Today is International Workers’ Day. If I were in Italy now I’d probably be coming home from the May 1st demonstration. I started going when I was a child, with my grandpa. It was usually a clear Spring day, the red flags of the parties and the unions shining against the blue sky. Then I went with my high school friends, behind the student union’s van, singing, dancing, shouting.
Now I am a worker in a country without a holiday to celebrate the occasion, but perhaps if I were in Italy now I would not have a job to celebrate. So I am grateful for those who fought so that I can have a good contract and good working hours. I am grateful to those who keep working for the betterment of worker’s rights, to those who fight against exploitation, to those who stand up for themselves and for their colleagues. I also think of those who do not have the same standards that I enjoy, or the luck I had in migrating to a country that allowed me to work legally.
I think of one of the street sellers, who in Italy we mockingly call “vucumprà”, who used to give me colourful bracelets when I was a child in exchange for a few liras. His name was Abdul. I remember his teeth were all yellow and consumed, but he was always friendly with my parents and I, and I remember how he told them he wanted to save up money and go to university. He spoke Piemontese like a native. 20 years later, I still see him when I visit Turin. He no longer recognises me, but he’s still a street seller.
I also think of Ali, whom I met almost exactly a year ago at Fiumicino Airport in Rome. I remember he was wearing a red turtleneck and a jacket despite the heat. He was crying inconsolably. A few genuinely concerned policemen tried to talk to him to see what was wrong and he quite understandably did not want to talk to them, nor to the flight attendants who were trying to mediate for them. They eventually left him alone. He calmed down, he looked at the broken plastic bag carrying all his belongings, and asked a cleaning guy for a trashbag where to put them. He then started looking around, asking people directions, no one seemingly able to give him the answer he needed. So I approached him, dusting up my rusty French, and he said he was looking for a way to get to Rome. The train was too expensive, he only had 5€ with him. I walked him to the bus stop and he told me he came from Mali. I thought he was one of those people fleeing the conflict, perhaps he was perhaps he was not. He travelled a lot around Italy. He had been in working in the tomato fields. His brother “had left” and so now he was on his own. No wonder he was crying. He was going to try his luck in Rome. I hope he was lucky, and I hope he and others like him will be able to create an honest life for themselves.
As for us privileged people, keep reminding ourself of Abdul, Ali, and all the other migrant workers who deserve a better life, to fight the negative rhetoric of those who cannot look beyond their noses.