Ramesh pushed his bike along the dirt path in San Vito when I met him. I needed to ask for direction as I did not find the nearby Gurdwara that was supposedly in that area. He was very kind and in his broken English offered to show me the way. As we walked together the next 10 minutes or so I got to know one of the many South Asians that live in province of Latina, Italy.
Midway between Rome and Naples lays the Province of Latina with its many farms and fields. The ‘Agro Pontino’ is the most economically developed part of the province with a flourishing agricultural sector of about 9000 farms that provides thousands of jobs for immigrants.
The first South Asians came in the area in the 1990’s as farm workers. Today estimates go up to around 30 000. Unfortunately working conditions are miserable. In fact farm workers in Italy are quite often called the ‘modern day slaves of Italy’. Forced labor and exploitation have been the subject of political debate in Italy for many years yet nothing really has changed. In a dossier “Getting to Work as a Slave” published by the Migration Association one can read: “The Sikhs work 10 to 11 hours a day, even seven days a week. The wage ranges between 2.5 and 5 Euros per hour. Not to mention occupational illnesses caused by pesticides and herbicides, and the fact that the bosses do not pay for leave or accidents at work. Everything is intensified by a climate of obsession and the fear of losing the job.” The following report highlights some of the struggles South Asians face while working in the provice of Latina. http://novaramedia.com/2016/11/22/sikh-farmers-in-the-agro-pontino/
As I visited some of the Gurdwaras in that part of Italy I heard similar stories that most Sikhs can only come on Sundays for worship as they are too busy during the week due to the long working hours and the long ways to and from the farms.
The next stop on my tour was San Felice Circeo, a small town next to the city of Terracina where I met several Christian brother. The church has started outreach towards the South Asians but generally find it hard to build long-term friendships with the people from South Asia. They told me that they would love if a long term missionary would move into the area to work alongside them.
A few days later I was up in the north visiting the province of Lombardi. The Lombardi is highly industrialized but has also a rich agricultural sector with dairy farms, ham and cheese factories. It is here that many Sikhs are employed. In fact the largest concentration of South Asians, over 137 000, live here.
I noticed that the Asian community has grown over these 8 years since I was last there. It seems that the community has established itself. The growth of the South Asian community can best be seen by the number of temples and Gurdwaras they have built in recent years. It is estimated that there are about 50 Gurdwaras in Italy of which most are in the north. The Sikhs are well liked and respected by the Italian community. Sikhs contribute a lot towards the cities and towns where they reside. On that particular Sunday in May when I visited the Gurdwara, an Ambulance car was donated to the local authorities of Novellara. This was not the first time I was told. The Sikh community wanted to say ‘thank you’ for the good relations that they have.
Over the next few days I visited various towns and cities and met a number of South Asians. The Gurdwaras and Hindu temple vary in size and appearance and there is no end in sight that the growth of the South Asian communities will slow down in the years to come.
The questions in my mind that came back again and again was: How can these people be reached with the love and grace of God? How can we as followers of Christ make a difference by helping to change the living and working conditions of the Sikhs in the province of Latina? How can the Kingdom of God grow amongst the Sikhs in northern Italy? Honestly at the moment I don’t have all the answers. But I do know that God loves and cares for each one of them including Ramesh on his bike. Who will pray with me for more workers for Italy amongst the South Asian communities and who will go and share his life with those desperate to make a living in Europe?
One thing I do know: God does not like when people who are made in his image are being exploited in Europe or elsewhere. As followers of Jesus we can speak up for them, pray and work for the betterment. Proverbs 31:8-9 (NIV) says: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
South Asian Concern, UK