“The immigrants get all the jobs and houses, while the Italians - or British, or French… - get nothing! The government should think of Italians first - or British, or French first!” How many times do we hear this kind of thinking being hyped up by the TV and press, especially the gutter press, and right-wing demagogues?
Note: This is an edited and very much expanded version of something I wrote back in 1991, under the title “When it was the Italians who emigrated”. Italy was no longer the country of mass emigration as it had been in the past. The country was experiencing a new phenomenon, the arrival of immigrants from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Until then racism had not been a big issue, but as the numbers of new arrivals increased, while at the same time social and economic conditions worsened for workers in Italy, the right-wing parties started to whip up racism as a tool to divide workers. So I wrote the article as a reminder of what Italians had suffered in the past when they arrived penniless to work in other countries. The irony now, of course, is that due to the severe crisis affecting Italy today, Italians have started to emigrate once more.
“The immigrants get all the jobs and houses, while the Italians - or British, or French… - get nothing! The government should think of Italians first - or British, or French first!” How many times do we hear this kind of thinking being hyped up by the TV and press, especially the gutter press, and right-wing demagogues?
Those who push this idea do not explain that, whether there are immigrants or not, the government will not help the “Italians” - or the British or the French or any other national grouping. They do not raise the age of retirement, cut wages and attack welfare rights because of immigrants. Unemployment and poverty are not produced by immigrants The truth is that the Italian bourgeoisie has been “importing” cheap labour because it is advantageous to do so; whereas in the past they exported labour. In fact there was a time when the export of labour was a big source of revenue for the Italian state.
In 1952 my father emigrated to Britain. I still have the little booklet that “his” government gave him. It was signed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs. In that booklet the Italian government reminded its emigrants that they were ambassadors “that represented Italy abroad”. To this day, whenever I read that booklet my reaction is always the same, anger! What utter hypocrisy! The Italian state had done nothing to develop the South but was well prepared to exploit its emigrants who sent money back home.
Growing up in the 1930s
My father’s childhood was not of the kind that one reads about in fairy tales. He grew up in the 1920s and 1930s, under the Fascist regime, and at a time of severe economic crisis. He remembered the 1929 crash, when he was still a young boy, because a lot if Italians who had emigrated to America started coming back home after they had lost their jobs.
He started work when he was eleven years old. In actual fact, he already worked when he was at primary school. On coming out of school each day, my grandmother would bring him the sheep, hand him a piece of bread and then send him for the afternoon to watch over them as they grazed in the fields. At school, in fact, my father did well, but poverty meant his family could not afford to send him on to secondary school. There was a boy in his class who was not as bright as himself but he was the son of a wealthy family and therefore was able not only to go on to high school but also get a degree and become a civil engineer. Past generations fought to put an end to this kind of injustice, but today the ruling class wants to send us back to the days when an education was a luxury!
In the 1930s he went six years without ever being bought a new pair of shoes. I will never forget how he would tell me about the day my grandmother bought him a pair of shoes! He was so happy that he didn't get a wink's sleep that night. From his bed he would look at his shoes, and would keep getting out of bed, putting his shoes on and would walk up and down with them just to feel how they would squeak!
When he was 14 years old he told me how he did his first season of digging the land. He spent a whole month, day in day out, digging with his older brothers and parents. That had to be done every year, as the land was the only means of survival. They grew most of their own food. The sale of a few eggs and the odd chicken also was the way my grandmother could make some small amounts of money to buy other things, such as clothes.
The road to the house was a dirt track, which threw up dust in the summer and which turned to mud in the winter, mud that could reach up to one’s knees in the wetter periods. My father told me that when he managed to get a bicycle as a young man, in winter he would take his shoes and socks off, roll up his trousers and carry the bike on his shoulders until he got to the main road where he could actually ride it, after cleaning up and putting his shoes back on.
Second World War
This was his life until the Second World War broke out. He was called up into army, but fell ill and was sent home for several months to recover. In the meantime Mussolini was removed by an army coup and shortly afterwards the new military regime surrendered. The Italian army collapsed and soldiers were deserting in droves. My father’s older brother was fighting in Yugoslavia. When Italy surrendered, the Germans arrested the Italian soldiers. That is how my uncle ended up in a concentration camp. He would tell me how they were so hungry they would look through the bins and even eat the potato peels thrown out by the German soldiers.
Another uncle was taken by the Germans and was being transported to Germany to work in the factories there. That would have been most likely a one-way journey. Before reaching the Austrian border he decided to risk it and jumped from the train with a friend. At the end of the train the Germans had mounted a machine gun that would shoot into the grass every now and then as a warning. My uncle’s friend was killed, but he made it. He walked the almost 800 kilometres back home.
In November 1943 my father was supposed to go back to barracks and he told me how the Fascists had put up posters calling on soldiers to return to duty. He said to me, “I wasn’t going to go and fight for those bastards!” So he stayed at home. With two brothers away, he was also required at home to work the land and look after his aging parents.
Then came the famous Battle of Montecassino, one of the bloodiest and longest battles of the Second World War. It started on January 12, 1944, when troops of the American Fifth Army attempted to cross the Garigliano River. Montecassino is a 520 metre high mountain that juts out from the main chain of the Appenines and overlooks a valley known as the Valle del Liri. At the top of the mountain stands the Abbey of Montecassino, a Benedictine monastery founded in 529 by St. Benedict. It dominates the valley and that is why the German army in retreating from the advancing Allied armies, decided to dig in at this point. From the mountain they could observe the whole valley through which any army wishing to move north towards Rome would have to pass.
It was considered a holy place and therefore people thought it would never be bombed. That explains why several hundred civilians – no one knows the exact figure – sought refuge in the abbey. On the morning of February 15, 1944 142 heavy bombers and 114 medium sized bombers began the first wave of bombing. Over two days 776 planes dropped 1200 tonnes of bombs on the abbey reducing it to rubble. Most of the civilians were killed.
My mother would often describe the panic of the civilians as they heard the engines of the bombers in the distance. They would then suddenly appear in huge numbers flying in formation over the mountains to the south. As she explained to me, “the sky would fill with planes and then you feared for where the bombs would fall.”
A valley of death
The battle finally came to an end on May 18, when the Germans surrendered. The next day a CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] reporter climbed up the mountain and described the carnage he saw: “I have never seen such a grisly sight. There were the dead that had stormed and taken this fortress only yesterday. And there were the dead that had tried to take it months ago. I almost stumbled over a head that had almost mummified. The horrible thing about these battlefields above Cassino was that the men who fought there lived with the dead around them.”
If you visit the town, you will find a British war cemetery with over 4,000 British, South African, New Zealander, Canadian, Australian, Indian and Gurkha soldiers buried there, a Polish war cemetery with over a thousand, a German war cemetery with something like 20,000 buried there. Nearby in Venafro there are buried 6,000 French colonial troops. At Monte Lungo, about ten miles from Cassino, there are a thousand Italian troops buried there, who were part of the reconstructed Italian army that fought on the side of the Allies in the latter part of the war. In the small town of Nettuno on the coast there are close to 8,000 Americans killed in the various battles in Southern Italy, including Montecassino. In the Battle of Montecassino the Allied forces suffered around 55,000 casualties, and the Germans suffered something like 20,000 killed and wounded.
I have visited the British, German and Polish cemeteries. I have walked along the endless rows of tombs of British soldiers, most of them young men of 20, 25 or 30 years of age. The epitaphs are very moving, often with just a few words such as, “Loving wife and baby will never forget,” or “Mum and dad will always remember you” and so on. It really brings home the butchery and barbarism that was the Second World War.
My father witnessed the early part of the battle and saw the bombing of the mountain, but then had to leave the area. Civilians who lived on the line dividing German and Allied forces (known as the Gustave Line) were being asked to leave. My father built a rudimentary hand-pushed cart, using two wheels from an old bike. He put his old parents on that cart, together with some sacks of corn – that would replace the function of money as they travelled north towards Rome. His younger brother was also taken on the journey and they pushed the cart by hand… until it collapsed and broke. They left it where it fell and continued the rest of the journey on foot, carrying the few belongings, including the sacks of corn, on their backs. They slept where they could, sometimes under bridges. Eventually they reached a refugee camp south of Rome.
They remained there for the duration of the battle. The battle destroyed almost every house standing, including my father’s humble peasant house. One day my father discovered that the Americans were organising transport for peasants to go home. He walked the ten miles to an American base to find out if they could go home. An American soldier asked him where he was from. When he said he was from Cassino, the soldier said they would not be allowed to go back yet because of the unsafe conditions there. He advised my father not to say where he was from if he wanted to get home. So my father lied and told the officials he was from a small town about 20 miles from Cassino. Once there, he paid a peasant with half a sack of corn to take his family back to Cassino in a horse drawn cart.
As they entered the valley, my father understood why they would not let people go home. The stench of death was everywhere. Rotting corpses, both human and animal, were still in the fields. Water supplies were contaminated and the whole infrastructure had collapsed. When they reached their house, it was just a pile of rubble. Two metres from the house two German soldiers had been hurriedly buried in a very shallow grave. In these conditions my father contracted malaria. But they began the process of slowly trying to rebuild their lives. Some families were fortunate, inasmuch as their houses had not been completely destroyed. My father and his family were taken in by a local neighbour. His house had a big hole in one wall where cannon fire had gone straight through the house, but at least it was still standing. In these conditions solidarity between the poor was at its best.
Walking barefoot over the dead
Meanwhile a few kilometres away, the young woman who was to become his wife, left her home on foot with her mother and sister and neighbours. My mother used to tell me how, because they were behind German lines, they wanted to get to the American-controlled territory to the south. During the night, barefoot, they crossed the front, risking life and limb. She would tell me how in the dark they walked over the bodies of dead soldiers! They made it and the Americans took them down south to Calabria, where they spent over a year in a refugee camp. She told me how she spent time de-lousing the older women. The soldiers would cook pasta in big pots, and she would laugh about how bad they were at cooking it, always overcooking it, never “al dente”. But it was food at least. She always spoke very kindly of the local Calabrian peasants who were very supportive of the refugees and expressed a human kindness that touched her heart.
While she was in the camp she received the news that her father – my grandfather – together with a sister-in-law and 20 other people, including several children, had been killed shortly after she had left, when an incendiary bomb hit the rudimentary shelter they had built at the back of the house. The bomb blocked the exit and they were all suffocated. My grandfather had stayed behind as he was worried that unless he brought in the crops and stored them, once the battle was over they would have no food.
I have visited the old house with my mother who showed me where the shelter was, at the back of the stable, and described what happened. I stood there trying to imagine what it must have been like the day the bomb struck, how they must have lived their last minutes and seconds.
One of my mother’s brothers, who came home on leave during the fighting, opened up the shelter and found the 22 bodies. My grandfather was leaning against the side of the shelter with his walking stick and a bottle of wine by his side. Others died where they were desperately trying to dig their way out with their bare hands. It was too risky to organise a proper burial and funeral with the bombing still going on, so he closed the shelter and the burial took place later, once the armies had moved north. Twenty-two bodies fitted into four coffins, as there was nothing left but the bones. The common grave with the names of the 22 people who died that day is in a central part of the local cemetery. I have taken my children to visit it so that they will not forget.
Another brother, who had lost his wife in the shelter just two weeks after marrying her, was dispersed somewhere in the north. When he came home, this tragic event and later economic difficulties almost pushed him to suicide. It was my mother who found him in the field with a rope and stopped him. Another brother was more fortunate in a certain sense. He had died of tuberculosis not long before the battle started, but even he found no peace in death. His tomb was blown to pieces during the bombing, leaving the family with no place to go and pay their respects.
When the Germans occupied Italy after the September 1943 surrender, able bodied men were in constant danger of being picked up and taken to Germany. One day a group of soldiers was in the neighbourhood and a little boy went running to warn his father and uncles. An SS officer took out his gun and shot the boy in the back. The ordinary German soldiers did what they could to save the boy’s life, but there was nothing they could do and he died. My mother witnessed the scene and would often tell me these things. Every time my mother told me these stories they would always send shivers down my back.
One thing that always came across to me whenever my parents spoke of their wartime experiences was the distinction they made between ordinary rank and file German soldiers and the officers, especially the SS officers, as in the tragic incident of the young boy shot in the back by the SS officer.
My father told me that when he was in the presence of ordinary German soldiers, things were fairly relaxed, but whenever an SS officer turned up things suddenly changed. He could sense the fear among the ordinary soldiers. In fact the SS officers were there as a threat more to their own soldiers than to anyone else! Fraternisation with the local civilian population was not allowed.
My mother described how when they were fleeing the war zone my grandmother decided she wanted to go back to check out my grandfather. My mother stepped in and said she would not let her do that as it was too dangerous and went in her place. On their way, she and a friend were stopped by a German soldier pointing a machine gun at them. They fell on their knees and prayed to be spared. The German soldier was affected by this and told them they were in dangerous territory and pointed the way they should go to get to a safer area. He could have simply machine-gunned them on the spot. My mother also remembered the very young soldiers that Hitler called up towards the end of the war, some of them just sixteen years of age. She remembered one of these throwing his helmet to the ground in desperation, shouting “Cassino will be our cemetery!”
You could feel here an instinctive class solidarity between poor southern Italian peasants and the ordinary workers who made up the bulk of the German army, even in these barbaric conditions.
My mother’s family lived in almost feudal conditions. They were share-croppers, which meant they were given a house and land by a landlord who would receive half of everything they produced, from the eggs and chickens, to the pigs and, of course, the annual harvest.
As a young woman she told me how once the landlord turned up and removed the front door to the house and replaced it with a sack! He needed the door for another tenant! He would turn up without warning and if my mother was at the well washing clothes or doing other chores, she would have to drop everything and cook for him. Then, if he was tired he would go and sleep on one of their beds.
After the war my mother’s family was evicted because the landlord believed that a pig that he considered his had gone missing! They had to seek another landlord who would provide land. They piled their few belongings, pots, pans, bedding, onto a cart and traipsed to the other side of the town and resettled.
My mother started working when she was just seven years old. Being a girl, an education was deemed unnecessary, as her role would be that of rearing a family. That explains why she only did one year of primary school and was then pulled out of school. After that she worked on the farm looking after the animals and as she grew up also took part in the digging, the harvesting, the cooking and washing, which was usually done either by the well or down on the river. She also told me stories about how she would sow in the evenings by candle light as there was no electricity in those days in the rural areas.
The war was, however, to provide the poor peasants with at least one small satisfaction in the midst of the general conflagration. The well-to-do upper middle classes that lived in the town looked down on the peasants, calling them “cafoni” [an insulting term used to describe poor peasants]. When the war broke out, and Mussolini’s Fascist regime came out in support of Nazi Germany in 1940, these middle class layers suffered shortages of food and other basic requirements. The peasants, however, had food they grew themselves. Thus the “signori e signore” [ladies and gentlemen] of the town would go to the peasants for food. My mother would tell me about this and with satisfaction would comment, “those ladies in fur coats now needed the cafoni”.
Living in a wooden shack
Meanwhile, between 1945 and 1952 my father had no stable job. He worked as a lumberjack on the mountain of Montecassino, where the trees had been burnt by all the bombing during the war, and there was a big job of reforestation to be done, cutting down the old trees and planting new ones. Then he worked in a quarry breaking stones. He also worked as a day agricultural labourer. At the same time he worked on the small family farm. As the family home had been destroyed during the bombing in 1944, my father slept in a wooden shack. Laughing, he would tell me how he shared the same bed with his mother and younger brother, and in windy weather would sometimes have to hold down the sheets! The house took several years to rebuild, as funding was scarce.
Shortly after the war his father died of tuberculosis, a common disease at the time, while all of his brothers were unemployed and getting by working the land or with occasional jobs on building sites.
Maybe today, for those of us living in places like Western Europe or North America it is difficult to understand what it must have been like to live through all this – although that is not the case if you live in Iraq or Syria today! It definitely produced very tough people, hard-working and determined to overcome all difficulties.
Hoping for revolution
In my father’s case, however, it also produced a political radicalisation. The period 1943-48 was one of intense class struggle. In the northern and central parts of Italy the partisan movement emerged as a resistance to the Nazi occupation. The partisans were heroic fighters, many of whom gave their lives in the fight to expel the Nazi occupying forces. But there were also many strikes in the cities and also land occupations by the peasants. In the process the traditional mass organisations of the working class grew exponentially, the Communist Party going from its 2000 members in 1935 to two million in 1945, and the CGIL trade union confederation reaching five million members.
In these conditions my father joined the Communist Party in 1946 and together with others formed a village cell of eleven members. He would sell the party paper as part of his activities. He told me how once he was in the village square reading L’Unita’, the organ of the Communist Party and the parish priest walked past shouting “You will be excommunicated!” [i.e. expelled from the Catholic Church] and my dad would joke about how he answered back, “And once you have excommunicated me, what will you do then?”
He told me how in 1948 they believed they could win the elections. In the cell they drew up a list of all the local landlords and they were planning to round them up the day after the elections. They believed the leaders of the Communist Party wanted a revolution, but had not understood the effects of the party policy on the wider electorate. Between 1944 and 1947 the Communist Party had been in a national unity coalition government together with the Christian Democrats. This led to a discrediting of both the Communist and Socialist Parties who had been collaborating in that government and their votes actually went down significantly in 1948. I remember how he described it: “But we lost and we had to put the list away. Then we had to look for ways of surviving.” He did, however, draw some conclusions from that experience. He was in Italy in the 1970s when the Communist Party won its biggest electoral advance in its history. But he wrote to me saying, “They are going to repeat what they did in the 1940s; they are only interested in their own careers.”
Emigration the only escape
Living in extreme poverty, and having lost hope of any radical change, eventually led my father to emigrate. He applied for jobs in the USA and Britain. He was offered a job by a steel company in South Wales. But first he had to pass a medical check-up in his local provincial capital, Frosinone. The bosses wanted healthy and strong workers! I will quote my father's words: “I went to the check-up. There was an English doctor. He measured my height, my chest, my pulse, my blood pressure, etc. But that was not the most important part of the check-up. The most important part was when he looked at the palms of my hands. When he saw the hardened calluses he was well satisfied; I was what they needed for the steelworks”.
The day that he was to leave he met up with fellow villagers who had also been offered work. Some went into the mines, some into the brick-works, some into the steel plants. First they had to travel up to Milan. There a train was filled with migrants from Calabria, Sicily, Apulia... In Milan they stuck a label on his jacket with his name, surname and destination! “We were like cattle being transported,” he used to say to me.
Upon arrival at the port of Dover in England officials from the steel company were waiting to pick up “their” workers. When they got to Wales my father was taken to his “lodgings”, a hostel for immigrants, a wooden building with asbestos roof, with two workers to each room. The very next day he was put to work at the blast furnace! He used to tell me about the heat, the flames, the white hot sheet metal that he had to pull off the rollers with pincers, the night shifts. He had left behind in Italy his fields, the sun, his friends and his fiancé. Homesickness was the worst thing for him. He, however, could at least read and write as he had been to primary school. Some of the others were illiterate and my father would write their letters home for them. He told me how some of them, rather than admit they couldn’t read, would use the excuse that they had left their glasses behind to ask him to check on the list on the notice board if there was any mail for them!
It was in these working conditions that my father discovered why workers needed to be in a union and he was a proud union man for the rest of his life. He told me how strong the union was in the steel plant and how solid the workforce was in standing behind its shop stewards.
Back then Britain was not part of the EU. My father had to work on a four-year contract for the company before he could be “free”, i.e. free to change job. He had an “Aliens” registration book that he had to get stamped at the local police station once a year.
After his first year of work he had saved enough money to buy a suit and go home to get married. After the wedding my father went back to Wales but left his wife behind in Italy. My parents would see each other once a year in the summer when my father had his annual holidays. There was no internet then, no mobile phones, and in the village not even landlines! Communication was by post and my mother was almost illiterate! That is when she struggled to learn at least very basic writing and reading. I still have some of her letters to him. He would send them back to her with the corrections to her spelling and grammar marked in green ink, so that she would learn! In one of them, written a few weeks before his annual holiday, he wrote, “I’ll be on the same train as last year. Can you be at the station?” She turned up with one of my uncles and a donkey and cart to take him home.
I was privileged to have at least had a glimpse of what life must have been like for these peasants all those years ago. In the 1960s when we visited my grandmother’s house there was no running water; the women would fetch water in terracotta vases and carry them balanced on their heads. Those who were lucky had a well. There was no bathroom or toilet. One would wash in a tub of water in the open air and the toilet was in the woods! The road was still nothing more than a track. My cousins would run around barefoot in the summer. The men still ploughed with a wooden plough pulled by oxen. That also explains why, in spite of his homesickness, my father never went back.
Eventually, when he had finished his four years of contract he got my mother to come over in 1956. He was no longer living in the hostel and had by now rented a room in a private house, shared with other Italian immigrants. He went to pick up my mother in the port of Dover. It was spring and in Italy there was the sun, while in England she was met with fog. The first thing she said to my father when she got off the boat was, “When are we going back to Italy?” But what did they have to go back to? In Britain they at least had the hope of building up a future for themselves. When my mother went to see where my father worked she said it felt like visiting hell. My mother was almost eight months pregnant. She had still been working in the fields until just before leaving and then she had gone on that long train journey. Her child was stillborn..
She was living in a country where she could not yet speak the language, had few friends and was far from her family. After losing her child she told me how she prayed every day. Eventually I came along. I was born while my father was on the night shift in the steel works. When they took me home, to the room they rented, they used a suitcase by their bed as a cot. My mother never liked me telling this little detail to other people as she was a proud woman, but I think it highlights the conditions these immigrants were living in.
Are men and women born free?
It is often said that men and women are born “free”. These migrants were not free. They were forced by poverty to emigrate. They were prepared to make any sacrifice, to submit to all kinds of humiliations to build a better future for themselves and, more importantly, for their children. In a letter that my father wrote to his elder brother in Italy in 1965 I found this sentence: “If I have had to wander the world like a gypsy, like a mule with no profession, I would not want my son to end up in the same way.”
My father paid with his life, dying young in his fifties. First he ruined his eyesight. He told me how the rust in the air would settle on his forehead when he was at the blast furnace and then the sweat would bring it into his eyes. His liver was damaged and eventually he got a rare form of leukaemia. The doctors who examined him asked him if he had ever worked with metals! I remember that moment when the doctors said this, and it became abundantly clear to me that his years in the steelworks had played a big role in undermining his health. I remember the last years of his life doubled over in pain. He was no longer the healthy young man that had been to that check-up in Italy.
My father experienced racism and he did not tolerate insults and ignorance. But he also discovered the meaning of workers' solidarity. In the steelworks, and later the engineering plant he worked in, there were Scottish, Welsh, Irish, Indian, Pakistani, West Indian, Polish, Yugoslav as well as English workers. Only when they were united did they win. From 1952 to his dying day he was a member of the union.
I remember one of the strikes he took part in. It lasted for seven weeks! It was over pay and conditions, and also about “equal pay for work of equal value”, which was a direct reference to the fact that women were paid less even if they did the same work. I would come home from school every day and my dad would tell me about that day’s mass assembly at the factory, and how the strike was going. One day he was especially proud because some of the workers were feeling the pressure of being out for so long on very little money. He intervened in the discussion and swung everyone round and convinced them to stay out. The shop steward used his speech to strengthen the resolve of the others.
He was also very angry with the union at the end of the strike because they didn’t go for all the demands they had been fighting for, but that is another story. He was also well aware of the fact that workers should go on strike not when things are bad but when they are good! He always said, “What is the point of going on strike when the company has few orders on its books? We should strike when they are asking us to do overtime, when they are under pressure to deliver to their clients. That way you hit them hard when they have to give in.” When later I read Trotsky explaining how sometimes class struggle can take off in times of an upturn in the economy after a period of recession, the concept was an easy one to grasp!
I remember at the time the tabloids like The Sun going on about “greedy workers”. There was a strike at the local Ford plant with workers demanding an extra pound a week in wages. Their propaganda had no effect on me as I identified the Ford strike with what my dad had been through. He was also always contributing to collections in the factory in support of other striking workers. I still have the leaflet about the strike at the Jaguar plant that he gave money towards.
From his own experience, he would not have accepted the racism we see in Italy today, but would have aimed his struggle against the bosses as he had always done. He insisted that men and women of all races, of all colours and creed can live side by side. One day I heard him say to a convenor of a factory near where we lived that there is no such thing as English, Italian, Indian or West Indian citizens, “we are all workers and in it together!” The enemies are the bosses who exploit workers of all colours. This came from his own experience in the workplace. At the same time he was also proud of his own Italian cultural background, often quoting Dante or listening to Opera.
When I was a boy my father would explain to me that one day we will have big warehouses where everything we need will be stored. All people will have to do to get what they need will be to present a certificate to prove that they have worked. He would talk to me about a world without wars and injustice. I remember him saying that money in itself is worthless; what counts is human labour. Then I didn’t quite understand what he was trying to get at. When I eventually read the Communist Manifesto I finally worked it out for myself. When he was dying he spoke to me about this world full of injustice, where there is a handful of billionaires and millions dying of hunger. I learned much at school, but my best teacher about life in general was my father. As he lay in his coffin, I held his hand and promised we would continue the struggle for that better world that he believed was possible.
Same conditions exist today
So, when you next meet immigrants on the streets of Italy today – or the streets of any other country – think of these things. It may be our past, but it is the present for people in many countries today. I have visited countries like Pakistan and Nigeria. In Pakistan I visited an area of Lahore where there are all the small iron and steel workshops. I saw men pulling heavily loaded carts, sweating and straining like pack animals. I have visited peasants in the fields working in conditions today very similar to those my parents experienced.
In Nigeria I have visited areas such as Ajegunle in Lagos, an area of immense poverty that is difficult to describe. I was invited to the house of one very poor worker. I say “house” but in reality it was one room, almost with no furniture. There was a straw mat on the concrete floor in one corner and a pillow, which I realised was his bed. I looked up and saw a clean shirt and trousers hanging up and realised those were his spare clothes, all his spare clothes. There was no running water in the house; it had to be “fetched” from some common water tap or well in the neighbourhood. The whole area had dirt roads and open sewers down the side. I saw children playing near the sewage water. I have seen the area known as Makoko in Lagos, where people live in wooden huts on stilts above the lagoon waters. This is poverty on an unimaginable scale.
As if these conditions were not enough, there are also wars and civil wars going on, creating barbaric conditions. Nigeria is affected as is Pakistan. There are around four million Syrian refugees today living in camps in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt. Some of them are among the thousands crossing the Mediterranean to Italy and Greece in makeshifts boats or struggling across Turkey trying to get into other EU countries such as Hungary as a gateway to Germany, Austria and Sweden and other north European countries. They too are escaping poverty trying to make a better life for themselves. Many are fleeing from the devastation produced by war, like the old generation of Italians did in the past.
One day my mother a few years ago was watching terrible scenes on TV of fleeing refugees huddled on a mountainside during the bombing of Iraq. She commented to me, “I know how they feel. I know what they are suffering. I don’t want that to ever come here again. You can’t know how it feels and I thank God that you can’t!”
So remember that those migrants you see arriving are not your enemies and have not come to take your jobs or your houses. They are victims of this barbaric and unjust capitalist system that we live in. Those responsible for their plight are the same people who have cut your pension, increased your tuition fees, cut your health service. These migrants are your allies against the bosses of all countries and only by uniting all workers of all ethnic backgrounds can we win. Divided we fall, United we stand!