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Italian town that models migrant integration feels national election's bite

Schio, located among the heartland of the anti-immigrant Northern League party, has long welcomed foreigners. But migration, a highly charged issue in this year's parliamentary election, is beginning to become divisive even here.

Catarina Fernandes Martins
Shoppers walk the Saturday market earlier this month in Schio, Italy. Immigrants make up 12 percent of Schio’s population of 40,000. For decades they have enjoyed a high level of integration in the town. But Italy’s 2018 parliamentary election, and the ascendant, anti-immigrant Northern League, which calls the Schio region home, is threatening that.

Mr. Sindy doesn't take his eyes off the sewing machine he is operating, as news plays on his smartphone of the Turkish bombing of the Kurdish-controlled Syrian city of Afrin, close to where he has family. He has grown accustomed to bad news coming from the Kurdish territories.

To protect his family in the Middle East, Sindy doesn’t want to use his first name. He left his hometown of Zakho in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2006, crossed the Mediterranean, and, after traveling around Europe, settled in Schio, a town of 40,000 in northeast Italy. He has lived here for 10 years now, one of the immigrants from all over the world who make up 12 percent of Schio's population.

Today, he has a job in this sewing workshop, Atelier Nuele, and a comfortable life.

“When I came here I was told I would be treated as a member of a family. Schio reminds me of my town, which was also surrounded by mountains. There are so many foreigners, and we never had problems. Life is good, and I like it very much,” he says.

This would seem unremarkable but for the fact that Schio sits in the heart of the Veneto region, a stronghold of the Lega Nord, or Northern League – a far-right political party founded in 1991 to promote greater autonomy for, and even the secession of, the Italian North. This electoral season, the League has dropped the word “Northern” and campaigned as a national party on the back of the anti-immigration sentiment that has grown across Italian society and placed migration as the central issue ahead of the ballot on March 4.

Now, the League, as part of a larger coalition, is a leading candidate to enter government on Italy's hardening attitudes against immigration. And even in places like Schio, which had long resisted xenophobic rhetoric despite its surroundings, the tide seems to be shifting, Sindy says – suggesting the magnitude of what's happening in Italian politics and society.

“It’s still mostly good here in Schio, but things are changing," he says. "I’ve noticed people are more prone to repeating the negative and sometimes fake information they read about migrants in the newspaper. I’ve also felt ignored on purpose by some people working in the police, for instance.

"I’m afraid, to be honest. If they are targeting migrants in Macerata,” he says, referring to a mass shooting of African migrants carried out by a former League candidate in the central Italian town in early February, “I mean, that [kind of violence] is why I left my country.”

Integration among intolerance

Even before this election, as a regional party, the Northern League has a history of playing on cultural and economic fears regarding immigration, and has been accused of racism. In 2003, then party leader Umberto Bossi said immigrants arriving in Italy by boat should be stopped by a cannon that “blows everyone out of the water.” Such rhetoric has only grown with anti-immigration sentiments across Italy.

At a League gathering in the town of Caserta, current League leader Matteo Salvini said that he didn't see Syrian women with children in the streets, only nicely dressed African men who complained that they ate too much pasta. The first group deserves the help of Italians, Salvini said, but the second doesn't.

But the League is no longer the also-ran it once was, where such political speech often blew over. Immigration is the key issue in this election, especially after the Macerata attack. According to a nationwide poll in La Repubblica a week afterward, 71 percent of Italians think the number of foreigners living in Italy is too high. The same survey found 63 percent believe crime rates have increased because of migrants (though crime rates have dropped by 17 percent in the last two years according to Interior Ministry figures).

Mr. Salvini condemned the shooting, but suggested migration is increasing violence and chaos. And he stands to benefit from the electoral mood. The right-wing coalition that includes the League and Forza Italia, the party of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, currently is the the only group with a chance of securing a parliamentary majority on Sunday.

Despite the far-right influences of its region, Schio has had a different history. It was here that Alessandro Rossi, one of the pioneers of Italian industrialization in the mid-1800s, built schools, nurseries, and quarters for his factory workers; and where Bakhita, a Sudanese woman who was kidnapped and trafficked before becoming a nun, lived and died – eventually being recognized as a patron saint for the victims of slavery and human trafficking. In Schio, people refer to Bakhita as “our black mother.”

“Schio is a beautiful experience in terms of integration. It’s a town that differs from its surroundings because it was one of the first territories in Italy to address the concerns of workers and to mobilize in their behalf.  I think the fact that we don’t have parts of towns specifically for foreigners helped,” says Annalisa Bressan, a first grade teacher and president of the nongovernmental organization Mondo nella Città, which coordinates with the government's efforts to integrate asylum seekers.

“They live with Italian grandmothers who rent them rooms in exchange for help with groceries, Italian teachers help the children of migrants after school for free,” she says. “This sort of informal integration cannot be tracked with numbers or studies, but it creates the spirit of a place and that’s what has made the welcoming here so positive.”

Located in the province of Vicenza, a manufacturing stronghold and one of richest territories in Italy, Schio's economy has generally been strong, which meant that for years it was very easy for foreigners to find jobs.

“Almost 20 years ago, migrants would find a job even before they learned Italian. Factory owners needed someone who would do the work Italians no longer wanted to do, and that allowed migrants to integrate easily,” says Chiara Ragni, a psychologist and caseworker with Mondo nella Città. “That’s also why the League’s speech never really resonated in this territory. It was very common to hear people who didn’t support immigration say, ‘migrants should stay away, but Mohamed isn’t dangerous because he’s a neighbor and a friend.’”

With the financial crisis of 2008, it became more difficult for both locals and foreigners to find jobs, and many migrants left the town for other countries in Europe or roamed south where the underground economy made it easier to find means to survive.

Making migrants visible

But even then, Bressan and Ms. Ragni say, attitudes toward migrants remained relatively unaltered until four years ago.

For two decades, Schio had remained loyal to the center-left Democratic Party.

But in 2014, long-time Lega Nord member Valter Orsi ran for mayor of Schio as an independent candidate, with no official connection to a national political party, and won. And although he publicly distances himself from the far-right party, as a mayor he has been singing the same tune as the party led by League leader Salvini, echoing his justification of the shooting in Macerata. The shooting came shortly after the body of an 18-year-old Italian woman was found near Macerata. A Nigerian man with an expired residence permit was arrested but accused only of concealing the body, not of murder. But Orsi and Salvini both blame the man – and more broadly, Italy's migration policy – for the woman's death.

The staff with Mondo nella Città refuses to discuss their relationship with Orsi, suggesting they don’t get along well. But they say that his leadership has not yet changed the politics of integration in Schio. Recently, far-right, anti-immigration group PrimaNoi attempted to petition the local government to force Mondo nella Città to end its project here, but it failed to gather enough signatures to be taken into consideration.

Aware of a tide turning, though, Ragni and others decided to change their strategy regarding the visibility of refugees in Schio’s society.

“We used to protect asylum seekers from telling their stories of suffering in public. Now we think it’s absolutely necessary for them to go out and talk to children in school, for instance,” Ragni says. “We also decided to open Atelier Nuele, that functions as a clothing shop and a sewing workshop for refugees. When locals enter the store, they see them working and they know who makes the dresses and bags they buy. It’s important that refugees and migrants are seen as humans with skills and agency, instead of people begging for pity.”

Despite the rise of support in surveys for the right alliance that includes Mr. Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the League – now at 37 percent – Bressan believes “far-right propaganda” won’t change the minds of people in Schio.

“What drives a society forward are the ideas in people’s minds, not the empty words of politicians. The minds of the people in Schio are focused on solidarity,” she says.

Sindy, who on top of displaying his work at Atelier Nuele also talks to children in schools, is more cautious. In order for migrants and refugees to be truly protected, he says, an extra step in terms of their visibility in Italian society is needed.

“I wish I could vote, but I can’t. Since I can’t vote I’m not so interested. I can only hope Italians chose someone who roots for all Italy. When Italy works for Italians, it works for me as well,” he says.

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