- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Second of three parts

VERONA, Italy - A towering statue of Daniele Comboni, the first bishop to Africa, embracing two black children marks the entrance to the Veronetta neighborhood.

In the shadow of the monument inscribed with the words, “Either Blackness or Death,” Marco Corini serves espresso and cappuccino to locals he has known his entire life.

“Veronetta has always been a poor neighborhood. I was born here. I grew up on these streets. I moved away 10 years ago. It has changed an awful lot in the last 20, 30 years,” he said, looking out his cafe window.

“There is crime, vandalism. … They killed someone here a month ago. The area is not nice anymore.”

Just across the Adige River lies Verona’s 1,900-year-old Roman Arena, where early Christians were devoured by lions and Maria Callas once sang her arias. Nearby stands a balcony said to be the one where Romeo and Juliet fell in love.

Veronetta has been invaded by Africans from Ghana, Nigeria and Sudan — and more recently outsiders from Eastern Europe, Mr. Corini says.

“The Italian people have all gone. The authorities don’t look after us. Veronetta is filled with extracomunitario,” he said, using the Italian word for immigrants from outside the European Union.

Mr. Corini and Italy, like the rest of Europe, are struggling to deal with immigrants, black and brown faces on streets that were once all white, smells and music emanating from ethnic grocery stores, high unemployment, crowded mosques next to empty churches, crime, depleted pension funds and, most of all, the gnawing anxiety of what the future may bring.

While such concerns are not new, the recent advent of Islamist terrorism on a global scale has added a frightening new dimension to bread-and-butter issues such as fears of immigrants taking jobs and altering the cultural face of Europe — especially in nations such as Italy with large Muslim immigrant communities.

A 2000 United Nations report sounded an alarm in Rome when it found that with Italy’s low birth rate, the population could shrink from 57 million to 41 million over the next 50 years.

That would force Italy’s retirement age to 77, in order to keep the required ratio of four workers to one pensioner.

Verona — whose most beloved bishop was St. Zeno, a black African who converted Verona to Christianity in the fourth century — has a long history of missionary work both to and from Africa.

But the familial ties have become strained. Verona is also a center of Italy’s Lega Nord, the Northern League (NL), one of the most virulent anti-immigrant political parties in Europe.

Matteo Bragantini, the Northern League’s provincial secretary, said that it is his party’s dream for the region to secede from Italy and create its own nation, Padania, free, independent and hostile to outsiders.

He, and posters around the NL headquarters in the industrial quarter of Verona, describe Italy’s national government in Rome as “the thief.”

Simple rules

The NL, which has 5 percent support nationally and about 14 percent in the north, is not racist, Mr. Bragantini says. Its position on immigration is simple:

“You can come only if you have a job and somewhere to stay,” he said. “If immigrants don’t have a legal job, then you are surviving illegally, on drugs, or crime or something else,” he said.

He said unemployment in his Veneto region was high, at about 5 percent, “there is not that much work,” but local businesses were happy to welcome immigrants, because it lowers costs.

“Then they unload the social problems onto the state,” he said, sitting beneath a poster proclaiming “Padania: Land of Christians. Never the land of Muslims.”

He said Italian amnesties for immigrants, like similar programs in the United States, only made matters worse.

“Word got out [about the amnesty] and many Muslims came. They do not respect our rules and regulations.

“They are demanding that crucifixes be removed from our schools and demanding that pork be taken off school lunch menus, not just for Muslims, but for Christian children as well.

“Christmas holidays can no longer be called Christmas. They are winter festivities,” he said in disgust, laying out newspaper clippings on each outrage.

“It is natural for Muslims to beat their wives. For us, it is unthinkable and illegal. The mosques are not mosques. They are political centers. Imams are inciting the young to hate Christians,” Mr. Bragantini said. “There is a minaret in Rome that is higher than St. Peter’s. You could not build a church like that in Saudi Arabia.”

Lorena Gardini, spokesman for Antolini Luigi & Co., Verona’s largest marble and granite cutting and polishing factory, one of some 350 firms located in the area, said that about 20 percent of the work force was immigrant labor, mostly from Ghana.

“They are good workers. Very good people. We need them,” said Luca Girardi, an Antolini foreman of a 20-man crew. “Their families are here. Their kids go to school. These lads from Ghana run the whole cutting process.”

Asked if his workers came as illegal immigrants, Mr. Girardi replied:

“Sometimes we help them get their documents sorted out,” he said, with a shrug.

“At the beginning of the century, Italians came to America and you gave us jobs. We opened restaurants and respected the laws and you respected us. It is like that here. We are selective. If they are good, we keep them,” he said.

Workers welcome

Down a small road, white with marble dust, Fernando Leardini, the third-generation owner of Intermarmi marble, a much smaller family operation, said 80 percent of the area’s economy was based on marble, and it would collapse without immigrant labor. He said of his 12 workers, three are from Africa.

“The guys from Ghana have been with me for 12 years. I don’t know how I’m going to replace them. They are correct people and work seriously,” he said. Two workers plan to return to Ghana soon, one to open a bicycle shop and the other to make furniture.

“I have more problems with my Italians. … The Italian work force isn’t really available for this work,” Mr. Leardini said.

Anyone ordering the fresh pasta, with mussels, clams and cherry tomatoes, seasoned with olive oil and basil at the Alla Torre, a traditional Veronese restaurant in the heart of the 800-year-old historic Piazza Erbe, might be surprised to find that it was cooked by Himas Rajakaruna, a chef who arrived from Sri Lanka seven years ago.

“I don’t care about a person’s race or country of origin. It is the person who is important. A professional is hard to find. I try them for five months. If they work out, I keep them,” said Guglielmo Rossi, who has owned the Alla Torre for nearly 30 years. He said he serves 25,000 customers a year and “always” hires immigrants.

“I have a waitress from Brazil and another one from Sri Lanka. In the restaurant business in Verona, Rome, Florence, Venice, you have to have foreign workers,” he said.

But Mr. Rossi says he avoids hiring Arabs. “They have no history for doing this kind of work. It is not in their culture,” he said.

Soup kitchens

Meanwhile, at the Cloister of San Bernardino, where figs and olives grow in the 600-year-old courtyard, Franciscan Brother Ezio is preparing to feed the dozens of homeless who line up outside his “poor man’s refractory” every lunch hour.

“They could be illegal immigrants or locals. We don’t ask. We are Franciscans. We open the door. Whoever comes in, any race, creed or color, is our brother,” said Brother Ezio.

The homeless are given a meal, can shower and hand-wash their laundry in the outdoor sinks. The volunteers helping the brothers include a neighborhood woman who is not Catholic, but sympathetic to the plight of the illegals, and a medical doctor who works in the kitchen on his lunch hour.

Brother Ezio said that 10 years ago, those coming through his door were out-of-work Veronese.

Five years ago, his clients were North Africans from Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. Today, 90 percent are Eastern Europeans from Ukraine, Moldova and Romania.

The tonsured Franciscan said the homeless sleep in parks, under bridges or in railroad boxcars, eat at San Bernardino and get by with occasional day work in construction and agriculture.

He said the police know they are here, but never intrude into the sanctuary, unless they are looking for someone specific, wanted for a crime.

Around the corner, the Basilica of San Zeno is built on top of a Roman cemetery, where Zeno, the “laughing bishop” who converted all of Verona to Christianity, was buried 1,600 years ago.

His relics now rest in the church. Brother Ezio said that Christianity came to Italy and Verona from Africa, recalling St. Augustine, Zeno and other African missionaries.

“Not all our parishioners are comfortable with the changes. The local council has beds to offer and free meals, but for that you need documents that recognize your being here legally. … Almost all here are illegal,” he said.

He said he tries to comfort the elderly parishioners with the changes they see and fear by explaining church history.

“St. Zeno and St. Augustine were both Africans. Christianity came to Italy from Africa. Nothing strange about a black man or foreigners in this neighborhood,” he said.

Back in Veronetta, a young couple, students from the nearby University of Verona, were searching for an affordable apartment among the African shops playing shaba music, the Nigerian Internet and “call shops,” the Indian grocery stores and struggling Italian osterias.

“We are looking for a home here,” said Mirco Galie, 29, who is completing his doctorate in biology. “It is not dangerous here. That is the stereotype, but not true. We like the ethnic mix.”

Elenora, 22, a philosophy major who declined to give her last name, said her parents might object to this neighborhood, but she and Mirco liked it.

“I don’t see any problem with immigrants. It depends on the individual. … There is a correct equilibrium here,” she said.

Part I:

Tolerance tested in Holland

Part III:

Love-hate affair

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