Is This My Country? On A Rome Bus, An Awful Question Answered In Perfect Italian
Being born in Italy doesn't guarantee you citizenship. For those who grew up children of immigrants, proving you deserve a passport can be like a bus ride to nowhere.
ROME - It is 6 a.m. and the No. 437 bus is jam-packed with faces from all over the world. Their roots are from distant corners – from the Philippines to Morocco, Uganda to Bosnia. But then you hear them talk, and you catch the unmistakable rise and fall of perfect Italian.
They are Italian, but the state does not recognize this fact. They were born and/or raised in Italy, but without citizenship -- and therefore without rights.
The 437's passengers are all laden with papers: documents proving their Italian-ness. The more sheets of paper they have, the higher their hopes are of making it this time. None of them have a car, taking the 437 bus from the last stop of the metro to the Immigration Office, a massive building on the eastern outskirts of Rome. The bus drives an endless circular route, mirroring the fate of many of its passengers.
Maurizio, 18, was born in Italy, with all his school certificates and vaccination certificates to prove it. The problem is that when he was little, his parents rented an apartment without a contract, and so he has no proof of his residency: “It is as though every day I commuted to school from Senegal to Rome.”
Their heroes are soccer stars Mario Balotelli and Stephan El Shaarawy who, like them, have roots elsewhere in the world but grew up in this country still struggling to accept those who have different colored skin or whose parents speak foreign languages. They are their heroes, not just because they are great footballers, but because they have Italian citizenship – that magic sheet of paper which, although it cannot protect them from the most insistent racists, at least makes life much simpler. Those without it are condemned to a shapeless, endless limbo.
My life is here
Vesna, 28, is in exactly this situation. In Italy since the age of seven when her parents fled from the war in Bosnia, Vesna now finds herself an illegal alien in her own country: “I want to stay here. My friends are here, my life is here. I remember very little about Bosnia.”
Unaware that the request for citizenship had to be made within a year of turning 18, she missed the deadline. She has had to jump through countless hoops to obtain annual residency permits in order to continue her studies, and now she is fighting for a permanent one.
Of course, the law offers a semblance of clarity and certainty. It states that at 18 years of age, a person can obtain Italian citizenship if one parent is already Italian, or if they can prove that they have lived in Italy permanently for at least 10 years. Exactly. If they can prove it. Not everyone can.
In 2011, out of the hundreds of thousands of people who had the right to citizenship, only 56,000 obtained it, according to figures from the Catholic association Caritas. Many of the others got trapped in the workings of a bureaucratic machine that is more like a lottery than a system of rights.
It is pure luck of the draw as to whether you manage to become Italian, or whether you are forever doomed to go back and forth on Bus 437...