“We need to knock down these walls: Until you know the other, skepticism grows, discrimination grows,” she said. “At this point, what is identified as racism has at its base not knowing other cultures. Because in reality, immigration is a richness. Diversity is a resource.”
Kyenge, 48, was born in Congo and moved to Italy three decades ago to study medicine. An eye surgeon, she lives in Modena with her Italian husband and two children. She was active in local center-left politics before winning a seat in the lower Chamber of Deputies in February elections, and Premier Enrico Letta brought her into his coalition government last week.
“We hope she will start a new era for Italy, let’s hope!” said Kaius Ikejezie, a Nigerian shopping at Rome’s Piazza Vittorio market on Friday.
Kyenge has said her priority would be to work to make it easier for children born in Italy to immigrant parents to obtain Italian citizenship. Currently, such children can only apply when they are 18.
“We have people who are born and raised in Italy who don’t have an identity,” she said. “They don’t feel Italian and they don’t feel that they belong to their parents’ homeland. We need to start from here.”
She offered her own experience as an example of the discrimination that confronts non-Italians living here legally and able to contribute to society: Despite having finished at the top of her class in medical school, Kyenge said she couldn’t get work in an Italian hospital for two years because she wasn’t a citizen.
“I have always fought against any form of discrimination and racism,” she said. But she is realistic too of the limitations of her office, the requirements for a “cultural change” and the precariousness of a government made up of longtime political rivals.
“It could be that today I leave the ministry unable to get any results,” she said. “But I have to be able to put in place a basis for all those changes that are so longed-for, for all those dreams.”
Unlike France, which has had two or more generations of immigrants and several ministers of African origin, Italy is a relative newcomer to immigration. Foreigners made up about 2 percent of Italy’s population in 1990; currently the figure stands at 7.5 percent, according to official statistics bureau Istat.
Colleen Barry contributed from Milan.
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PHOTO: Italian Integration Minister Cécile Kashetu Kyenge speaks at a press conference in Rome, May 3. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis)