Mustafa sells halal meat a few steps away from the Nembro Municipality, 7 kms from Bergamo, one of the cities hardest affected by the emergency in the Seriana Valley. Here, there were 158 Covid victims out of a population of 11,500.
This place is more than a butcher’s shop, because other foodstuffs and household items are also sold here, from traditional aluminium teapots to terracotta tajines, and has become one of the main shopping spots for the local Muslim community.
“When the emergency broke out” – Mustafa reminisces while wrapping a bunch of mint requested by a customer for his tea, “a lot of families living in the neighbouring towns stopped eating meat since they couldn’t leave their municipalities to come here, nor could they find it in an ordinary supermarket. So, after the initial period when it wasn’t clear what was going to happen, we decided to arrange home delivery by appointment. I was even fined because of that; afterwards, the Nembro and the local police gave me an authorisation for food deliveries and since then I haven’t had any problems”.
Mustafa is originally from Morocco; he comes from a small village between Marrakech and Casablanca and started this business two and a half years ago. The work is steady, also because in the lower Seriana Valley there is only one other retailer that complies with traditional halal butchery – located in Albino, four kilometres further along the Serio river – while there is a great number of citizens of Islamic faith and of different communities.
After May 4th, customers could go back to shopping: they entered one at a time, wearing gloves and masks, and for safety reasons Mustafa placed a wooden counter in front of the checkout to ensure that customers kept the right distance even when paying their bill.
“We have always been open,” he says, “although during Ramadan we tried to close before 8 p.m. so we could be home for the Iftar. This time the Iftar was completely different, having to spend it among a few close friends, us, who are used to breaking the fast all together, to celebrate the moment. We have conformed for the safety of all, as indeed have people of other religious faiths.”
For the first time, also the Centro culturale islamico di Bergamo (the Islamic Cultural Centre of Bergamo), the largest in the province that brings together worshippers and members from the city and the many neighbouring villages, had to give up the Centro Galassia – near the Orio al Serio airport – where every year, on the occasion of Ramadan, it arranged a tensile structure that was used every evening for readings and dinner.
“During the previous years we offered a warm meal to people in need every day; we were able to feed about eighty of them, and even more on weekends – recalls Mohamed Saleh, president of the Centre – while this time we decided to distribute food parcels to families in dire straits, so as not to leave anyone behind during the emergency. Of course, the “marquee” atmosphere was something else; we used to invite people from the neighbourhood to eat with us, to celebrate a moment of connection and happiness, which hopefully will be possible next year. In the meantime, we still wanted to give a signal to those who were most in need.”
There were approximately ten volunteers in charge of the deliveries, and in order to obtain permission to allow them move between Bergamo and the province, Saleh wrote a letter to the Municipality and the Prefecture: “we started with the deliveries to 17 families and we arrived at 43 – he says proudly – and the best thing is that the members joined the initiative and with their donations we were able to cover the costs of the expenses for all.
The Islamic Cultural Centre of Bergamo was one of the ten in Lombardy that set up a network, upon initiative of the Segrate mosque, to raise funds to be allocated to hospitals in the region: together they reached the sum of 29,500 euros, of which 4,500 came from Bergamo. “We have all been struck by this disaster,” – says Saleh, originally from Egypt, who has been an adoptive citizen of Bergamo for over thirty years – “it was necessary to do something, and each person tried to go the extra mile. Now another fundraiser not related to Ramadan is in progress, for the payment of the balance of the concession of the Islamic Cemetery to the Municipality of Bergamo. This dramatic moment makes us truly realise the importance of a suitable burial space”.
The agreement with the Municipality dates back to 2008, when the land of 1600 square meters was granted over 60 years to the Muslim community at a cost of 60,000 euros, half of which to be paid within two years and to be settled after a further ten, thus in 2020. ” We usually have 20 burial requests per year, but in these two and a half months we have exceeded 40. The Moroccan community has paid the highest price in terms of human lives, with 17 victims”.
There are slightly more than 120,000 foreign citizens residing in the province of Bergamo, representing 10.8% of the population. The largest community is the Moroccan one, which accounts for 14.7% of the total (figures updated as of January 1st, 2018). Bolivians are also present to a great extent, amounting to some 12 to 13,000 people: basically half of the Bolivian immigrants in Italy live in Bergamo, where the Santa Rosa da Lima Mission, in addition to a network of folk and sports associations, plays a huge role.
“I am the chaplain of this diocese” – explains Don Mario Marossi, a native of Bergamo who returned from Bolivia twenty years ago – “which is a reference point for a number of ethnic priests, amongst them a Filipino, a Ukrainian, a French-speaking African and an English-speaking one. I work with Latin Americans, not only Bolivians, as roughly a thousand Ecuadoreans live here in Bergamo, in addition to Argentines and Peruvians.”
These communities have also been active during the emergency, and for them the parish has become crucial to managing the network of volunteers, who have taken on the food takeout and who contributed to the works of the hospital built in Fiera Milano under the coordination of Ana, the National Alpini Association.
“The first problem we addressed – recalls Don Mario – was the dissemination of information, because many immigrants do not read the local newspapers and pay little attention to the Italian newscasts, so it was important for them to know the useful numbers and all the services made available by the municipality and the health system. Next we dealt with the food distribution: each group of three or four people had to deliver food to a dozen or so families, and food was partly purchased and partly supplemented with the products collected at the food bank”.
The Bolivian community has also decided to start manufacturing masks to be given to needy families and carers; a part of the production went to the Civil Protection.
“The Latinos’ world is quite complex, some migrants have been here for several years – says Don Mario – others are youths born and raised in the Bergamo area and therefore separated from the first generation, others are newly arrived with family reunifications. They have many local hubs, not only religious, but also sports and cultural, which are now slowly getting back on track”.
The real post-emergency challenge is employment, especially for those who, like carers, have lost their own jobs and, on top of that, are unlikely to find another one in the short term. Given the huge number of victims amongst the elderly, all those who were employed in domestic and personal care found themselves without a salary and without accommodation.
“I receive more and more phone calls from women who have lost their domestic care jobs – explains Don Mario – some of them would have been better off moving back to Bolivia and saving the money they are currently spending to live here without employment. Not to mention the remittances they sent home, which now cannot be guaranteed, because that money was used to cover their daily personal expenses. Many people come here to ask for help with rent or bills.”
The women domestic workers identified in Bergamo and its province by INPS (National Social Security Institute) are 10,000, and in March alone, according to CISL (Italian Confederation of Workers’ Trade Unions) data, they lost 30% of their contracts due to the death of their employer, the inaccessibility of the RSAs (Residential Care Homes) where they used to provide assistance or because of the fear of infection that hinders the recruitment of personnel by families who would also need help. In addition to the regular employment, we need to consider the undeclared work, which, according to estimates, seems to double (20,000) the total number of women, mainly foreigners, employed in personal care work.
“The debate on immigration is only limited to the issue of refugees and asylum seekers, and work wise, on farm workers in the South – explains Don Mario. However, the truth is that the North of Italy also has employment issues, with domestic work predominantly being carried out by Bolivians, Ukrainians, Romanians and Moldovans. The situation is critical also for the construction and agriculture sectors, especially in greenhouses where migrants – who are the vast majority – are not always regular and therefore accept illegal work, in the total absence of rights”.
In the Bergamo province, 68% of the foreign population is in any case stable, and accounts for 11% of the autonomous taxpayers and 17% of the employees, for a contribution equal to about one tenth of the provincial GDP. Agriculture, manufacturing and services are the sectors with the highest presence of foreign citizens, with the activation of more than 153,000 contracts from 2014 to date, and 7 thousand and 400 jobs regularised. The agricultural sector is the fastest growing, even amongst youths, albeit seasonal, with a greater employment of manpower in fruit and vegetables, industrial crops and floriculture. In particular, the Sikh Indians, mainly from the Punjab, are employed in the areas of the lakes and the Bassa, constituting a community of over 11,000 people in the Bergamo area.
Their local reference point is the temple of Cortenuova, the Gurdwara Singh Sabha, one of the biggest in Europe, which can welcome up to three thousand people during the celebrations. “We have just reopened to weekly services with the congregation present, but with a maximum limit of 200 people – explains Satwinder Singh, vice chairman of Gurdwara – while we normally hold two or three thousand people. During the lockdown, we livestreamed the celebrations on our Facebook page so that these could be watched from home.”
The Sikh community has left no one behind either, and has launched a crowdfunding campaign on the Gofoundme platform in favour of the Papa Giovanni XXIII Hospital, Avis and the Civil Protection in Cortenuova, as well as provided for needy families with food home delivery. “We received many emails of people who had lost their jobs,” recalls Satwinder, “and others who being undocumented were afraid to even get out of their place to buy food. These have been difficult months, but it’s getting better now. We have always been there, also from a spiritual perspective, with the full reading of the Sacred Book, which lasts 48 hours non-stop; normally this is a practice required by individuals or families for special necessities, but this time it was our decision, as a Council, aimed at giving support in such a tough period. Now we keep on with the Sunday service from morning to evening, to give everyone the chance to come along at any hour and still find a welcome, without any gatherings”.
Cover image: Interior of the Sikh Gurdwara Singh Sabha temple of Cortenuova (courtesy of Satwinder Singh)