Italy is debating a new bill that would allow foreign-born students to become Italian citizens, linked to their status within Italy's school system.
ROME — "Joseph, are you Italian?"
The question hangs in the air for just a few seconds, before the boy replies confidently: "Of course!"
Before starting to shoot the basketball again, his expression turns worried and asks: "Why? Am I not?"
Twelve years old, a lover of basketball and fan of AS Roma soccer club, Joseph was born in Italy but his document states the nationality of his mother, who arrived from Nigeria shortly before he was born.
In Rome's multi-ethnic Esquilino neighborhood, he attends primary school where — like many of his classmates — he is among the 877,000 "foreign" pupils attending Italian schools.
Children of immigrants who are born or raised in Italy could obtain Italian citizenship thanks to the proposal dubbed: Jus Scholae, or right to school (using the Latin formula of Jus soli, for birthright citizenship), which would update the current Law 91 of 1992 on how Italian citizenship can be acquired.
The bill would make it possible for children of immigrants who were born in Italy or arrived before the age of 12, and who have attended at least five years of school, to apply for Italian citizenship. One of the parents, legally resident in Italy, has to apply for citizenship before the child turns 18.
After months of delays and parliamentary obstruction, the bill was scheduled for debate, which began on June 29, though not expected to move forward until after Italian national elections in late September.
The first stumbling block to be overcome was the clear opposition of the right-wing parties, Brothers of Italy and Lega Nord, which first tabled more than 700 amendments in the constitutional affairs committee, then — as soon as the discussion in parliament began — decided to raise their voices against it.
With elections in September, the bill now remains on hold — until new members of parliament decide whether to put it forward or not.
Schools pushing for reform
Giuseppe Brescia, a member of the 5-Star Movement, part of Italy's coalition government, explained that the bill is based on "a choice of trust not only in foreigners," but also "in the work of the educational community, in the dedication of school leaders and teachers."
And it is precisely the school community that has been lobbying for the reform bill to reach final approval.
Why can't they be Italian like their classmates? It should just be a right
Meanwhile, some schools have launched a mobilization drive that will continue in the coming months under the slogan #ItaliaDimmidiSì (#ItalyTellMeYes). The slogan was coined by the campaign On the Right Side of History, which brings together more than 30 associations and NGOs.
"It is definitely good to link citizenship to the education path, because it calls on schools as an active part of society," says Natalia Vetta, a teacher at Di Donato School in Rome.
"We teachers will be responsible for accompanying a process that is actually already underway in our classrooms: the children we call foreigners rightly feel they are Italian, even if they are not by right. The real challenge is broader and concerns the learning difficulties and social differences of pupils with migrant backgrounds."
People not covered by the law
In the courtyard a few steps from the multi-ethnic Piazza Vittorio in central Rome, parents exchange views and opinions.
For some, the citizenship law will never be changed: "We are a racist country," says one of the mothers.
For Girma Abay and her two children, Amca and Kirble, eight and six years old respectively, nothing would change even with the approval of Jus Scholae.
She arrived from Ethiopia in 2008 and now lives at the Hotel 4 Stelle, a squatted hotel in the capital's eastern suburbs, along with 300 other people, most of them foreigners.
"I was forced to leave my country and today I am a political refugee. I do not have the minimum income required to apply for Italian citizenship and I gave it up long ago. But it is different for my children: they were born here, their home is here, their culture is Italian. They are totally Roman, even in the way they speak. So why can't they be Italian like their classmates? It should just be a right."
The current reform proposal stipulates that in order to apply for a child's citizenship, the parent must have legal residency. This excludes those living in squats or in other housing arrangements.
Some schools have launched a mobilization drive under the slogan #ItaliaDimmidiSì (#ItalyTellMeYes)
Limitations of reform
Flore Temanu, 40, arrived from the Horn of Africa in 2012. Until 2017, she lived in a squatted building until they were violently evicted.
"They literally threw us out on the street when my son Adonai, who was born there, was two years old. So together with my husband we were hosted by a friend and then ended up in another squat... where we still live now," she says. "My son feels Italian, but we cannot apply for citizenship because we have a fictitious residence in via Modesta Valenti," she explains referring to the residence usually assigned to homeless people.
The Di Donato School Parents' Association, together with representatives of the Spin Time Labs squat, met with some parliamentarians to ask for changes to the bill. They were particularly worried about the criterion that requires parents to have a legal residence, and asked for that to be scrapped because it does not take into account how difficult it is for foreign-born families to afford proper accommodation.
While that requirement remained in the final text, at least the one for both parents to apply on behalf of the minor was scrapped.
I hope the law will change quickly so my children will not face the myriad bureaucratic problems I had
The text has several other limitations: it only covers minors and does not change the rules for adults who have lived in the country for years. In addition, the law is not considered retroactive, so even those who have already finished their schooling would be excluded from the pool of beneficiaries.
Battling for citizenship
"It is not the bill that we would have written, but it is nevertheless a small step forward, after years of immobility," points out Fioralba Duma, an activist with the Italians Without Citizenship Movement.
Duma was born in Albania and came to Italy in 2001, when she was 11 years old. She has been involved in the battle for citizenship rights for many years.
"In a few months my twins will be born; they will also be Albanian and not Italian. It makes me sick to pass on to them this suspended rights status of mine," she says. "I hope the law will change quickly so my children, now in the third generation, will not be forced to stand in long lines at police headquarters and face the myriad bureaucratic problems I had."
Schools facilitating integration
Although considered by many to be a downward compromise, Jus Scholae has also won favor with experts in education.
"Children are more likely to be enrolled in kindergarten, it increases the time they spend in school, and it also usually pushes children to pursue higher education," says Milena Santerini, a professor of pedagogy at the Catholic University of Milan and one of the coordinators of the Interculture Group of the Italian Society of Pedagogy (Siped), which brings together teachers from Italian universities. "Conversely, not having the possibility to acquire citizenship increases the risk of dropping out of school."
For a country with a steadily declining population, a law that invests in schools would also mean a bet on the future of the so-called "new Italians."
In recent years, several studies have shown that social differences emerge strongly among schoolchildren. According to the Ministry of Education, 29.9% of pupils with non-Italian citizenship are behind in school (i.e., they attend one or more classes below their age) — in contrast to only 8.9% among Italian pupils. In addition, between the ages of 14 and 16, about 10% do not continue their studies after secondary school, and between the ages of 17 and 18, there are early dropouts.
At the entrance to the Via Guicciardini Comprehensive Institute in Rome, the colorful "Welcome" sign takes up half the wall. It had been hung two years ago for the open day dedicated to the youngest children, then remained on the door to emphasize the idea of a school that is always inclusive.
Nestled in the historic Monti district, there are about 900 students here between primary and secondary, many of whom are of foreign origin. Different geographic backgrounds are compounded by social ones.
"I am in favor of the Jus Scholae because I think it can be a driver to ignite a discussion about what school represents today, what it should do and how school policies should be supported. But it is a reform that must go hand in hand with an investment in education and welfare," says head teacher Simona Di Matteo, who has also incorporated a Chinese-language course in the school to create a bridge with families of Asian descent.
Lack of citizenship is an open wound
For Leaticia Ouedraogo, 25, being considered a foreigner in the country where she grew up is an open wound. Born in Burkina Faso, she arrived in Italy at the age of 11. When she attended a scientific high school in the city of Bergamo in northern Italy, she was the only black person in her class.
"Mine is a path of excellence. I have always been at the top of the class, but only I know the price," she says. "I always had to do more than my classmates, demonstrate more, work harder. At the end of middle school, the teachers told my mother that I should go to a technical school, because it would be better for people like me to get a job right away. Yet I had high grades in all subjects. I eventually enrolled in high school and then in college, but second-, third- or fourth-generation kids are often pushed into vocational paths. So many also give up their personal aspirations."
The system is built to tell a section of the population that it does not really exist
Ouedraogo now attends a master's program in geography at Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, one of Europe's most prestigious universities.
"My father arrived in Italy 25 years ago, but he is still waiting for citizenship," she explains. "Today I find myself in the paradoxical situation of being able to apply for citizenship in France, which facilitates recognition for those who attend schools of excellence, but not being able to do so in the country I consider my own."
As a civil rights activist, she considers it only partly a smart choice to tie citizenship to schooling: "For this law to make sense, we need to make schooling truly inclusive. Currently it is not. I experienced it... and my brother, who is 12 years old, experiences the same difficulties in school."
Citizenship as a right, not a prize
For Zeliha Compaore, 24, the system is built to tell a section of the population that it does not really exist.
Also born in Burkina Faso, she arrived in Italy at the age of two. "Twenty-two years later, I am the only non-EU member of my family. My father managed to obtain citizenship when I was already 18 years old," she explains.
"My parents and siblings are Italian, while I am not. And I pay for this difference every day. A few months ago, after graduating from nursing school, I applied for registration. But unlike my peers, my practice needed additional clearance, because I am in fact a foreigner and my application was equated with those who took a degree abroad, even though I graduated in Bologna."
These small episodes of everyday segregation, added to forms of institutional discrimination, mirror a short-sighted society for Compaore. This was illustrated during the peak of the pandemic when, despite the shortage of staff, non-Italian doctors and nurses were excluded from applying to work at hospitals.
"Not recognizing those who trained here even during an emergency of that magnitude is really absurd," Compaore says. "We are not a country that can afford to make such distinctions. The recurring rhetoric is that we should deserve citizenship as a prize. But it is not a prize, it is our right, we are already part of this society."
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