Best of Sicily
Food & Wine
Map of Sicily
|Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the publishers or editors of Best of Sicily.||
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.