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Cross Continental Experience Blog: Villa Peppi and Italian Politics

March 3, 2018
Duomo in Snow

Villa Peppi and Italian Politics

The Cross Continental Experience Blog by Rory Curtin, CCMPH Student

March 3, 2018

Two days ago we woke up to snow covering the Duomo’s majestic terra-cotta tiles, a city shut-down by an inch or so of snow (NYU Florence even had a snow-day). It has all since melted and rain soaks the awnings under which I watch vegetable sellers exchange their produce with shivering customers. We are told it will be Spring soon though, so I’m not too worried about the cold. In fact, the rain lends itself well to reflecting on all that we have experienced since arriving in Italy one month ago. 

The following post discusses one of the major topics on all of our minds today, Italian migration policies… which are of particular importance this week, as the country will vote in a new prime minister on March 4th. Not unlike the United States, one of the greatest points of contention and a prominent part of every candidates’ running platform is their stance on migration. 

In brief, Italy has been dealing with an influx of migrants since the early 2000s. This has turned from less of a ‘state of emergency’, as it was initially, to a nation feeling abandoned by the European Union, left to deal with the inadvertent burden of so many new residents. It’s location on the southern border of Europe makes Italy the first place that many asylum seekers first arrive from Northern Africa and the Middle East. Many nationals are therefore hostile towards the rest of the EU for not providing then with ‘unified’ support, particularly at a time when their countries is already burdened by fiscal matters. As students, we are fortunate to be in the midst of this Italian context while simultaneously taking several classes on the subject.

One opportunity we have had to experience the multiplicity of issues surrounding the topic of migration was two weeks ago when we were brought by Professor Bertelsen to the Villa Peppi migrant shelter. As part of our Health and Human Rights in the Mediterranean class, this site visit consisted of a tour of the shelter as well as an in-depth conversation with the director there. In respect to one question regarding her political opinion verses that of the Italian majority, the director said, “We are like fighters…. We are here to do our best, to listen, to support them, but most Italians are not”.  

We will see how the elections turn out, but with a new electoral system, most polls are predicting that there will be a hung parliament comprised of the center right and center left. Those involved in the election include; the center-right Forza Italia led by former prime minister Berlusconi; the radical right League led by Matteo Salvini (who has the most extreme immigration stance among the contenders, promising to repatriate 100,000 illegal immigrants a year, as well as introduce more strict penal laws for immigrants); the Brothers of Italy led by Giorgia Meloni (also neofascist); the center left Democratic Party led by Renzi; and the Free and Equal party led by Pietro Grasso. 

Returning to our visit to Villa Peppi- it is a shelter for migrants who arrived in Italy by way of Libya in 2015. When these men first arrived, they were granted an initial six months of stay in the country, after which time they were obligated to go to the qustura (the local police office), where they are finger printed. After ten months, these men could then begin the process of applying for asylum, to be granted either two or five years, depending on how severe their situation is deemed by the commune (the municipality office). Five years of asylum is granted to those who it is decided have ‘suffered persecution’, and those granted two years of asylum are declared to be ‘seeking humanitarian protection’. Those with the misfortune of not being granted any asylum status initially have the right to an appeal, at which time these migrants are granted six more months in which they are to prepare to go in front of a judge. Unfortunately, this can often take up to two years. During this time, migrants are entitled to free legal representation, which is one of the services that Villa Peppi provides. 

In addition to legal advice, Villa Peppi works with migrants on assimilating themselves into the local community, be it offering Italian lessons, skills trainings (for example, a license to cook commercially), or volunteer opportunities. As it is illegal for a migrant seeking asylum status to have a paid work position, to volunteer is the best way for people seeking asylum to appear proactive and stand a better chance when they go before a judge. When Villa Peppi opened during the 2015 period of emergency, 160 men entered the shelter. Sixty-seven of this original group remain today, continuing to go through the motions to be granted legal status in Italy. The majority of these men originally come from Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Ivory Coast, and Guinea, and by Italian law, the shelter can only house men. For families and women, the government provides apartment housing. In addition to these amenities, migrants are granted free healthcare. 

Within all of these social systems, considerable issues have presented themselves, predominantly by way of language and cultural misunderstandings. For example, mental health assistance is a controversial topic, as doctors must be specialized in different cultures to be able to effectively treat their patients, according to traditional beliefs and practices. Without basic physical and mental health, migrants are unable to gain proper employment to support themselves in their new host country. Additionally, many have either debts to pay from their journey to Europe, or struggling families to support back home, so there is a tremendous amount at stake.     

What we must then ask ourselves as students in Italy and studying healthcare, is how what we can do to improve the situation. Such a national issue may seem outside our realm of ability to foster change, however I am more optimistic. With such issues, many solutions lie at the grass-roots level, which we do have the power to make a difference at. For example, through a class that Kui, Diana, and I are in with Dr. Chris Dickey called Social Entrepreneurship, we are working to improve socio-cultural relationships between migrants and their host Italians by way of creating an integrated business initiative. Our project entails a collaborative cooking class in which a local Italian chef from the Mercato Centrale (a popular tourist destination of market stalls and restaurants in the center of Florence) and a migrant from Villa Peppi. They will work together in teaching a cooking class in mid-April, preparing a fusion of Northern African and Italian cuisine. Of course this initiative will not alter the opinions of those who are voting Salvini (the extreme right candidate) right away, but the concept is that by gradually encouraging social interaction and cultural exchange, the country will move that much closer to a state of equilibrium and forbearance. 

In sum, the elections tomorrow will determine a lot in regards to where the country is headed. Irregardless of the results though, social impact and change always rests in the hands of the people. It’s our obligation as students and world-citizens to be well-informed in these social and political issues and help things move forward as best they can.