Immigrants and integration: Braida, the story of a difficult neighborhood

Sassuolo, capital of ceramic district, becomes a symbol of integration problems
(Italian version published on “Il Mucchio”, august 2009)

Braida - Foto Luigi Ottani

Small houses and huge blocks, roundabouts and car sellers, supermarkets and ceramic industries, and a bypass road in the middle. This is Braida, suburban – but not too much – quarter in Sassuolo (Modena), 40 thousand inhabitants, capital of a ceramic district who hosts half of Italian industries in the tile sector, and badly suffers its crisis. In the park you see young Moroccan and boys with the balloon, veiled women pushing prams and merry grannies with Eastern nurses. Verina, 80, looks carefully at teenagers who exchange packets on their motorcycles: “I asked them why they weren’t working… and they told me ‘smoke’ was their job”. It’s especially due to drug pushing if Braida, the neighborhood with highest concentration of the 4.000 immigrants living in Sassuolo, became a symbol of  failed integration.
In summer 2005, mayor Graziano Pattuzzi from Democratic party, after one year into office, evacuates a block which has become the center of hashish ad cocaine commerce. Residents are forced to move and, 4 years later, the palace is destroyed. In February 2006, a movie shot with a mobile phone by a young immigrant brings again Braida on national press: Carabinieri, arrived for a broken window, beat and kick a violent Tunisian man. In that period, Sassuolo Northafrican community was joined by many former residents of Porta Palazzo, Turin ghetto just “cleaned” for Winter Olympic games. Hundreds of citizens sign a petition of solidarity for the two Carabinieri, acquitted after a trial.

Braida - foto Luigi Ottani

Closed the green building, crime news moves to other big blocks, raised in the Sixties for ceramic industries workers. And in January 2009, official seals close another palace in Circonvallazione street, a huge building named “Falluja” by Moroccan community. Circonvallazione’s building hosted irregular people, bazars, an islamic cultural center and two small spaces created with public funds: an Italian school for immigrants and an art gallery, whose exhibitions brought in the heart of the ghetto a few visitors from downtown. Some people think find contradictions in this new evacuation, but citizen committees concerned for security appreciate it. The Municipality creates a new society to destroy and rebuild the palace. Owners can sell their flats or get a quote of the society, regular tenants receive help for a new accommodation, irregular residents and ‘sans papiers’ simply go away. Now the block is empty, the backyard which used to work as a bazaar, both for drugs and for Arab bread, is rounded with transennae. Another building, not far, hosts family who live without electricity, but pay rent on a regular basis “to a local lawyer”, as explained by a Moroccan resident. Waiting for the next evacuation, last action of the Mayor is an order forbidding to lay, sleep or drink alcohol in any public place. It’s also forbidden to beg “insistently”. The order does not make any explicit referent to strangers, but the most suspected of lack of public sense are obviously them.
Starting from the Forties, Sassuolo grew with its industries, and Braida was always the neighborhood for newcomers. Now, workers arrive from abroad (Morocco, Albania, Ghana, Eastern Europe), but before they were coming from Southern Italy (a village in Lucania counts more inhabitants in Sassuolo then under its own tower) and from the poor villages of close Apennines mountains. “We could feel the crisis was arriving, yet a couple of years ago”, says Biagio, born in the South, living here since 30 years: “One of the biggest industries stopped to use the helicopter it always had to bring around its best clients”. Many factories already moved abroad, to China, Turkey, Romania, and others menace to discharge many workers.
‘Sans papiers’ easily fall in irregular jobs or drug pushing: “I can’t go back to my family without a penny”, admits a young Moroccan who claims to be called Adir. “Almost all foreigners work honestly”, says Police chief, Francesco Panetta, “but in town there is big demand for hashish and cocaine, from family mothers to workers”. Drugs use is everywhere, but commerce is here, and many people of Braida automatically equal a stranger to a criminal.
It’s like an invisible wall, dividing Italian and immigrants, preventing them from making together a new quarter. “Sometimes I am ashamed to be from Morocco”, says Izhadir, ceramic worker who learned Italian listening to Eros Ramazzotti. Zainab, 22, is in Italy since 1988, “but every day I have to demonstrate I’m not a criminal”.
In Braida elementary schools, children of immigrants are one third of the total. Many of them speak Italian better than their mother tongue, but Italian law does not give them easy access to citizenship. “This young people are an important resource for our aging population”, says migration expert Gianromano Gnesotto, “but if they won’t start to feel Italian, street fights will happen also here”.
In neighborhoods like Braida, police action is not enough. Ground for integration are services, schools, affordable houses, safe roads, events in public spaces to make them alive and safe without the need for citizens’ patrols. Committed citizens are those who
can’t afford bad name of Braida: not only because their houses’ value collapsed, but also because the sense of community is not yet lost. Braida isn’t only young strangers with fancy shoes waiting for big cars. Braida is also Beppe, waking up at 6 to clean the park from broken glasses. Braida is Samer, Muslim, who doesn’t need a conversion to give a hand at the Church’s party. It’s Francesca, remembering her immigration from South, hard work in the factory, neighbors calling the police first time she cooked tomato sauce in the balcony. It’s Natalja, barkeeper with a degree in the drawer, worth nothing in Italy. It’s messages on the park benches, “Hafid is cool” and “2gether 4ever”. Braida is Hajar, 7, veil on her head. About her origin, she says: “I’m from here”.

Copyright Giulia Bondi – Il Mucchio

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