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What Do Italians Really Think about Diversity? A Q&A with Erika Baewert

Interview with the Executive Assistant at Open Borders, who devoted her life to building bridges. But when it comes to migration, what do Italians think?

Erika Baewert. CREDIT: Joan Erakit

As the Executive Assistant at Open Borders, Erika spends her time building bridges between an old and new Italy when it comes to issues around migration. A native of Turin, she’s no stranger to hard conversations and often opts into dialogue around race and identity with a fearlessness that can only come from growing up in a city known for its tough exterior. In a candid conversation, we sit down with Erika and discuss some pressing questions about the state of assimilation and the Italian perspective.

When I first moved to Turin, I had a really hard time assimilating to the city, the culture — even the food at some point.  When I look back at how I got through the challenge of moving to a brand new city to where I am now, I am quite amazed.  What’s it like to watch people come into Turin and start new lives? 

Two major feelings spring in the heart of a Turinese: pride and possessiveness. The first because ever since the capital was moved to Rome, we feel deprived of something — being proud of our city, of its history, its culture, its architecture, so it is a sort of compensation when foreigners come here. We want them to fall in love with our city. Still, we are introverted people and we consider Turin our own business.  We are known for managing things all by ourselves and we can be overprotective. I would say the latter is the toughest for a foreigner and the only way to deal with it is to give us time and try not to act like one who knows everything about the city.  Turin has so many facets and hidden faces and assuming to know the city and its habits can be sensed as presumptuous. We are just very quiet and humble people and we expect the same from others.

Your mother is from Uruguay and your father is German.  How has your family story influenced the woman that you are now, and the way in which you see the world or even the way you see Italy?

It is true that both of my parents are foreigners, but each one had a Turinese parent. Still, for my dad it was not simple being a German after World War II — something that affected me too because of some very bad teachers (the consequence was that I grew a protective instinct toward my origins and I am prouder than ever of my German roots). For my mum it was different.  Coming from a country classified as “third world” she was not perceived as a threat, and I myself had the feeling of being something exotic, maybe funny and never to be taken too seriously.  Growing up and discovering Uruguay’s history and its development, I understood that it was a country deserving the same respect as any other. Now I feel a little torn because I love Italian culture, but I despise the way we ended up as a country and I cannot help but make comparisons with the other two. I understand that I will never fit into one box; sometimes it’s hard but sometimes it’s a blessing because I’ve learned that no matter how hard people try to bring you down, to make you feel uncomfortable about who you are, your roots are what keep you grounded and your family’s blood is what runs in your veins; so at some point all this will win out.

How have you seen the issue of race and discrimination played out in Turin or in Italy?

Ever since I can recall, we have always had foreigners in Turin — but in recent years something has changed for black people. We were used to seeing black people at the seaside, selling clothes and doing hair styling; most of them were farmers with families to go back to at the end of the summer. When wars and violence worsened in Africa (because of Western interests) and people arrived in Turin as refugees, we finally understood that that part of the world was real, that they were people with real feelings — and I think feelings scare people because they cannot be controlled. What really upsets me is that some southern people — who were once discriminated against — are now the worst racists. As for northern people, they try to play the part of liberals. Turin is kind of a radical chic-niche culture city: highly educated people who want to be seen as open minded, but they would never have a migrant over for dinner. I am hopeful about the new generations living in the suburbs: their neighbors are migrants and their kids go to school together, they learn together, play together, maybe someone will fall in love — I hope it will be stronger than the old bad habits.

Erika at a gathering with young people in Turin.  CREDIT: YEPP

Now that you work on issues of race and diversity—what is your thinking around the state of Italy when it comes to migration? 

I do believe that migration is not the real problem. Italy is now poorer than 20 years ago, we underwent a major economic crisis and our governments were not able to confront it. And what do you do when people are poor, unemployed, unhappy? History teaches us that during a period of uncertainty, the most effective way to bring people together and take or maintain power is to find a common enemy to distract voters from the fact that the government can’t deal with the real causes of malcontent. I discovered, sadly, that some migrants of the “first generation” (the ones who came here in the 90’s) are upset with the wave of “new migrants” and that’s because Italians, blinded by the present racist propaganda, look at every migrant as a criminal no matter who they are, why they are here, what they do or want to do. So even those who were integrated now can be mistreated, and they blame that on the presence of the new migrants. It’s a pattern — it is always easier for humans to blame the last-comers instead of questioning something established.

What have your learned the most from your work at Open Borders?  How have you grown as a woman, as a citizen, as a human being?

The best thing about working with Open Borders is that I can hear true stories. I can talk to people and try to understand how they must feel being far from home in a country that does not help, or want them. I thought I was empathetic with people just from hearing about them in the news, but when I sat next to them, when they looked at me, they finally became flesh and blood and not just “stories”. What makes me sad is that being a young woman, it is hard to be taken seriously.  Italian society is very patriarchal and women in business need men to vouch for them.  I’ve learned that the best way to overcome this patronizing attitude is politeness and elegance — something that is useful in everyday life and that makes me a better person, especially because I can be cranky some times.

Do you have any advice for other individuals or projects that are focused on migration — or would like to work more within the community here in Turin?

My advice is a kind request: please, try to work together and not to be competitors. For that we already have  the economy; working with human beings should take a different approach. You cannot talk about inclusion if you are not prepared to share and to help, or if you don’t want to be  a team player, or if you try to undermine the work of others. Collaboration, loyalty and gratitude must be the key words. 

Finally, are there any specific things that have happened in your life that have influenced your perspective as an Italian woman in an ever-changing country?

Many years ago I was in a bad accident and what came after changed my plans. I thought my life was ruined and a part of me will always wonder if I have changed for better or for worse. To fight this sense of inadequacy, I always feel that I need to be in control and to know which steps I will be taking. I am learning every day how to lead my life and be happy with my choices. Lately, I have come to the conclusion that there is no point in fighting who you are and what has happened to you. So, I have accepted my flaws and used them as assets. I have learned a great lesson working with my dog; she loves me but she will not do anything just out of love.  She obeys because she trusts me and I trust her in doing the right thing. I truly believe that trust and kindness are the best way to reach your goals, to serve others and to make positive changes.  These two qualities have not only helped me in my personal life, but also in my professional life — especially when working with migrants and refugees.

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