The Struggle for Inclusion: a case study of the Sportello sans papiers

8 July 2017 | 06:47

The Struggle for Inclusion: a case study of the Sportello sans papiers

Ballarò, Palermo, where Sportello sans papiers is located. Photo: tmx

 

 

It was a Wednesday in early January when I went to ARCI Porco Rosso for the first time. I didn’t know much about the place except that it was considered something like a club house for the young Italian left in Palermo, Sicily. Indeed, I knew that you should be a member in order to go in. It didn’t take much to become one, just 5 euro and filling out a form, nevertheless I hadn’t done it.

 

A young man from the Gambia, A., who I had met a few weeks prior, had invited me to meet him there. The place, a long narrow room with two sections of cushioned benches in front, tables and chairs behind, and a bar at the back, was filled mostly with men from west Africa and a few Europeans. I spotted A. and went to say hello but it was clear he was in a private conversation of some kind so I went to sit and wait.

 

Eventually A. came over to me very frustrated saying, “My friend has no story, he makes no sense!” He explained that his friend, a teenage asylum seeker from the Gambia, would be going to his asylum commission hearing the following week to give his testimony. A. asked me if I could try to help “get his story.”

  

I began to attend the Sportello Sans Papiers, a weekly migrant “drop-in” center held at the ARCI Porco Rosso, a local branch of Italy’s largest youth and cultural organization, every Wednesday afternoon. There, alongside other members of the Sportello, I assisted asylum seekers in preparing for their Commission hearings, brought others to the lawyer, and engaged in other kinds of emotional and practical support.

 

I formally decided to conduct a site-specific ethnography of the place and project in April 2017, honing in on areas of interest that I had identified during my time there. Something about the place seemed to me to be distinct from other migrant-oriented spaces in the working class and racially diverse Ballaró neighborhood of Palermo. I became curious about how the values of “inclusion,” “integration,” and “accoglienza,” or welcome, often invoked in by migrant-serving organizations in Italy, found their expression at ARCI Porco Rosso, a space anchored in the Italian political left, and also how the migrants who frequent the space experience those values in practice.

 

Contextualizing the Sportello Sans Papiers

 

In November 2015 groups of West Africans who had arrived to Lampedusa by boat were transferred to Agrigento, a small city in southern Sicily, and were immediately given “7-day papers”- orders to leave the country within one week. They were then released without resource. One of the groups, which included Batch Mballow, a political activist from the Gambia who was active in anti-dictatorship activities and left the country due to police repression, was given a phone number for the ARCI Nazionale, the longest standing youth and recreational association in Italy, to call for assistance.

 

Upon arriving to Palermo, Batch called the number and the woman who answered sent them to Fausto Melluso, one of the co-founders of ARCI Porco Rosso and the pointperson for migrants at ARCI Palermo. Batch says, “At that time they were still building it. We are the first people (migrants) to arrive at Porco Rosso.”

 

Fausto, along with Richard Braude, an activist from England, Giulia Serio, a Palermitan and member of Arci Porco Rosso who had formerly worked with the United Nations in North Africa, and Giulia Gianguzza, a volunteer Italian teacher who had recently returned to Palermo from Bologna, assisted the recently arrived men, and others who followed who had received 7-day papers. The migrants began staying at the Biagio Conte, a 700-bed homeless shelter that primarily hosts migrants who are outside of the official ‘reception system,’ the publically funded housing for asylum seekers. A local immigration attorney assisted the group with appealing their expulsion orders and with their asylum applications.

 

The fact that the group of men was given 7-day papers instead of the opportunity to apply for asylum was common during the time period in which they arrived but is no longer common practice. Nevertheless, it was for this reason that the group was living in a homeless shelter instead of being hosted in the official reception centers for asylum seekers. This became the first point of struggle for the recently arrived migrants and the local activists.

 

In February 2016 the first Gambian Assembly was held at ARCI Porco Rosso, organized by the Gambian members of the group at Biagio Conte. The event addressed several themes including the political situation in the Gambia, the 7-day papers, and the living conditions at Biagio Conte.

 

The group of migrants and local activists began advocating with the prefecture through several meetings and a public demonstration to demand that the migrants be given places within the asylum seeker reception system. This was ultimately successful and about half of the original group, including Batch, were transferred to centers in April 2016 with the those remaining transferred some weeks later.

 

In the summer of 2016 the idea emerged amongst the recently arrived African activists, the Italian activists and Richard, to organize a ‘sportello,’ or an informal migration drop-in center, once a week at the ARCI Porco Rosso space in Ballaró. At first no one came, almost all of the people who the Porco Rosso activists had met had been sent away from Palermo. But word started to get around and the Sportello began doing preparations for asylum commission hearings and working in collaboration with the local legal clinic (CLEDU). This work, of preparing people to share their testimony at the asylum hearings remains an important component of the work the Sportello continues to do.

  

At the same time, the Palermo-based activists remained in contact with many of the migrants who had been sent to camps throughout Sicily and began to visit them there. What began as social visits turned into monitoring and advocacy efforts, as the people living in the reception centers shared some of the difficult circumstances they were facing— including lack of heat and running water, lack of closed shoes and warm clothes for winter, inadequate food, and a lack of legal orientation and assistance with the asylum process.

 

The Sportello members began to support the organizing efforts of migrants to improve the conditions at the centers by encouraging assembly-style meetings in several languages so the people living there came to understand their common problems. The asylum seekers then worked with the Sportello to write and translate letters publically denouncing their living conditions which were then published in the press.

 

Also as a result of these visits, people living in the reception centers who were not part of the original ‘7-day papers’ group began to visit the Sportello in Palermo to prepare for their commission hearings and the network of migrants frequenting the space began to grow.

 

The Sportello Sans Papiers Vision and Approach

 

Through conversations with six of the core members of the group it is clear that the vision and approach for the project are very much built through a daily practice. Sportello members spoke about their work as a place where theories or ideas about how things should work are “stretched.” Others spoke of it as a space of “freedom” or “experimentation”, and still others spoke of it as their “home” or “homeland.” There is a strong sense of belonging and commitment to the place, project and community. As Kamal El Karkouri, a Moroccan street vendor and organizer who works with the Sportello as a cultural mediator said, “when it is closed for day or two, you miss it.”

 

They also used different language to describe their approaches. Giulia S., for example, often used the term “empowerment,” while qualifying it as “UN jargon” which she doesn’t like. Kamal’s preferred term is “fratellanza” or brotherhood, by which he means a sense of equality and solidarity in all that the project seeks to do and in day-to-day interactions. Giulia G. used the word ‘inclusion’ to describe the conceptual approach, but then said she preferred to say, “participation in a common project.” Nevertheless, it is my observation that many of these seemingly different approaches as actually quite compatible in practice. Here I will identify and describe several broadly shared aspects:

 

The first foundational value that came up again and again is that of “openness,” of creating a space that is truly welcoming to all. Fausto said that the Ballaró neighborhood was chosen precisely because all kinds of people live there, and that in the beginning, “we didn't have a clear idea of what to do but we had the idea to be open to listen to the needs of this neighborhood.” Indeed, ARCI is a “popular association” that broadly seeks to foment self-organization and civic participation through social and cultural activities at its member branches.

 

At Porco Rosso, there is “freedom to do what you like…you come in here and no one needs to ask you, “what do you want?” Because it is a community space and not strictly a service-provider or charity, many Sportello members hope to provide an alternative to assistenzialismo, an approach that defines a clear provider and beneficiary of ‘help.’ Giulia G. says, “above all our place is an open space for creating relationships between people, and I think people… can feel this to be their place, can feel free to speak about anything, and to have a relational life with other people, also with Italians.” A young Gambian man AK who regularly stops by Porco Rosso says, “it is open for both (Africans and Italians), the doors don't have security, they ask nothing, you come, you enter, they make wifi for free. Some people are living in the community (official reception centers), some peoples are not living in the community and they want to communicate with their parents. They stay here…some peoples come here to assist.”

 

A second element that came up is the importance of social interaction, or sociality, to the practice and ethos of the place. People generally greet each other as they come in and out, and in this way, new people tend to be brought in to the community rather quickly. While the free wifi is a major “pull factor,” the place has become more than just a place to use the internet. An illiterate Senegalese musician in his late 20s says, “Me coming here is not about wifi. Always I want to come here and learn something about this world. If it’s here, I learn something. Someone who cannot write, someone who cannot read, what can he find on facebook or whatsapp?…Always if I come here I can see the peoples, sit down, communicate, play, joke. I like that. My mind comes down. It’s just like my house. I take it just like my house.” The sense of social cohesion that the place provides for the people who use it regularly has become a defining element. It is an important point of reference and a place where people can simply be together informally. Another young man from the Gambia says, “To leave that place (Porco Rosso) is not easy. That is our place that we know, so we have to stay there, chatting with people…It’s the only place where you can go, sit there, rest.”

 

While many recently arrived West and North Africans first come to Porco Rosso for legal support or other forms of orientation, some continue to come to the place nearly every day because they have found a community there. Batch says that the Sportello, “…makes Palermo as my homeland. Because without the people I know in the Sportello I would not be in Palermo. I would have gone… Because what will I do (here)? The only thing that came to my mind was, ‘I will just pass,’ I would go to another country, as I was doing in Senegal, Mali, Algeria, Libya, you know, you just pass.”

 

This sense of belonging is in some ways a reflection of recent political circumstances- namely the closure of the border between Italy and France- so that now “there is time” whereas before many migrants would “just pass.” Migrants are now spending anywhere between 6 months to 2 years waiting for their documents, and it is nearly impossible for them to find work in a city that already has an official unemployment rate of 24%, twice the national average. In this context, Porco Rosso has become a place to pass the time, to stay in touch with relatives from home, and to form new friendships.

 

Kamal refers to these friendships as a fratellanza or brotherhood. He says, “I’ve rarely seen this type of brotherhood, you just don’t see it. There are guys from various countries that are like brothers, there is a family atmosphere…I come here almost every day. The sportello isn’t everyday, but everyday there is brotherhood.” Richard says the place has become more racially mixed in recent months and that, “there are Arabs and Africans mixing more, which a year ago seemed impossible. There is an active attempt on both sides, active attempts, to coexist, make friendships, play chess…” and that though many people come to Porco Rosso to get legal advice at the Sportello, that these experiences of encounter and friendship, of “taking a coffee together,” has helped to create an atmosphere of trust that sets Porco Rosso apart from more strictly service-oriented initiatives.

 

Giulia G. says, “Why should someone trust me? Only if I share something of myself with them, my story, my time, my interests…only then will people open to me. I think that is the difference.” The sense of camaraderie this has cultivated was evident in mid-May when Kamal and a few others from North Africa organized a cous-cous lunch for everyone and many of the migrants who frequent the space chipped in to serve food and clean up afterwards. The beauty of the lunch was thrown into sharp relief by the outside world when two West Africans, two North Africans and myself were pulled over by the police on our way to the beach a few hours later, spending over an hour on the side of the road as they went through everyone’s immigration documents.

 

The tension between the sense of “home” that West and North African migrants say they find at Porco Rosso is very much in contradiction with the doctrine of integration espoused by many migrant-serving institutions, primarily those funded by the state and church. Of course, the word integration can be used more generally to indicate the social mixing of races, nationalities, cultures etc. Batch references the early assemblies that he and the group he arrived with conducted at Porco Rosso as a starting point: “from there we started integrating Porco Rosso.”

 

In the Italian context however, integration tends to refer more to assimilation, the idea that newly arrived immigrants ‘become Italian’ by learning the language and embracing Italian culture and food. Kamal points out the contradiction in this discourse when he says, that integration is “just a thing written on paper or a word in the air…The society is closed to us, to me as an African, to me as a Muslim, it’s closed. How can I integrate myself? If I am not accepted, neither my religion nor my ethnicity, I can't.”

 

The respect for the autonomy and unique identities of migrants arriving to Italy, held so closely by the Sportello members, naturally becomes a critique of integration discourse. According to Richard, Porco Rosso is distinct in that “we are in practice proposing a kind of rejection of integration. Integrazione means we are getting on, it doesn’t mean we love Italy and want to stay in Italy. We don’t pretend that and I think that is different from everyone else.” The fact that most migrants who arrive to Italy do not actually want to stay in the country is almost entirely ignored by integration discourse. Indeed, I have repeatedly observed migrants being implored to speak Italian in their interactions with charities, the administrators of reception centers and even in doctor’s offices.

 

The acceptance that Kamal spoke to is integral to the work of the Sportello. Giulia S. makes a similar point when she says that integration is “not something we need right now, we need to have respect for people, we need to let them express themselves freely, to feel accepted. We are not focused on proper integration. I hope people feel free and kind of at home somehow.”

 

Integration discourse is also closely linked to accoglienza, a word that means ‘welcome’ but that also refers to the asylum reception system, the institutions through which recent migration has been managed, including publically funded housing, meal provision, education, etc. Integration is the predominant guiding philosophy within the reception system. This is a system of ‘hosts’ and ‘guests,’ not an encounter between equals. The Sportello has responded to this model by treating migrants “not as beneficiaries but as people who are in different circumstances, which they are. So, not denying difference,” says Giulia S. There is a gap between the perception about why many migrants are here, and why they are actually here and what they want to do. When migrants are “condemned in a condition… as victim, or as martyr” their needs are managed through a passive service provision model widely considered to be charitable, which makes it more difficult for Italians to see “how depressing and constraining and devastating it can be to spend a few years to not have your own life, your own food, live where you want to live, with who you want to live with.”

 

The critiques of integration, accoglienza, and assistentializmo, espoused by members of the Sportello Sans Papiers greatly inform their work. Several members spoke to their past experiences with community work, and how their work with the Sportello is an opportunity to avoid past pitfalls, “defects,” and disappointments. These experiences have brought a certain humility to each Sportello member, which has created an openness to feedback, reflection and doing things with slowness and intention. While having a coffee after a visit to a remote reception center, one Sportello member asked the group, “Is there anything I could have done differently today? Did I speak too much French? Not enough English? How was my approach?”

 

On the day to day, the humility and acknowledgement of difference shared by the group translates into a practice of listening and “taking non-Europeans’ voices seriously and believing them.” This practice is a pre-requisite for the project of inclusion and political change that the Sportello Sans Papiers has committed itself to. Some evidence of its success is in the diversity of the Sportello members themselves in terms of race, ethnicity, nationality and gender but also has implications for the broader political project the group is committed to. By treating migrants “as individuals, as active people, as actors and not as a spectator of something” they are able to represent themselves, rather than be spoken for says Giulia G.

 

The practice of encouraging self-representation was evident in Fall 2016 when members of the Sportello went to visit friends who had been sent to reception centers in more isolated areas. Upon learning about the conditions the migrants in more rural areas were facing they began to facilitate assembly-style meetings and encourage migrants to speak with each other about their common issues. In this way, asylum seekers from throughout the province were able to collectively draft a letter and publish it in Italian and English on a news website, speaking directly for themselves, rather than being written about. This was an important moment for the group. Giulia S. says, “We encouraged them to take action, supported them if they wanted to do a demonstration…without taking credit. Fausto would just arrange permits with authorities and speak Italian, translating them. They are not citizens, but they should be. They can say something.” This is meant as a corrective, as Fausto notes, “its very common to in Italy find a mediator between the migrants and their problems. We try to remove this mediation.”

 

While the daily practice of problem-solving engaged in by Sportello members can sometimes obscure this political vision, “it has never happened that the people themselves (migrants) were not involved” in the project, says Giulia G. It is my observation, that as much as possible, Sportello members try to solve problems with migrants seeking assistance, rather than for them. This has increasingly led to a dynamic where people who have experienced a particular issue can help someone else work through it. The migrants I spoke with were eager to help in other ways as well. AK says, “If I’m here, I can assist. Sometimes I can translate in Mandinka or Fulla or English…because some people assist me, so you assist me, I assist you, like that.” Kamal echoes this sense of collective learning and contribution when he says, “Now there is the understanding to welcome new people. I see the same guys that came for the wifi now doing the cleaning. They have created a common language amongst themselves.” Indeed, on any given day it is not uncommon to find different migrants that frequent the place sweeping, mopping and putting furniture in place once the doors open. As Richard said, “Our approach is not just campaigning for peoples’ rights but trying to empower people to help each other.” One Gambian teenager says he comes to the place to “chat with people…to get good ideas from them.”

 

Within a year of arriving to Italy both Ibou and Batch have become operators of the space, engaging not just in Sportello activities but helping to manage the other programming as well. Batch, who recently relocated from Corleone to an independent apartment in Palermo says, “If migrants need advice or need to know how things are going, I take them to Porco Rosso. I am an operator at Porco Rosso, I’m part of their activities…I let them know that Porco Rosso is standing for migrants.”

 

The Struggle for Inclusion

 

While it seems to be generally understood and appreciated that Porco Rosso is a place for migrants, the role of migrants in the planning and decision-making of the place has been quite limited. This is broadly acknowledged as a challenge by Sportello members and as a source of frustration by migrants who frequent the space who would like to be more involved. MC says “Everyone is nice to me, “ciao, buon giorno!” They know each and every one, but you know, when you people have your very very interesting meeting, important meeting, why don’t we join there? All the time I am thinking about that.” There is a sense that the migrants who frequent the space know it well socially and on a superficial level but are not clued into the inner workings. The Senegalese musician, who has expressed a desire to be more active, said, “I start to learn what Porco Rosso means, but I don’t know the insides. If I say I know Porco Rosso I am lying.”

 

An obvious answer to MC’s question is the issue of language. The weekly Porco Rosso organizing meetings (which are distinct from the smaller weekly Sportello meetings) are conducted in a high level of Italian and often include complex political discourse that even non-Italian Sportello members struggle to comprehend. This creates a gap between the overlapping projects which has been filled occasionally and informally when an individual decides to interpret some of a meeting for non-Italian speakers, but thus far there has not been a formal effort to make the meetings more accessible.

 

The challenge of opening up the meetings is “a process…not something you solve” according to Fausto, but is nevertheless something the Sportello is in a unique position to make happen. Kamal and Batch, as cultural mediators and translators, both felt confident that having multilingual meetings was possible. Giulia S. spoke to the need to sensitize the collective to different experiences of participating in meetings, which she has struggled with on the basis of gender. She says, “many times people don't acknowledge the difference that you might not speak Italian well, you are a woman, you may be shy, you may not participate that much.” My attendance at a recent Porco Rosso administrative meeting affirmed that the group continues to struggle with equitable gender participation, wherein the men spoke more frequently and at greater length despite the group being majority women.

 

Another factor is the difference in political traditions between the European left, and the West and North African migrants who are using the space, including those who are members of the Sportello. Richard notes that the “Europeans tend to have a radical (left) background or a radical tendency. I think that tendency is almost non-existent in the West African men who we are working with, which means the discourse is about human rights, respect, dignity. It’s a different approach, extremely respectful of institutions.” These differences in history and political tradition may make it more difficult to strategize together.

 

Nevertheless, the political commitments of the project indicate that it will struggle to create an inclusive decision-making process. It is clear that the trust and community that have been developed, along with the sense of ownership over the space by the migrants who are using it, will provide a strong foundation for struggling through the tensions and difficulties that inevitably arise when working across differences. For Kamal, bringing the migrants into the decision-making process is the only thing that is missing from the project right now, he says because the meetings “are not held for us, they are held for them. We need to…bring them closer to create and reinforce our brotherhood.” MC echoes this sentiment when he says the meetings are “not just for white man, it is for our interest and benefit.” There is a clear understanding that the meetings discuss in part, the Sportello project and the migrants who use the space, and for some people it is uncomfortable to know that they are being spoken about without being able to participate in the conversation.

 

In any event, all of the people I interviewed were committed to a process of inclusion necessary allow for the full participation of those who wish in the decision-making processes. In fact, they see it as fundamental to a broader political vision of justice and equality. As Fausto said, “if people leave this place as just the chatting place, that fine, that’s a good result. But if they see it as a place for organization to improve our collective condition, it would be better.”

 

***Note: The members of the Sportello Sans Papiers are identified by their names. The migrants who frequent ARCI Porco Rosso, the space where the Sportello is held, are identified by first initial.

 

 

Leanne Tory-Murphy is a writer and researcher currently living in Palermo, Italy, where she completed research on contemporary migration as a Fulbright scholar.

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