilians themselves refuse to do. Many Tunisians own shops selling North African products. A few run restaurants. Others clean offices and stores, and many sell cigarette lighters and other small products on the street and door-to-door. In the evening they make the rounds of restaurants selling roses. Unlike other Italian regions, Sicily boasts a historical heritage having a strong Arab element, but today's social tolerance for the northern Africans is more readily explained by their being a very hard-working and generally law-abiding group of immigrants.

Indians. They operate internet points, phone calling centres, shops selling Indian items, and a few restaurants, and they seem more eager than other immigrants to integrate themselves into mainstream Italian society, strongly advocating education for their children.

Chinese. A hard-working population, they operate Chinese restaurants and shops selling inexpensive clothing from China. Chinese shops are present even in some small Sicilian towns. Recent controversial agreements between the European Union and the People's Republic of China have eased import restrictions, unleashing a torrent of competition in the apparel industry, a mainstay of the Italian economy. Chinese organized crime is not a serious problem in Sicily but Naples has seen a few murders resulting from it (the Neapolitan Camorra itself murders an average of two people per week).

Romanians. With a few exceptions, Sicilian nursing and rest homes leave much to be desired. The solution? A live-in housekeeper or nurse to assist an aging parent. Sicily's population is an "old" one for two basic reasons: Until the 1960s most Sicilian families had at least three children and often six or seven, and this population is aging; many younger Sicilians leave Sicily in search of jobs in the north or abroad, thus reducing the local population of thirtysomethings.

Russians. A small population in Sicily but larger in Lombardy (Milan) and Lazio (Rome), most of the Russians in Sicily are women working as home nurses or, like the Romanians, housekeepers. A few are the wives of Sicilian men.

Roma. The gypsies have always been with us. In Palermo there's a medieval street near the cathedral called "Vicolo dello Zingaro." Today, they live in several camps on the edge of the city. Most of Sicily's gypsies are Muslims of Balkan origin and have arrived since the 1960s. However, some Roma families have lived here for generations.

Americans. Neither large group of Americans in Sicily includes actual "immigrants." There are military personnel (at the Sigonella naval air station outside Catania), and thousands of "Italo-Americans" born in the United States while their Sicilian parents were living there (as immigrants) but who later "returned" to Italy. Some of Italy's American visitors fall into a more eccentric category less evident in Sicily than in other regions. In Milan, Rome and Florence there are hundreds of attractive, young American women who teach in private English schools, work in stylish shops or find employment as tour guides, residing in the country illegally --as though a long-term sojourn in Italy were their birthright.

About the Author: Maria Luisa Romano has written for various Italian magazines, including this one.

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© 2005 Maria Luisa Romano