Palermo's Council of Culture: when government and migrants converge

Joseph Ataman

Joseph Ataman

Updated on December 27, 2021

PALERMO, Italy – On a balmy summer’s evening, the children of the Rainbow Choir reunited for their first concert after the lockdown. A kimono-dressed mother swept up the grandstand, before singers from seven different countries assembled on an open-air stage. After a grim spring battle with COVID-19, before thoughts turned to a second wave, a quiet optimism emanated from the audience; it marveled at the children’s joy, now center-stage.

The choir serves as a lifeline for its members, who hail from Palermo’s multiple migrant communities. “If your skin is a different colour, [Italians] treat you badly,” said Angela, a 13-year-old Ghanaian singer. “But the choir helps us understand that we are not animals.”

This musical monument to Palermo’s multicultural status is a product of the Consulta delle Culture (The Council of Cultures), an immigrant-led initiative which handed the city’s newcomers unprecedented visibility and influence. 

With residents from 127 countries and an immigrant population that has almost tripled in nearly two decades, to 24,000, Palermo is Italy’s most ethnically diverse city, one seemingly at ease with its melting pot status. In the historic center, the walls are plastered with multilingual street signs in Italian, Hebrew and Arabic; churches have been turned into mosques, and towering murals — of a girl in a hijab or Saint Benedict the Moor — glorify migrants past and present. An architectural patchwork of Moorish domes, sweeping Norman arches, richly decorated Spanish baroque facades and dazzling Byzantine mosaics are a collective testament to centuries of sociocultural and ethnic mixing.

Yet Italy’s labyrinthine bureaucratic structure turns many of Italy’s undocumented migrants into second class citizens (in 2020 they numbered roughly 600,000, according to government estimates). Those without work or residency permits are often forced into illegal employment and barred from access to public healthcare and social services. Moreover, Italy’s birthright laws do not bestow citizenship on children born in Italy to non-Italian parents. Without citizenship, non-EU residents cannot vote in any official — including municipal — elections, reducing their ability to affect meaningful change on issues relevant to them, such as reform to citizenship law.  Such penalization seems especially unfair for Italy’s youngest migrants. “Frankly, our origins are different from our parents’,” said Angela. “We are Italians, you could say: we were born here; we grew up here,” she said.

It is with this backdrop that the Consulta took center stage in 2013, as part of the pro-migrant policies of Leoluca Orlando, Palermo’s long-serving mayor, first elected in 1985. Since its inception eight years ago, the council has co-created the city’s pro-migrant manifesto, stood with its leaders against Italy’s far right and advised the city administration on the management of Palermo, defending migrants by contesting controversial policies, such as city-led attempts to limit the activity of hawkers.

In the process, it has transformed the city into a model of inclusion, showing that migrant communities can vote in significant numbers when given the chance, and that their elected representatives can effectively impact the work of policymakers. Yet the Consulta’s recent dive in productivity raises questions about the long-term sustainability of migrant councils more generally.

Building a beacon of inclusion

In 1992, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, two leading prosecutors in the Maxi Trial of Mafia members then taking place, were brutally murdered, a watermark in the crime organisation’s reign of terror in Palermo. By then, mafiosi had infiltrated many of the city’s key political and cultural institutions, and were killing thousands of people every year. The inactivity of the landmark Teatro Massimo opera house — which shut for renovation in 1976, and remained closed for 23 years — became emblematic of a city that had been stalled by the Mafia parasite.

Orlando was reelected in a landslide victory in 1993, winning 75 percent of the vote, and led Palermo’s revolt against its Mafia oppressors while living under police protection. The mayor ramped up the prosecution of leading mafiosi, while investing in culture to fuel the city’s renaissance. He reopened the Massimo in 1999, as well as redeveloping some of Palermo’s most downtrodden quarters, gradually transforming a sprawling ex-industrial complex into a vibrant arts complex from 1995 onwards, and ultimately winning a bid to make Palermo Italian culture capital in 2018.

Now, by turning the city into a model of pro-migrant inclusivity, Orlando hopes other European cities and nations will follow in empowering newcomers. “When someone asks me how many migrants live in Palermo, I don’t respond with a number,” the mayor said, in a lavishly-frescoed hall in the Villa Niscemi, seat of Palermo’s mayors. “I say nobody, because whoever lives in Palermo is a Palermitan.”

Currently serving his fifth and final term, as boat crossings  to Italy grew from 49,925 in 2013 to a peak of 181,436 in 2016, placed the Sicilian capital on the front line of the Mediterranean migrant crisis, Orlando has offered newcomers “honourary citizenship” and has called Italy’s residency permit “a new form of slavery”, because failure to obtain the document can force migrants into working on the black market, and preclude them from accessing healthcare and sending their children to school. That has placed him in direct opposition to far right politician Matteo Salvini, the national leader of La Lega who briefly came to power in 2018, on a wave of nationalism, spurred mainly by the migrant crisis.

“There is only one way to combat populism: with respect for time,” said Orlando. “What characterises populists? That they believe they can change everything with a tweet and a slogan.”

As an official initiative of Palermo’s city hall, the Consulta advises administrators on policies affecting migrants, fights xenophobia through intercultural initiatives and aids immigrants navigating residency and work permit requests. Foreign nationals, divided by geographical area of origin, elect 21 councillors every five years. Councillors choose their President, who then appoints councillors to commissions covering bureaucracy, health, education and interculturality. 

Giusto Catania, then overseeing participation and migration in Orlando’s administration, unveiled the Consulta in 2013, declaring: “This major operation places Palermo at the avant garde in Italy.” Inaugural elections the following year registered a turnout of 34%. Women represented half of those elected.

The first candidates were inspired by a desire to make Palermo a better place to live for their native communities. “I remember a time when migrants would be hit on the streets and it wouldn’t be reported in the newspapers — when hundreds of Bengals marched through the streets in protest against mafia extortion,” said founding councillor Alamin Md, 33, who moved with his family to Palermo from Bangladesh in the 1990s. “You don’t know how much this city has been transformed. We have changed the way that 30,000 migrants think.”

Who can be a Palermitan?

Adham Darawsha, a Palestinian doctor, and the Consulta’s first president, quickly forged a close alliance with city hall. After drafting the “Carta di Palermo”, the city’s pro-migrant manifesto calling for measures including a national birthright law and the repeal of blocks on migrant mobility through the European Union enshrined in the Dublin Accord, Orlando presented it to the Consulta. The councillors approved the document by vote, and it was formally unveiled in March 2015.

Yet the council was also prepared to move against Orlando. Two months after the Charter was proclaimed, the city announced plans to block hawkers from entering the historic center, sparking outrage from migrant communities. The Consulta intervened and ultimately negotiated a reduction of the no-entry zone, from the entire historic center to a smaller area which forms its core.

Council-backed public initiatives thrust non-nationals into the limelight. Migrants were asked to carry the central float in the traditional parade of the Festa di Santa Rosalia in 2016, Palermo’s annual 5-day festival, which draws enormous crowds. “Italians began asking me “where have you been all this time? We had no idea there were so many Bangladeshis in Palermo,” said Md. Councillors also fostered links between disparate communities. In a deal with Muslim leaders the same year, the mosque in Palermo’s Piazza Gran Cancelliere invited people of all faiths to break the fast during Ramadan, including the Archbishop of Palermo. Days later, Orlando, a practising Catholic, hosted Muslims at the Villa Niscemi, in what has since become a regular exchange.

For values of tolerance to take root, however, it was necessary to focus on the new generations. Councillors organised “show and tell” ethnic food days at schools, and, as part of the Educarnival in 2017, arranged for young migrants to march through the streets while proudly donning the dress and playing the music of their native communities. The Rainbow Choir, jointly conceived by the council and the Massimo, aimed to draw both migrant children and their parents into the theatre. Following two gruelling months of recruitment by councillors, the choir delivered its first concert in 2014. “A few months ago, I approached the manager of Massimo, asking him if he would welcome us as guests,” Darawsha declared from the stage to a multi-ethnic audience. “Today, however, we are the hosts.”

For the choir’s members — who number around twenty and hail from countries including Romania, the Philippines and Peru — the ensemble’s value derives from its power to unite. “We are separate voices that sing together,” said Angela. “The voices are not very nice on their own. But if you combine them they are beautiful.”

One parent, Rudy Chateau, relocated from Mauritius to Palermo as an undocumented migrant in the early 2000’s, picking up irregular work at a parking lot, and supporting his family on 500 euros a week. In those days, Rudy and his wife, Stephanie Chateau would skip meals to feed their son, Niguel. Today, they have work permits and steady jobs. “When the conductor chose Niguel [to sing in the choir] we were so proud,” said a beaming Stefania. “We entered the theatre for the first time, and we were like ‘Wow.’”

Yet Ibrahima Kobena, an Ivorian who is the council’s current president, believes more must be done to raise the status of migrants. “My vision is to go beyond cultural integration. Because we have already achieved that in Palermo. Let’s try to achieve economic, political and social integration,” said Kobena at the Consulta’s headquarters. “Love for children is a very Italian thing. But when kids grow up they become defined as immigrants, because they are seen as a threat to Italian and Palermitan citizens.”

Europe turns to migrant councils

Meanwhile, hunger for migrant participation models is intensifying throughout Europe. The EU has called for “participation of immigrants in the democratic process”, pledges in its integration Action Plan for the next six years to aid local and regional authorities in achieving this goal and has directly advocated creating immigrant consultative bodies. A 2017 toolkit funded by organisations including the EU and UNESCO provides a nuts and bolts guide for how to set them up.

Italy’s complex history with immigrant councils started in the 1980s: mandatory regional councils came first, followed by municipal and provincial councils, created voluntarily by individual administrations, starting with the little town of Nonantola in 1994. A 2015 government survey found there were 75 operational immigrant councils throughout Italy. Of this heterogeneous patchwork spanning multiple administrative layers, many councils have slipped into obscurity or become inactive.

Few have played such a decisive role in local politics as Palermo’s Consulta. Following national elections in March 2018, La Lega, which won 17% of the vote, formed a coalition with the populist Five Star Movement, and Salvini was awarded the twin roles of Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister. Three months later, he announced NGO-operated ships carrying migrants would be barred from mooring in Italy. 

Orlando and a cohort of southern mayors stood their ground, declaring their ports would remain open. 

The showdown climaxed in the autumn of 2018 with Salvini’s “Security Decree”, which barred asylum seekers’ from enrolling at the register office, effectively excluding them from applying for residency, registering their children for schools and accessing public healthcare. City hall held multiple meetings with the Consulta, before Orlando ordered Palermo’s register offices to continue serving asylum seekers. “Our shared vision was absolute. We acted together,” said Catania. 

Salvini was ejected from office when the coalition split in September 2019, and his decree was dismantled after Italian courts deemed it “unconstitutional” last summer. Regardless, a peak in boat crossings over the summer, mainly from Tunisia,ensured migration to Sicily remained in the headlines, and Salvini’s La Lega is currently leading national polls.

The Consulta's future

Despite its successes as a platform for migrants, the Consulta has ground to a halt. There have been no meetings in over two years, councillors claim, and the commissions are currently inactive, Kobena confirmed. Moreover, in 2018, election turnout dropped to 23%. 

Councillors have slammed Kobena for apparently ineffectual leadership. Edna Minion, a 61-year-old councillor from the Philippines, said: “Kobena never told us we need to sacrifice. [The Consulta] is an amazingly powerful instrument, but to manage it you need someone that is competent.” 

“His cabinet is lacking in quality compared to Darawsha’s. If you look at their CVs, you’ll see there has been significant change in terms of culture,” said Md, referring to the members’ level of education and experience. “He couldn’t have chosen seven worse people,” he said of the cabinet. 

“Every councillor now acts for himself […]. That is the reason turnout has dropped,” Md concluded. “The city has not seen us united. We’ve become less visible.”

The Consulta’s loss of momentum is a familiar story. “Essentially, [immigrant consultative bodies] have a symbolic role,” said Marilena Macaluso, a specialist in political participation at Palermo University. “We see the same problems with many immigrant councils: a loss of decisiveness from councillors, and a collapse in the turnout in elections. City administrators should provide more technical support, for example by helping plan the councils’ work and by setting recurring deadlines.”

Meanwhile, Orlando’s administration is experiencing a parallel fall from grace. In July, Darawsha dramatically resigned as chief culture official, swiftly followed by Roberto D’Agostino, another key administrator, both lambasting city hall for apparently chaotic management during the first COVID-19 lockdown. Palermitans’ patience, too, is faltering. A July poll of Italian voters by national newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore placed Orlando at the bottom of a ranking of one-hundred-and-five Italian mayors by popularity.

Stefania Congia, director of immigration and integration at the Ministry of Labour and Social Policies, believes Italy’s experiment has “failed”. State laws prohibiting non-EU migrants from voting in city elections limit immigrant councils to consultative, rather than legislative, functions. Earlier efforts by cities including Genoa and Turin to give non-EU nationals the vote in municipal elections were overturned by Italy’s government in 2005, suggesting that state intervention is required to endow migrant councils with legislative clout.

As national lawmakers have lost faith in migrant councils, they have turned to alternative models geared towards achieving sweeping change at the top. CoNNGI, an unelected lobbying organisation created by the Ministry in 2014, unites 35 Italian migrant associations with 5,000 members, and aims to reform citizenship and voting laws. “We want to convince the powers that a joint strategy across ministries and between politicians at all levels is necessary,” said Simohamed Kaabour, the 34-year-old Moroccan president of CoNNGI.

Palermo's next generation of migrant voices

But many continue to promote grassroots participation models like Consulta as the most effective route to meaningful change. Macaluso believes CoNNGI’s territorial scope could be applied to migrant councils, improving their impact by coordinating their work. “The councils have been too inward looking. One solution would be to create a network of councils, with a central body at regional or national level acting as an interlocutor.”

In Palermo, proponents of interculturality remain passionately committed to the Consulta’s founding vision. Israeli conductor Omer Meir Wellber was appointed music director of the Massimo in 2018. In a striking expression of intercutural unity, he was to work closely with the Palestinian Darawsha, by then Orlando’s chief culture official.

“The nice thing is that if you catch kids at the right time, you can even change their parents,” says Wellber, who previously founded a music program for minority Bedouin children in Israel’s Negev desert. “Each kid in this project sings with people who are different from them. The fact that they come home and talk to their parents about this is already a game changer.”

The Rainbow Choir is a shining testament to the transformative work of the Consulta, and it continues to empower migrants today. For Rudy Chateau, the ensemble is Niguel’s gateway to a brighter future. “We just want him to have a better life than us,” Rudy said. “When I see him doing something good I am happy. We are at the start of a great journey for him.”

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