Sikhs in Italy

June 21, 2007

Author: Seema Sirohi

Source: SikhNet News!OpenDocument

The Italian hills of Colli Albani stand guard in the distance and the one road nearby leads to Rome.

Inside the small farm shed, a picture of Guru Nanak looks kindly down from three walls out of four, competing with the bric-a-brac cramming the room's beds, one book-shelf, suitcases in line and stacks of DVDs. The adjacent kitchen, which converts to another bedroom at night, has rudimentary cooking utensils, a rickety table, a huge plastic barrel of atta and two refrigerators. A neat row of clothes pegs carries the burden of entire wardrobes.

Harjit Singh, who came to Italy two years ago from India, is making cha for the Punjabi workforce on this lush farm south of Rome.

Tajinder Singh, barely 18, and who landed here just five days earlier after paying an agent Rs 8 lakh, helps with the chores. He doesn't have a job yet, but he has shelter, thanks to his village brethren.

"Everyone comes here to earn money; I too decided to come", he says, smiling shyly. But tears well up when he talks about his family. It's still too raw: the departure, the journey, the touts, the alien languages along the long route of illegal migration.

The two rooms are home to eleven men from Punjab, some legal, others illegal, but all bound by a common will to survive with few resources and many insecurities.

Goldy Singh trundles back after a 14-hour workday, having secured delicate green bean tendrils with ropes and sticks. He opens a drink, shaking mud off his rubber boots and exchanges pleasantries with Satinder, a man of many trades and skills.

Satinder, who connects Italian farmers with the Punjabis, owns two shops in Italy, exports Murano glass to Mumbai, drops names and goes to the West Indies for the World Cup, is one of the few regular links between the isolated workers and the world. The cellphone is another.

There is comfort in brotherhood, as men from the villages of Punjab come together in far-flung communities across Italy, a new favourite destination of immigrants.

More than 50,000 of them, mostly Sikhs, are spread across towns such as Reggio Emilia, Casina, Bergamo and Brescia, a far cry from Kapurthala, Hoshiarpur or Ludhiana, labouring with quiet determination and doing jobs the Italians are unavailable for or unwilling to do. Some make as little as 500 euros a month, exploited by crafty employers. Those who become legal can make up to 1,500 euros.