Quake Brings Hardship To Italy’s Immigrants

Quake brings hardship to Italy's immigrants

April 13, 2009

L'AQUILA, Italy (AP) Among the thousands of people hard-hit by Italy's earthquake last week are a large number of immigrants who have seen the lives they built for themselves in a new land destroyed in an instant.

While Italians with means have taken refuge at second homes or with family and friends, Peruvians, Filipinos and others in the growing immigrant population often have nowhere to turn, becoming a large and visible presence in the dozens of tent camps housing the quake survivors.

“We don't have anything,” said Jimmy Ruiz, 28, a Peruvian who bought a house with several other relatives that is now severely damaged, “a nightmare,” as he puts it. Now he lives in a tent with relatives and his pregnant girlfriend and is considering returning to his impoverished homeland, at least temporarily. “We don't have inheritances or parents with money like the Italians. We are starting from zero, and now we are destroyed.”

Paolo Brivio, a spokesman for the Catholic charity Caritas, said the earthquake that struck April 6, killing 294 people, is the “first major emergency in Italy in which there is a massive presence of immigrants.”

“Not only have they lost jobs and homes that they are paying mortgages on like Italians but without work or a home, many could lose the right to stay in Italy legally,” Brivio said.

There are no official figures yet on the number of foreigners among the 55,000 people dispersed by the earthquake 33,000 of whom are living in the tent camps. But it's clear that the number of foreigners is large. L'Aquila, the city worst hit, was home to about 4,000 legal immigrants plus an unknown number of illegal, undocumented residents in a population of about 70,000, Caritas said. The Caritas figures put L'Aquila right in line with the national immigrant population of 5.7 percent of Italy's 59.6 million residents.

At the main tent camp in L'Aquila, large numbers of foreigners, mostly Peruvians, Romanians and Filipinos, are among those lining up these days for free meals, hanging laundry outside their tents or passing time with card games and soccer matches.

With many well-off Italians trickling away to homes with hot water and privacy, a large number of those left behind to live in tent cities are some of society's most vulnerable: along with immigrants there are impoverished Italians and elderly people without family.

Julyn Macabante, a soft-spoken 26-year-old woman from the Philippines, arrived in Italy nearly four years ago and has since worked as a housekeeper for a psychiatrist and his wife. When the earthquake struck their large home filled with antiques and oil paintings, the couple fled to the home of their daughter, a lawyer living in Rome, taking along some of their earthquake-stricken friends.

“They said they were sorry but that they didn't have room for me too,” said Macabante, who supports her family back home with what she earns in Italy. Now she lives in a large blue tent with a cousin and nine other people.

Still she considers herself among the lucky: the family stopped by the camp on Easter to check on her and have promised to help her find work with another family. She shares their sorrow as they too struggle to rebuild their own lives. “It's a calamity. It's understandable,” she said.

Others are more bitter, however, as the hardship of camp life has created tensions between Italians and foreigners, largely as a result of what officials say are baseless rumors that the immigrants are profiting from the quake help they are given.

There have been no major incidents reported of looting or profiteering, and the only arrests so far were of four Romanians publicly announced on national television by Premier Silvio Berlusconi. The four were acquitted in a speedy trial the same day.

Now, Peruvians say they face humiliating accusations when they line up for food or ask for clothing being brought in by rescue groups and charities.

Ruiz said when he was accused by Italian quake survivors of “taking advantage” of the situation when he asked for food for several people at mealtime. He said they didn't realize he was getting food for relatives back in his tent.

“They don't remember when they were immigrants in South America and the United States, now that they are doing well,” Ruiz, a bricklayer, said. “What really hurts is how hard we have worked for them and they don't see it.”