"Exile is strangely compelling to think about -- but terrible to experience. It is the incurable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: Its essential sadness can never be surmounted." - Edward W. Said
It takes a brave and often extraordinarily desperate person to leave familiar settings and migrate toward an uncertain future. One does not only leave their very own comfort zone, but also needs to define and establish a new one with fresh parameters, with rules and values that often don't match one's own socialization in the least. For some, random hostilities and prejudices by the hosting community add significantly to the overall experience. "Integration" is the technical term for that process, and every migrant faces it in varied forms and degrees of difficulty.
Cécile Kyenge, Italy's Minister for Integration and also an immigrant from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), would most likely be considered an American success story. But Kyenge's own success has been tempered by a series of racist incidents that have not been widely enough chronicled in the international press. There is a seemingly widespread sentiment that, with a black president, racism in the United States is mostly passé. However, it is sadly important to mention that racism in the U.S. is alive and well as it is in other parts of the world, which includes Europe, both historically and contemporarily.
Within 30 years of her arrival in Italy, Kyenge managed to occupy a public office of tremendous significance, not only for Italy's future, but also for Europe's, in her role as Minister of Integration. In April of this year during the 46th annual session of the Commission on Population and Development, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon emphasized, "Migration offers challenges we must face and benefits we can harness," and described migration as "a fact of life in our globalizing world." It was not a question of "whether to halt the movement of people across borders," which was impossible, but of how to plan for such movements and make the most of them, he said.
Some European states are still not willing to see the writing on the wall. A change in mentality is happening very slowly at the expense of people such as Minister Kyenge. She is actively involved in Italy's progress and preparation for future challenges that will include migration to the country and the subsequent integration of the new residents.
Kyenge has been advocating for a significant reform in the Italian citizenship law by introducing ius soli, a criteria that would grant citizenship to foreign children born in Italy. As a result these second-generation Italians would finally enjoy the same civil rights as their fellow inhabitants who have lived in the country for a number of generations. Meanwhile, the Minister has been experiencing tremendous hardship for her modernization attempts. The latest incident was initiated by the Italian far-right party Forza Nova, whose members draped three mannequins covered in artificial blood outside a town hall where Minister Kyenge was supposed to speak in early September. "Immigration is the genocide of peoples. Kyenge resign!" read fliers bearing the Forza Nuova symbol that were scattered around the barricades.
Headlines such as "More vile abuse for Italy's first black minister Cécile Kyenge," "Italy: Northern League councilor sparks row over calls for black minister's rape," and finally, "Italy's first black minister: I had bananas thrown at me but I'm here to stay," all give an impression of what the Economist called a "horrid introduction to public life."
At the same time, these inconvenient truths demonstrate shockingly how racism, bigotry, and sexism can affect also those in power who stand out from the perceived norm. In Kyenge's case, these trespasses are often executed by political equals who should know better and not fail citizens so tremendously as positive role models.
In case of the sitting U.S. President Barack Obama, his protection by the Secret Service began when Obama was still a senator, after receiving a death threat in 2007. This marked the first time a candidate received such protection before even being nominated.
Laudable are Minister Kyenge's strength and endurance while facing such unspeakable humiliation, at the same time paving the way for new generations of immigrants, a testament to her steadfast resolve.
Fellow Italians are expressing their dismay, connecting racism at home to a general lack of historical awareness. For The Huffington Post, writer and filmmaker Flavio Rizzo writes indignantly, "In Italy concepts of colonialism, post-colonialism, and neo-colonialism are largely ignored along with Italy's own colonial past."
Rome's Mayor Ignazio Marino condemned the latest mannequin incident in an official statement. "Rome is a city with a tradition of taking in all peoples for millennia," he stated, "An isolated gesture by a handful of violent individuals will not stop the courageous work that the integration minister is doing."
As the Ethiopian-American writer Maaza Mengiste describes in her article "Italy's racism is embedded" for the English daily the Guardian, "If Germany had its Nuremberg trials and South Africa its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, then what is missing in Italy is the kind of postwar accountability that forces harsh truths to light and begins the difficult journey towards reconciliation."
The U.S. media outlet Open Democracy reported in August how Italian civil society often takes matters in their own hands in order to confront racism in their home country:
There are also examples of collective activism taking place in local municipalities, which have developed their own models to promote inclusion and co-existence, despite the lack of support from the state. It happened in Riace, a fishing town in Calabria originally famous for its Greek bronze statues, but where families of refugees and asylum seekers are welcomed by the community and become an integral part of it.
Minister Kyenge visited United Nations' headquarters in New York City last week to speak on the UN norm "Responsibility to Protect." The principle defines the state's responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing, as well as their incitement, in cooperation with the international community. Many scholars and civil rights activists have been discussing the need to implement an early warning system within the norm, in order to prevent those atrocities more efficiently in the future.
During her presentation at UN headquarters, Minister Kyenge emphasized that "Intolerable acts occur even in times of peace and in democratic countries." She pointed out the importance of atrocity crime prevention in seemingly modern societies that adhere to democratic principles. In a subsequent interview she defined identity as a "long string of personal experiences, not necessarily based on, or shaped by, the country one lives in."
Minister Kyenge's resilience, sensitivity, and undaunted dedication to the cause, are those of a world citizen with a long path behind her and perhaps an even longer one ahead. These qualities keep her at the forefront of political reform going forward, and not a victim of her circumstances.