Outside Milan, a Taste of a Right-Wing Italy
Posted April 28, 2018 7:55 p.m. EDT
SESTO SAN GIOVANNI, Italy — For 70 years, Sesto San Giovanni, on the outskirts of Milan, was a bastion of the left as it drew thousands of migrants from Italy’s poorer south to work in its factories.
But much has changed recently. The factories are shut down. The most recent migrants who have arrived are not from Italy’s south, but other nations. And the center-right broke the left’s long-unchallenged governing streak and won municipal elections last June.
Today, if there is one place in Italy where the country’s economic and migrant crises collide, it is in Sesto. And if there is one place to take the measure of the right’s creeping anti-immigrant influence in politics and society, Sesto is that place, too.
Nationally, since Italy’s inconclusive elections last month, political leaders have struggled to form a government, but there remains a good chance that the Five Star Movement, with a subtle Italians-first message, and the anti-immigrant, right-wing League could be a part of it.
But for nine months now, immigrants in Sesto — about 19 percent of the city’s 81,000 residents — have been getting a taste already of life under right-wing rule.
The new mayor, Roberto Di Stefano, 40, said he identifies with both Forza Italia — the party of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi — and the League.
He boasted in an interview that when he took office he expelled 230 unauthorized migrants, and he asked the central government to send an army unit to patrol the streets.
He took control of the city’s public housing, evicted migrants who paid by the bed from crowded dormitories and gave precedence to Italians. He also blocked the construction of a mosque approved by the previous administration.
“We’re giving a different signal,” when it comes to coping with the financial crunch faced by mayors throughout Italy, by prioritizing the needs of Italians, Di Stefano said. Which is why his administration had been contacting the foreign embassies whose citizens were weighing on Sesto’s social services.
“We tell them, sirs, it’s not up to Italy or city hall to look after your citizens in need, so please take care of it,” he said.
Asked whether any of the embassies had answered, his reply was curt: “No.”
Di Stefano’s critics say it is the most recent migrants who have been the hardest hit by his cuts to social services, like the closing of two public day-care centers. But even longtime immigrants in Sesto say that life under his government increasingly bears the message — sometimes insidious, sometimes obvious — that they are unwelcome.
Ask Andi Nganso, 31, a doctor born in Cameroon, who came to Italy 12 years ago to study economics and medicine. A patient visiting the medical clinic where he was on shift in Cantù, some 19 miles to the north, refused to be treated by him.
“She told me, ‘I will never be touched by a black doctor,’ and then she left,” said Nganso. “Thank you. Now I have 15 minutes for a cup of coffee,” he quipped on his Facebook page.
“That small episode inevitably happens if a certain way of speaking, if some expressions, are legitimized,” Nganso said in an interview. “Racism is something that is stoked.”
Di Stefano said that a few weeks ago, he had met with Nganso to express his solidarity.
While Nganso appreciated the gesture, he noted that blocking the mosque and cutting social services were not comforting signs. “It’s useless to say I am not worried,” he said.
But Di Stefano has been especially adamant about blocking construction of a mosque, which he said would be “a ghetto zone” that would attract thousands of Muslims and risked falling outside the reach of Italian law and tradition.
“If it starts with this, tomorrow they will ask for a Muslim soccer team, a Muslim school, a Muslim swimming pool” — the opposite direction of integration, he said.
The setback has not daunted the city’s Muslim community of about 5,000, which has continued to press for their place of worship in a series of courts.
Abdullah Tchina, director of the Islamic Center of Milano Sesto, which is in charge of building the mosque, pointed out that many of the Muslims living in Sesto had been there for decades.
“The community is rooted here,” and deserves a dignified place to pray, he said.
“We are an integral part of the city,” added Asmaa Gueddouda, 31, who was born in Italy of Algerian parents. When she turned 18, she got Italian citizenship.
“We are part of the second generation and to continually hear Islam associated with immigration is offensive. It suggests that we’re a foreign body, though we don’t feel like a foreign body,” she said. Fear of Islamic fundamentalism is a populist refrain for the right. During the election campaign, the leader of the League, Matteo Salvini, said he would close any illegal mosques.
In reality, in Italy, stand-alone mosques can be counted on the fingers of two hands, meaning that most Muslims pray in makeshift prayer halls.
The Sesto mosque would revitalize an abandoned part of the city, Tchina said.
“Each wall slows down the course of a society or of a community,” he said, noting that shortly after Di Stefano was elected, the mayor refused permission to the city’s Muslims to celebrate their most revered religious festival, Eid al-Adha, at a local arena, as they had done for a decade.
“When the delays increase, the community sees that it is being excluded from their rights” and “that’s when negative thoughts begin,” Tchina said.
The Rev. Leone Stefano Nuzzolese, the most senior of Sesto’s priests, said the city’s primary problems, economic and social, resulted from the abandoned factories pockmarking the city.
“Until that issue gets resolved, the city remains blocked,” he said. Fueling populist rhetoric by vilifying immigrants was a distraction that “comes at zero cost,” because most migrants can’t vote, he said. Patrizia Minella, a longtime volunteer in the city who now works with migrant mothers, said Sesto had always been “an important melting pot,” initially of Italians come to work at the factories.
“You can count the families that have been here for three generations on one hand,” she said. “It’s an unstoppable, historical phenomenon.”
Many recent arrivals said they saw their future here.
“I like living here, living with Italians,” said Ibtissem Mabrouk, who moved to Italy from Tunisia nine years ago, and now works as a translator and interpreter, mostly for Arab women.
She feels assimilated in Sesto, she said, and wants to raise her two sons here. “I am Arab,” she said. “I am proud of it, but I like the way that Italians educate their children.”