Sunday, January 21, 2018

Defeating Hate

When people in Sesto Fiorentino, a suburb of Florence, heard 50 asylum seekers were moving into a former hotel in the historic centre, they responded in much the same way as those in other parts of ItalyInfluenced a fearmongering campaign launched by local politicians from Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, they united in protest. Antipathy towards the newcomers in Sesto Fiorentino, home to a population of 49,000, was aggravated by the effects of the lingering economic downturn, alongside a perceived breakdown in basic public services in an area that once boasted a thriving porcelain industry. Prejudice reached a new low point last week when Attilio Fontana, the far-right Northern League candidate vying to be the next governor of the Lombardy region, claimed the influx threatened to wipe out “our white race”.

Six months on, Sesto has become a model for how to treat migrants with dignity while keeping local people onside. Despite some people having lingering reservations about the migrants’ presence, tensions have eased a lot. And now Sesto Fiorentino is to become home to a mosque, the first official place of worship to serve the 30,000 Muslims in the Florence area. 

Concerns had mostly centred on the changing face of Piazza Vittorio Veneto, the main square overlooked by the town hall. “People were worried about noise and rubbish, but it was mainly about perception,” said Dalila De Pasquale, coordinator for Il Cenacolo, a Florence-based social cooperative that manages the Il Gerlino hotel where the migrants now live. “They didn’t know who these people were, they were scared to go out at night.”

The scheme to integrate the new arrivals began with a joint mission to rid the square of the residents’ biggest gripe: cigarette butts. Migrants, mostly from Mali, Senegal, Bangladesh and Pakistan, worked alongside a group of pensioners, themselves immigrants from the south. Stories were shared and some common ground was found.

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