Little cars. That’s the first thing I noticed upon my arrival in Italy. After spending over three months here I still see them everyday, but they don’t stand out as much to me anymore. I’ve sort of become immune to them in a way; accepting their existence but not as amazed by them as I was initially when I first encountered them. After travelling around Italy for a bit I have seen some of the most unforgettable sights that I don’t believe will ever fade into obscurity for me: breathtaking panoramic views from Piazza Michelangelo in Florence and from medieval towers in San Gimignano, the islands of Venice surrounded by water bluer than the clear skies of Genoa, the giants of Milan scraping the sky like the Empire State Building, and among others, a view of the sun setting into a reddish-orange nothingness from the Tuscan countryside. Among these many wonders of our planet exists another world that is both beautiful and ugly, a world that for some is a way of life, and a world that for many means nothing more than a nuisance and intrusion upon a traditional and functional way of life. This is the world of immigrants in Europe.
Change is a funny thing. It rarely happens suddenly and due to its gradual effect it can usually go unnoticed for extended periods of time, slowly creeping upon the backs of those who never even saw it coming. This is what’s occurring in Italy and Europe and may have been occurring long before it was so blatant. I only knew a little about African immigration before arriving in Italy; I had heard of riots in the south, and of the government raiding immigrant communities, but nothing from the perspective of the immigrants. It wasn’t until I arrived in Italy that I began to see immigration through the eyes of the African immigrants that worked and lived in Florence and other places in Italy. I remember walking towards the main railway in Florence, Stazione Santa Maria Novella, and how I was told not to buy things from the immigrants because the products were illegal copies, and if I were found buying them, I could be held accountable for breaking the law as well. This was the face of the immigrant that I expected. The foreigner who enters a new country doing whatever they can, whether legal or illegal, to create a foundation for a new life. I accepted this face of the immigrant because it was all I saw from the faux Louis Vuitton bags being sold by them in Venice to immigrant women prostituting themselves in the dark and damp vicoli of Genoa.
I was wrong and blind to the real change that was taking place. While many immigrants, specifically from northern African countries, such as Senegal, could be seen as second-class citizens due to the nature of their jobs as doormen and housecleaners, a definite and visible change is taking place. A new Europe is being engendered out of the gradual assimilation that is taking place before all of our eyes. Some would rather that it go unnoticed, some prefer it to stop, and there are even those who welcome it. This is the period of change. I see African-Italian couples walking in the street slowly pushing multi-coloured strollers containing seeds of a new world that has yet to fully mature. I would like to say that I envision an Italy, and Europe as a whole, where there are less immigrants being prostitutes and sidewalk sellers, but such is life. When and if the northern Africans become fully assimilated and are no longer seen as second-class citizens others will eventually take their place. What I believe many people should start doing is seeing the differences among people and not neglecting them, but embracing them. Being colour-blind isn’t the answer, it’s the problem.
All of these sentiments culminated in the inaugural conference with the editors and photographers of the AfroEuropa: Incontri series. I saw the struggle of immigrants fighting, and many dying, to get to Europe from Africa in makeshift boats that often ended up capsizing and drowning those who were in them. I heard the words of the photographers who got to know the immigrants through hearing their stories and attempting to perceive even a small fraction of what they went through in order to come to Europe, just to eventually become doormen, street sellers, and even prostitutes. One specific photo, by Juan Medina, stuck out to me among the unforgettable others. It was a photo of an African immigrant crawling onto a beach from the ocean, drenched in sweat and saltwater stinging his raw open flesh, while three spectators who could have been European or foreigners, were sunbathing on the beach. It wasn’t only a powerful image to view, but it also invoked a lot of emotion within me that better helped me to understand what it means to be an immigrant in Europe. These people aren’t little cars that I’ll forget about when I go back to America, nor are they able to be easily expressed through telling others how “There are tons of immigrants everywhere in Europe who try to sell you overpriced bouquets of old flowers.” These people are as significant as the view of the Duomo from the hills of Fiesole, or as substantial as Michelangelo’s David in the Galleria dell’ Accademia, due to the fact that they are as much as a part of Italian and European history as any 500-year-old monument is. The only difference is that these people are living, breathing, and constantly changing how others perceive their own world, which is also a great sight to behold. If I had to make a prediction about the future of immigrants in Italy and in Europe, the only thing that I could really say is that I envision a Europe where people expect change to occur, because change is easier to embrace when one expects it.