Italian-Maghrebis in Belgium Part 1

by Hanane El Hajouli | University of Bologna

This essay on Italian-Maghrebi youth and families in Belgium has been adapted from the author’s Masters thesis (Italians-Maghrebi: an ethnographic exploration) that was prepared in Italy and at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium. Presented here is Part 1 of the essay. Link to Part 2.

Italy started to undergo the economic crisis from 2008 onwards. The first people who lost their jobs were middle-aged men and women of foreign origin. The situation became almost unbearable after the earthquake of 2012 in Emilia-Romagna. This was one of the principal industrial areas in Italy, and the region suffered from many industries destroyed. The seismic events of 20 and 29 May 2012 affected a large and densely populated area. The crater encompassed 33 municipalities in Emilia Romagna. In this area lived 550 thousand people, 66 thousand local units and 270 thousand workers divided between agriculture, industry and services. For the first time an area, not only densely populated but also with high industrialization, flourishing agriculture, and a high employment rate, was affected. Families with unemployed parents found themselves without a house, and the only way to deal with it was to migrate again.  In the area inside the crater around 2% of national GDP had been produced annually. Because of the earthquake, 40, 752 workers had been subjected to layoffs in the area in late October.

In 2013, when I started to note this phenomena, my father came home after the prayer at mosque really sad, stating:

All my friends, the first ones in Italy, are leaving for somewhere in Europe, they are all in France and Belgium because they can’t find a job, they can’t guarantee an income for their family. It’s a sad day today because I think you will leave soon. This is not a country for young and foreign people.

The crisis had a huge impact not only in terms of the economic situation but also socially speaking. As a result, the Maghrebi communities in Italy are slowly disintegrating because this second migration group has no myth of return to Italy.

The effects of the crisis combined with events like 9/11 after which the ‘Islamic culture’ started to be a crucial subject in Western Europe. Being Muslim became a stigma also in Italy, and the demographic presence and growth of Muslims became a cause for anxiety in the country. Muslim migrants started to be perceived as dangerous. Negative feelings and prejudice have increased affecting the daily life. For instance, migrants with a Muslim faith have more difficulties finding a job or keeping their job.

To overcome these problems Italian-Maghrebis decided to move abroad in Europe, specifically to Belgium. This study refers to people with Maghrebi origin born and raised in Italy who moved to Belgium for economic and social reasons.

Home is not Morocco, is not Italy and not even Belgium, home is the place when you can put the bread on the table and eat without any stress or think how to not finish the money by the end of the month. (Abdelmalek, 62)

Fieldwork experience and data led me to formulate my research question as following: ‘What do these young adults feel? Do they feel like Italians or Moroccans?’ The critical focus of investigation from this point is the ethnic boundary that defined the group. The boundaries are social, cultural and of course territorial. As all my interviews show, the Italian-Maghrebis came all between 2012 and 2013, but they settled in Belgium as Italian citizens. As will be seen, these are all families who were the first migrants in Italy at the end of the ‘70s and the beginning of ‘80s, so they have obtained the Italian citizenship, a fundamental requirement to move easily in the rest of Europe. These new families and young adults are coming to Belgium as Italian but with a Maghrebi and Muslim culture and traditions. These new Italians are different from the first migrants who worked in Belgium as miners. It is an invisible migration with many complicated implications.

Belgium is perceived as more socially and economically advanced compared to Italy. Going abroad was primarily an economic choice, and in a few cases a way to escape from racism. To my question , ‘Why did you choose Belgium?’ the common answers were:

In Belgium they are familiar with Moroccans, they respect us. There are many Muslims; you can easily find the right food, the mosques. (Ahmed, 58)

They speak French and Dutch, they are not ignorant like Italians, they are familiar with diversity and this fact makes Belgians better, smarter. (Fadwa, 25)

I can guarantee a future for my kids, a better education, a job. (Abdelmalek, 62)

In their imagination, Belgium is a place where they can finally live peacefully, find a job and have a decent life. Migration becomes a way to overcome the frustrations of their life in Italy. Every family I spoke with marked the importance of learning French, a second language in all the countries of the Maghreb. The language plays a fundamental role because Belgium is perceived as a multilingual country where it is possible to learn and master French, Dutch and English. This is an important fact that leads families and young adults to choose to migrate to Belgium.

Within families, each member has unique perspectives on the reasons for migration and their ways of coping with change. Abdelmalek migrated from Kenitra, Morocco, to Italy in 1978. First he was alone and left his wife in Morocco. When a couple of years later he had two baby girls, he decided to reunite the family in Northern Italy, where by 10 years later they had enlarged the family with two other girls and a boy. He describes life in Italy as lovely until September 11. After the terrorist attack, it became quite difficult being Muslim. Nevertheless, life proceeded easily, but then the economic crisis reduced work opportunities. He worked as foreman but when the earthquake destroyed the construction site where he worked, the situation became unbearable.

My two older daughters were happily married with kids but their husbands couldn’t find a job because of the crisis or because we are Moroccans, I don’t know, I really don’t want to admit that was racism. My two younger daughters and my little boy were about to start or finish high-school. I didn’t want my kids live in a place that is becoming like the Morocco I left. I want to see them happy, educated and with a good job behind a desk. In Italy it’s impossible for the real Italians; imagine us that we are Italians just on our ID card and passport. I moved to Brussels for them. Firstly I came here alone; I found a job, a small apartment for two people. Five and six months later my wife and kids joined me here. It wasn’t easy; my youngest daughter cried every day for almost 3 months but now, 2 years later we call this place home. We live peacefully, Amira is working and studying and Marwa and Soufiane are attending good schools. I’m proud of my kids; the only thing that makes me sad is my wife because she suffers a lot, and she misses Italy.

Ahmed was looking for a better future for his family. He was a truck driver in Italy; his job started to be affected by the crisis and in 2012 he was fired. With an unemployed wife and 3 teenage children he could not afford to live a decent life. His case shows an anxiety to find the perfect place to settle. He first moved to Belgium, but not being able to adapt alone, he decided to move where he could find someone familiar like his sister. In Belgium he did not have any support. He sold everything and he came alone by car to Brussels. He looked first for an accommodation, and then the rest of his family joined him.

I did the same thing that I did when I came in Italy. I was alone, with a decent level of French. I moved to Italy when I was a young adult in the 80s and I stayed there for almost half of my life, but when I got married and I had 3 boys my perspective changed. Firstly in 2012, I moved to Brussels Nord for 4 months, and I went to mosque and I started to ask for a job. I found many Moroccans from Italy and they helped me but we couldn’t get used to the weather, the people and living in a ghetto. We decided to come back to Italy. But Italy is not a good place for immigrants with an Arabic background. I joined my sister in France, and with her help we are happy and employed now.

Then his wife Soumia started to speak:

I couldn’t stand Belgium! The weather is terrible, the people are terrible, and the windows don’t have shutters! No privacy. We were living in place that is basically Morocco. I did not move from a racist place (Italy) to live in a ghetto.

In some cases, migration was a way to escape from racism, as Sanaa (21) stated:

They (Italians) are not racist, it’s just you can’t be better than them, you know what I mean. I can’t be more than a worker in an industry, there isn’t social mobility.

Education is another “push” factor because it is seen as way to improve the social condition. Marwa, 18, said:

When I finished the middle school in Italy my teachers advised me to attend a technical school – I was lucky because you know how they see us:  we are nothing more than working class, we can’t be better than them. Actually they scared me and I ended up following their advice. When I came here, after a semester in a French language class all my professors insisted to attend a ‘lycée’. I wish my teachers in Italy could see me. In Italy it’s impossible and here they encourage you always to aspire for the better, no matter where were you from. The first months I was crying every day, but now I can come back to Italy just for holidays, nothing more.

As we saw, the main motivations are economic and social. Still, it is interesting to discover how these families and young adults reached the decision to come to Belgium. Often the decision to migrate is taken by the ‘head of the family’, the fathers who discuss with the rest of the family. However, migration and all the topics related to it are often discussed in the places where the Maghrebi communities used to gather: mosques, Islamic butcheries and bazaars. In recent times, due to the economic crisis the main topic for these communities was not the alienation of immigration, but rather how to escape from a place perceived as not welcoming for migrants with an Islamic faith. Hamid, a man in his fifties, explained to me:

The last couple of years the only topic among my friends was the crisis, I didn’t go to the mosque to pray, I went to the mosque to find a practical way to live decently. That’s how talking to my friends, I found out how many Arabs were moving to Belgium and one of them was actually an old friend of mine. I was desperate; it was the only chance I had left. I started to search any possible way to contact him, and when I finally found his number I cried, I begged for help. He was my friend, he was in the same situation, and he understood and helped me find a job in a cleaning company. […] I was lucky because I speak French, otherwise it would have been much more difficult, which is why many return.

In this interview is mentioned ‘which is why many return’. This is a sensitive topic. I had the chance to meet people who returned to Italy, but it is always difficult to talk about it, as this is perceived as a failure.

In some cases, where there are relatives in Belgian soil, the discussion took place in Morocco, where the families are reunited for the holidays. Soukaina told me:

Every summer we go spend the holidays in Morocco. My aunts in Belgium were trying to convince my mum to leave Italy for Belgium. I spoke with my cousins and their life was definitely better than mine. They convinced us! My uncle was a truck driver like my dad and he found him a job in the same company.

Those who did not have relatives in Belgium found help through friends or friends-of-friends. In the case of the father of Omar (20), he related:

We used to have a snack bar, but because of the crisis we sold everything. It was a complete failure. My dad has a friend in Charleroi who helped him. My dad studied French so it was easy for him find a job in a factory. With the money of the snack bar he rented an apartment so we joined him.

On the other hand, Abdelmalek came to Belgium alone. His case is the most interesting because he decided to move without any contacts in Belgium. He knew some friends of friends but he previously decided to contact them only in desperate circumstances. Once he arrived, he relied on the solidarity of the Muslim community. He explained:  

Every morning I woke up and went around, I started to enter in every shop where I saw someone with the Arabic or Muslim look asking for a job or somebody who could help me to find a job. I believe if you are a good person and do good, eventually in times of need someone else will help you. And someone in the end helped me; a Turkish man hired me firstly to help him clean, after few months he started to teach me how to bake. Never in my life had I imagined I would be a pastry chef.

Finally, his daughters, Amir and Marwa, told me how it was difficult living abroad the first year:

We were staying in a small apartment, the five of us. No friends, no family, not a perfect command of the language, nothing. Every morning was a tour looking for the right school, the right home but at the end we made it. It wasn’t easy at all but it was worth it.

Hanane El Hajouli recently graduated from the University of Bologna with a Master Degree in Italian Language and Culture for Foreigners.

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