On Saturday, July 1, the population of Poggio Alla Croce increased by 17 percent. Thirty African and Asian young male refugees arrived, and are now living in a refurbished hotel near the town square. The villagers were not consulted on this surge in their population and they are openly divided about the new residents.
Poggio Alla Croce is a small village east of Florence and west of Figline Valdarno. There is one business in town a pizzeria that is open only on weekends. There are new apartments for sale that have remained unoccupied for years. Few kids are seen playing games on the main street.
Because I’m a frequent visitor to Poggio, I was conscripted to be part of the twice-weekly tutoring program my friends, Andreas Formiconi and Elettra Fanfani and other volunteers initiated to help these young men learn Italian in the basement of the local church.
My Italian is tentative at best, but my friends desperately need the help so I am assigned a student; Siaka is from Mali. His mother tongue is Soninke but he also speaks a version of French. Currently, he is learning the Italian alphabet and pronunciation. He carefully writes every Italian word in block letters in his notebook with the French translation beside it.
The other day we had trouble with the French meaning of the Italian word “padre” but google translate came to our rescue. I had forgotten that “pere” means “father.”
At every session, I learn more about Siaka. He turned 23 a few weeks ago and has two younger brothers, Dauda who is 12 and Zaqriaou who is 6. His mother, Zogu, is 45.
We look up our birth countries in an atlas. I tell him about how in winter, the snow piles up to the rooftops in Canada and he tells me how hot it is in Mali, all year round. I’m hoping that in time, I will learn more about his life and how he came to be in Italy.
Malick, 22, tells us he was married at sixteen and has a wife and two children in Senegal. Aklilu, 19, was tortured and imprisoned before he left Eritrea.
Each young man has his unique story to share that deserves to be heard, honoured, and remembered.
Every Sunday I attend the village church even though I’m not Catholic. Some villagers accept me yet others refuse to speak to me because I’m a straniera.
(foreigner) These same villagers won’t acknowledge the refugees nor will they donate their old clothes to help keep them warm.
I am reminded of how my grandparents fled Europe in the late 1800’ s to gain religious and personal freedom in Canada. They were treated with suspicion by the community in Toronto and were subject to every kind of insult and racial slurs. Work was hard to find, but in time, they made a better life for their children and thus for me. The main difference was that my ancestors had family that had escaped before them and therefore had a place they could call home. They may have lived in crowded tenements, but families stuck together and helped each other. They had no other options.
It seems to me that Italy has a new face and that new face is black. It may take a few generations for the citizens to acknowledge this new global reality but change has already begun. Our choice is only how we will choose to participate.
Note: The tutoring program is but a small part of Andreas Formiconi’s much larger project. Andreas’s goal- along with other volunteers- is to bring people and things together to solve problems. For example, a retired person with many competent skills may no longer feel useful. Here he or she can find a place and become a resource in the tutoring program, a village elder if you like. Many have old computers and smartphones in the forgotten storage spaces of their homes. These can be donated and then re-purposed by volunteers to improve the village lab that is available to everyone, long-time residents and immigrants alike.
How you can help:
Donate to our Internet for Immigrants GoFundMe account
Learn how to donate your old computers, smartphones etc. and your time
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More info is here:
http://www.gazzettinodelchianti.it/articoli/approfondimenti/16343/notizie-su-greve-in-chianti/serata-migranti-poggio-allacroce.php – .WfXc4xNSwWo
Read The New Yorker story: “The Diary of a Trafficked Girl” https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/04/10/the-desperate-journey-of-a-trafficked-girl