Born and raised in Milan, Italy, Ariam Yemane Tekle knows best how it feels to live as the “other” amongst the rest. Born in the early 1980s Ariam agonized a black daughter of a migrant in Italy, where children of migrants are not, to this day, recognized by the government as citizens until the age of eighteen.
Leaving their war-torn home in the early 1970s meant, for Eritreans, an expedition that would eventually direct them back to the homeland. They supported the armed struggle and no matter where they’d lodge in they always live united. That is how children of migrant Eritreans in Europe –Milano, Italy, in this case, learned to be indifferent to all the racism and prejudice directed at them by the society in which they grew up in. The key to tolerate ugly stares, police officers buses and total obliviousness of their very presence by the Italian government, was actually spending time together and feel one. ‘Marinai’, a park in Milan, was and still is the ‘spot’ where, by default, multiple generations of migrant Eritreans and their children feel at home in each other’s presence. There, they play sports, chat, talk and discuss national issues without having to feel excluded.
No need of an appointment in Marinai. A walk or a bus ride to Marinai will most certainly lead an Eritrean to another Eritrean.
Ariam Yemane Tekle, expert on social studies, documented it all in her one-hour long documentary entitled ‘Appuntamento Ai Marinai’. Screened at several universities in Italy, one time in New York and lately in media auditoriums of multiple Eritrean organizations, Ariam’s documentary, beyond giving the local public an overview of the hostile reality the Eritrean diaspora live in, it also served as an eye opener tool to Italians who didn’t think ‘it was that bad’ for migrants in their homeland.
- -Compliments for documenting a beautiful yet unknown story.
Thank you. I studied international relations as an undergrad and then I did MA in social studies and anthropology in Brussels. Let’s say that studying social studies and anthropology was vital in terms of my actual interest in people and societies. I agree with you on the fact that the story I tell in the documentary is an unknown one. Eritreans in Eritrea don’t know much about our troubles because we have that culture of ‘tolerating and not telling’. Italians, with whom we grow up don’t think it’s that bad. That is why I decided to name this generation ‘the ghost generation’ as their realty is unknown.
- -What is it like to be born in a foreign country from migrant parents?
It is a sensitive issue. Especially for the second generation, meaning children born outside from migrant parents. It is something that can raise several questions. It is unfair for the migrants because ‘black’ or ‘African’ is always connected to robbery, violence and drugs. But when a group of young men playing football are told to be in queue for an inquiry of their sports bag and when they’re told to face the wall with guns pointed at them, that is, essentially, what violence is in its whole meaning! For us, the following generations, I can say, things were better as the worst passed with the second generation but nevertheless it doesn’t mean it has all improved.
In fact, when I first started working on this project I knew that it would be a sensitive issue, but I was equally very enthusiastic about taping a subject that has never been disclosed publicly. I contacted few people at first but then the network grew as they would give contacts of their friends and the friends of the friends. Some others were rather timid to be in front of a camera but they would share with me their stories and give me tips to my stories. I realized that the young men and women I was talking to were as enthusiastic as me because after all this is their story. This is who they are. They were the black kids in a white community.
- -Could you please describe your documentary?
‘Appuntamento ai Marinai’ is a one-hour documentary about second generation Eritrean in Italy, born and raised in Milan between the end of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s. The documentary talks about their childhood days. They were neglected by the host government while their parents had to go to several jobs in order to make enough to raise their children and with the little left they helped the armed struggle. The children had literally to look after each other no matter where they go. In the story, is mentioned a catholic center that had an important role in the unison of young Eritreans in Milan. To include Eritrean children in the center was a nun’s idea. Her name was Nun Gen Antonia and she would organize several activities to engage the children in the center which included sports and extracurricular educational activities. The nun would call retired teachers to help the kids with their homework and studies.
- -Do you think we can say that the first black community in Italy was that from Eritrea?
I do believe there were other African migrants in Italy. But they were never united. They were sparse. The case of Eritreans is always different. The first migrants from Eritrea were running away from bombardments and they always knew that they would eventually come back. At least they had hoped so. In the process families were created and Eritrean children were being raised in an atmosphere that doesn’t tolerate migrants. So it must have been difficult. They thought that it was natural for them to be treated less because that is how the host society wanted them to think. Despite all of this, the Eritrean community has always been our rock. The habit of looking out for each other and looking forward to spending time together are traits we inherited from our parents. Our parents raised us to learn to love each other and fully be aware of our heritage. So we felt Eritreans even though we were not raised in Eritrea. A common trait, for example, is that we all feel like cousins because our parents would introduce us to one another as brothers or sisters. We didn’t know we were actually not related until we grew up, and that we found out on our own realizing that is absurd that everyone in Milan and the rest of Italy is a cousin. The Eritrean community is known for its gatherings and communal life style. This is the specific peculiarity of the Eritrean community in the Diaspora.
- -What is Marinai?
It is a park where the second generation would meet after school. But not only the second generation –the trend was followed by all generations until this very day. That is where we all meet without an appointment to hang out and have fun. The youth meet up there from all corners of Milan, even the furthest ones, to hang out with fellow Eritreans… cousins! It has always been a place of consolation. In Marinai you can find young people of all ages. Some who play in groups, some who chat, some who take a walk… but they are all Eritreans feeling at home surrounded by Eritreans.
- -From the way the diaspora act upon their annual visit home, in summer, it is very hard to tell that you have a mountain of problems starting from racist attacks. Asmara International Airport is crowded with your endless luggage. You give the impression that life is gold out there in Europe or the U.S.A.
I know it is wrong but that is what we do. In fact, I partially blame us, the diaspora, for the emigration and exodus of many Eritreans. We come here once a year to give the impression that things are all good in Europe, that there are no hardships and that we are rich when most of us have to work multiple jobs a day to support ourselves. I am not saying that Europe or America are bad. Yes, there is better education and maybe more packed foods over there but a migrant will always be a migrant no matter what. And as long as we are black we have to live with the anxiety of racism every day. The reason I, with the help of several people, screened the documentary in several organizations in Asmara is to actually give the true image of what is it like to grow up in a foreign place where you’ll always be the different one, ‘the other’.
- -Thank you!