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Between European Decline And Arab Spring, A Tunisian Immigrant In Italy Heads Home

The ebbs and flows of human migration include the moments when certain immigrants choose to return to their native land. Moncef Ghezal is set to go back to Tunisia after seven years of farm work in southern Italy. His story reflects big changes on both sh

There is anecdotal and some statistical evidence that more immigrants in Italy are choosing to return home. (ill_talebano)
There is anecdotal and some statistical evidence that more immigrants in Italy are choosing to return home. (ill_talebano)
Niccolò Zancan

CASSIBILE - Moncef Ghezal bought his 1997 BMW after seven years of hard work in Italy. It was his dream; now, it's his burden. He has no money to maintain it. "I paid 1,000 euros for it. It was a fair price for such a treasure. But I'd have to pay 700 euros for just six months of insurance. Then, there is the registration and the fuel, which is getting more and more expensive. I can't make it. I can't even use my own car. In the end, Italy didn't give me anything."

After saying this, Ghezal looks down, a bit ashamed. "I have lots of Italian friends. They are good people, who have helped me. I will miss them." This 31-year-old native of Tunisia is getting ready to go back home.

Life in Italy for this well-integrated immigrant is no longer worth pursuing. "Back in Hammamet my brothers got married, have families, and are building their homes. I haven't managed anything like that." He has just received his residence permit. He has finally secured a monthly salary of 1,260 euros. But Ghezal is giving up. He works in the flourishing Sicilian farmlands, but can't seem to cultivate a future for himself.

Every day, Ghezal can gaze across the sea toward Tunisia. He works in the town of Cassibile, in southeastern Sicily, as a laborer for a large agriculture enterprise that produces tomatoes in greenhouses.

We met during a recent lunch break at his small apartment. He held a tuna sandwich in a plastic bag and wore military pants and a Juventus soccer club cap. "I've always loved your soccer," he said. "This was one reason I was happy to move here."

He was a farmer in Hammamet too. He learned the job from his father, Jiliani. Every day, he saw trucks full of dates bound for France and Germany. In July 2005, he hid in one of those trucks under the fruit of his land. "I brought with me just a bottle of sugary water," he said, recalling how he didn't urinate for the whole voyage.

The truck arrived in Genoa harbor. Ghezal got off close to Brescia, in northern Italy. "I have a vivid memory of my first Italian night," he said. "I hid in a corn field, and was bit by mosquitos."

He spent just 24 days in northern Italy before finding work in the southern region of Puglia for 3.50 euros per hour. There, he met his current girlfriend Elena, a Romanian woman, who moved to Italy to work as an elderly caregiver. Together, they relocated to Sicily.

"Artichokes, zucchini, oranges, potatoes, tomatoes: I have picked everything," he says.

After years of illegal work, nine months ago, Ghezzal finally obtained his first legal contract. But he was already starting to have doubts about the immigrant life in Italy. "I suffered a lot when my father died. I didn't have my papers in order and I couldn't go to his funeral. It had already happened with my sister Mnufida's wedding," he said, pointing at the photographs of his family, on his nightstand.

Ghezal lives in an apartment in the center of the nearby village of Ispica, paying 300 euros a month in rent. Every morning, leaving his unregistered BMW behind, he goes to work in Cassibile, sharing an old Fiat Punto and the money for the fuel with a friend. "On Saturday, I play goalkeeper for a soccer team of Maghrebi. Once a week, I go out to eat a pizza with Elena. At home, we have a poodle, a cat and seven parrots."

As he talked, the television behind him showed images from the Tunisian national television. "While I was here, exploited and without documents, in my country they made the revolution. Tunisia has improved, and Italy is in a deep crisis," he said.

The longstanding social and economic differences between the two countries are diminishing. "My brother earns half of what I earn. But he is able to mantain two children." This is a source of suffering for him. "Elena is a very good woman, but she is 50 years old. She told me that I have to get back home and get married. Because I'm 31 years old and I'm starting to decline."

In 2012, in Italy the number of pleas for aided repatriation has doubled: 374 immigrants obtained tickets to go back home, paid for with European Union funds. But this is still a small number if compared with the actual number of homecomings. Only foreigners who have residence permits can apply.

Many of them see going back home as defeat. Moncef Ghezzal does not. Next August, he will drive his old BMW down the street of Hammamet. He got what he wanted. Italy's loss.

Read more from La Stampa in Italian

Photo - ill_talebano

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For Seniors, Friendship May Be More Important Than Family

Even if the aging and elderly tend to wind up confined to family circles, Argentine academics Laura Belli and Danila Suárez explore the often untapped benefits of friendship in our later years.

Photograph of two elderly women and an elderly man walking arm in arm. Behind the, there are adverts for famous football players.

Two elderly women and a man walk arm in arm

Philippe Leone/Unsplash
Laura F. Belli and Danila Suárez Tomé

Updated Dec. 10, 2023 at 10:10 p.m.

BUENOS AIRES — What kind of friendship do people most talk about? Most often it is childhood or teenage friendships, while friendships between men and women are repeatedly analyzed. What about friendships among the elderly? How are they affected when friends disappear, at a stage when grieving is already more frequent?

Argentines Laura Belli and Danila Suárez Tomé, two friends with PhDs in philosophy, explore the challenges and benefits of friendship in their book Filosofía de la amistad (Friendship Philosophy).

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They consider how friendships can emerge later in life, in profoundly altered circumstances from those of our youth, with people living through events like retirement, widowhood, reduced autonomy or to a greater or lesser degree, personal deterioration. All these can affect older people's ability to form and keep friendships, even if changes happen at any stage in life.

Filosofía de la amistadexplores the place of friendships amid daunting changes. These are not just the result of ageing itself but also of how one is perceived, nor will they affect everyone exactly the same way. Aging has firstly become a far more diverse experience, with increasing lifespans and better healthcare everywhere, and despite an inevitable restriction in life opportunities, a good many seniors enjoy far greater freedom and life choices than before.

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