Brexit happened at last and I am fine. Or so it seems. I have been trying to name the feeling that has dominated the last few weeks. I have revisited the four and half years I have spent here.
I am one of the 170,000 Italians in the UK.
I came to England after few years in Belgium. It was a deliberate choice, the natural ending of a long-lasting love for the English culture and language.
I vividly remember the day of the Referendum and I can’t fail to notice the irony of that night. I was throwing a toga party to say goodbye to my friends in Southampton before moving to Bristol for a new job. Young and from all over the globe, we made a toast to democracy, believing that nothing would change. What could go wrong? Our international group of friends was just the norm in the multicultural, inclusive and open-minded Britain we thought we knew. When the morning after I woke up to a text asking “Will you need a visa now?” I realised I lived in a country I did not know and I had come to learn about in the last four years. Democracy failed us and it unveiled the dark and narrow-minded side of Great Britain.
What I have learnt is that this society that looks so open and tolerant from the outside, is in reality made of parallel social universes. They come ever so close; they often stare at each other but they never mix. It is a stratified society, rigidly split into classes. It starts in your early school days and it keeps going until university and then again in your adult life. You can’t break free.
The last four years have been educational and exhausting. I was in denial first, then just angry. I had an obsessive relationship with the news, the Parliament live videos during key votes, the Facebook pages of groups lobbying the Government to at least guarantee the rights of EU citizens. I lost interest and then cling onto on one last hope when the General Election was announced. I eventually gave up when Boris Johnson won. I lost count of the nights I woke up, worrying about the future. However, in the last few weeks it wasn’t just anxiety, it was something else on my mind. I could finally, and oddly, give it a name thanks to the Italian elections.
I am a Schengen child. Europe isn’t just an abstract bureaucratic concept but a tangible presence, a place I belong. And how fortunate it is as big as a continent!
However, from Saturday morning I am an immigrant. I am an economic migrant, who fled Calabria. One of 180000 young people, who studied in Italy, where education is almost entirely publicly funded, and now pays their social contribution in a different country.
Until not so long ago, people like me where called “Expat” in the news, one of the “brains” who found their professional realisation somewhere else, but somehow proved that the Italian education and culture was worth something.
Then came Matteo Salvini and his crusade against migrants, sparing no one. In a (in)famous Facebook post he claimed that only Africans and Calabrians migrate because they have no work ethic. The newly elected Presidente della Regione affirms that going abroad is educational. So much indeed that we never go back.
I meet many Italians in Bristol. Admittedly, I meet them everywhere I go. It’s not just about the brain drain. It’s true, in my Bristol office I speak everyday as much Italian as English but there are also many Italians who leave their country to do any kind of job, as long as it is dignified and pays the bills. Sometimes it doesn’t pay much, sometimes it is below their skills, but they all contribute to the UK economy. The fact that people are willing to relocate to the other side of Europe, rather than facing the poor working conditions that Italy offers screams of work ethic. It is clear that when Italian politicians talk about meritocracy and work ethic, they don’t know what they are talking about.
The number of Italians leaving the country every year are scary. The UK is one of the most popular destinations. The Italian Government has no chance of justifying this phenomenon unless they start to look critically at the last 20 years’ policies. It’s much easier to try and harvest easy followers on social media, surfing the wave of hatred against immigrants, the discomfort of people on the brink of poverty, all caused by the same issues they all are trying to hide and avoid.
The Referendum campaign followed the same pattern. Where structural reforms were needed to the education system and the job market, politics responded blaming the EU, blaming the Europeans, not the Tories who built a country for the rich, leaving everyone else behind.
Most of us EU citizens don’t have the right to vote in the General Election. We are in a limbo: we can vote in the elections for the country we don’t live in and we can only observe what others decide in the country we call home. On both sides of the Channel we are not a particularly attractive group of voters. Back home, we are not so many and worth considering, in the UK we are looked at with hostility. The Tories have systematically rejected the opposition bills to include us in the last General Election.
And here I am, sitting in the middle, offended by the Government who should protect and defend my rights, while the country I made my home has sunken into petty xenophobia. We were once valued member of the British society. We are now benefit scroungers, queue jumpers, people who for too long have treated this country as their own (just to remind you a few of my favourites).
My identity wavers, I no longer know where home is. I feel like a child being left behind by a parent when I think about Italy; I feel isolation and estrangement when I think about the UK. I am not the only one. We are millions and yet we feel isolated and alone.
The Transition period has now started. The Italian community is among the biggest in the UK but I have not heard a reassuring word from the Consul, the Ambassador, the MEPs or the Foreign Secretary. If anything, the right-wing party celebrated Boris Johnson’s victory, another sign of how low we are in their priority list.
We are now in the hands of the Home Office, whose record of unfair decisions is shocking and alarming,
Theresa May said “If you are citizen of the world, you are citizen of nowhere”.
Despite everything, I still believe Mrs May was wrong. Europe is opportunities, cultural richness, hope. Being European is a privilege.
Despite everything, Bristol is still my city and I am determined to keep calling it home. @
Alessandra, Italian, in the UK since 2015
Fist published 4th February 2020
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