I was instructed by a man dressed in a navy blue uniform with shiny shoes and a handgun attached to his belt to take a seat and wait for my number to be called. It was a Thursday morning around 8:30 a few weeks ago, and I had followed a crowd of 40 or so people into the waiting room of the Ufficio Immigrazione (immigration office) in downtown Padova. I found a spot on the metal bench at the far side of the waiting room where I could observe the frenzy of migrants coming in with papers and forms, asking questions to impatient Italian officers using their often limited language skills, and waiting, like me, for their number to come up on the display. Unlike me, however, who was there simply as part of the long bureaucratic process to obtain a short term residency permit for my studies, many of the people in the room were applying for long term living or work permits. I returned to the immigration office yesterday to pick up my residency permit without much hassle and once again encountered a room filled with migrants from all over the world, anxiously waiting for documents to be processed. My visits to the immigration office, as well as reading about migration issues in Italy following the recent heartbreaking incident in Lampedusa and this article on Refugee Boats from Indonesia to the Christmas Islands (Australia) have gotten me thinking a lot about migration lately (and really, really appreciating my Canadian passport).
Leaving your home for a new, unknown place either alone, with friends, or family takes a lot of courage. Even if you’re happy to be escaping terrible conditions, traveling to a foreign land in search of a new home and better life is daunting. There are several visible minorities in Padova, many of whom are new immigrants to the city. I live in the very multicultural neighbourhood of Arcella, one that makes many local Padovians go “oooh, is it safe there?!” upon hearing that that’s where I live. (Yes, it’s safe) This neighbourhood is home to many newcomers… predominantly from African and south Asian countries would be my guess. I often wonder where they’ve come from, why they left their homes, how they got here, and how they’re getting by in this new place.
I spoke with one Chinese woman a few weeks back while doing ethnographic research on immigrant integration as part of my masters program coursework. She told me that she came to Padova five years ago with her husband in search of work. She found a job in a Chinese-owned factory here and earned more money than she would have in China, but spent the first three years wishing all the time that she could return. She eventually began to feel more ‘at home’ here but continues to struggle fitting into her new city because of language barriers. The government offers free Italian classes to new migrants, but she had no time to take the lessons because she had a full time job and family to take care of. I think the photo below which I took at the immigration office is a great representation of this situation: On the right is a poster promoting the free Italian lessons offered by the government which depicts an immigrant woman saying “Je parle Italiano”. Taped to the glass door two meters left is a sign that reads “No Entry”. Sure, we’ll provide free language courses…but that still doesn’t mean you’ll be able to enter/integrate into our society so easily.
In terms of who should be let in and kept out of a country, I honestly don’t know what to say. On the one hand, particularly after hearing stories like the refugee boats of Iranians headed for Christmas Island, I question why countries are so strict about documents and aren’t more welcoming to asylum seekers and newcomers. On the other hand, I realize that the world would be a mess if countries started letting in all those who want to enter. On this point, I’m quite torn. However, I do strongly believe that cities should strive to provide the best possible services for newcomers that are already there to help with integration. Migrants have a lot of offer a new place – new knowledge, delicious foods, international networks and connections, etc. – but without the right support can also become social liabilities and threats to the city. Experience has shown me how easy it is to feel alone in a new and unfamiliar place. I’m surrounded by lovely housemates and new friends, and still feel a bit lonely and like an outsider at times. I can’t imagine what it’d be like to be without anyone in a new place that’s not exactly celebrating your presence nor really helping you start your new life.
I recently visited South Marghera, a town outside of Venice with a massive housing project where several newcomers settle. There, I met some really awesome young people who’ve recently formed an association to help migrant youth better integrate into their new society and stay out of trouble. It’s a shame I’m only here for a few more weeks because this project sounded awesome and I would’ve really liked to have gotten involved. Perhaps I’ll find something similar in one of my next study destinations.