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Italy's new entrepreneurs PDF Print E-mail
Oct 30, 2012 at 03:26 PM

Image For most Romans (and other Italians as well) the foreign-born and frequently dark-skinned peddlers who sold their wares on beaches or beachside sidewalks were known as "vu compra", a slang way in Italian of saying "do you want to buy?" and a term that for years was used interchangeably with that of immigrant.

But if many of the non-Europeans who began immigrating to Italy in the 1980s and 1990s started out that way, the country's immigrants are now starting to climb up the economic ladder and there's no telling what will come next. The fact is that willy or nilly, this once exaggeratedly homogenous country is now becoming ethnically integrated.

Over the last two decades the complexion of the people one encounters in everyday Italian life has changed, both figuratively and literally. Non European-immigrants work as domestic help, restaurant cooks and waiters, construction workers, truck drivers, delivery workers and so on. But now they are also opening businesses and stores, a clear sign that true integration has gotten underway.

The signs of this change are obvious even in the neighborhood, Trastevere, where I live. On my block, Via della Scala, two jewelry stores are owned by Egyptians, as are two restaurants around the corner. In another direction, there is a small grocery owned and run from a man from Bangladesh which is open everyday until 10 or 11 pm, unlike the nearest Italian-owned grocery. The "cornettaro" the croissant or cornetto maker who supplies two of the cafés where I have my morning coffee is an Indian. And a man from Libya runs the kebab store on the other side of my neighborhood market.

These changes were clearly inevitable in a country where over five percent of the population, nationwide, is now foreign-born, even though the majority of these people - like most Italians - work for others. But the trend is confirmed by a new study by the Rome Chamber of Commerce according to which as of June 1, 2012, some 18.3% of business owners in Rome and the surrounding Rome province are now foreign born immigrants, up from only 16.5% a year earlier.
Of these 32,445 people, one out of four hails from Africa, mostly North Africa, with Moroccans and Egyptians leading the pack followed by Nigerians, Senegalese, Tunisians, Libyans and Algerians, in that order. Of the total, 56% have gone into commerce and own shops or eateries of one sort or another. But 8.8% have set up construction firms, 7% have gotten involved in the technical field and 6% in rentals. About 12% of the total are women. 

Another interesting thing is that immigrants seem determined to succeed at a time when because of the rocky economic situation, many Italians are throwing in the towel. This may be because they are able to rely on family or foreign community groups for financing at a time when banks are reluctant to give loans or because many of these enterprises are small, individual firms which can roll with the punches. In any event, there is no doubt that because of the tenacity of these people, the social fabric of this country has changed forever, and to my mind for the better.

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