Ramesh pushed his bike along the dirt path in San Vito when I met him. I needed to ask for directions to find the 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 for the next 10 minutes or so I got to know one of the many South Asians in Italy.
Midway between Rome and Naples lies 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 provide thousands of jobs for immigrants.
The first South Asians came to the area in the 1990s as farm workers. Today estimates go up to around 30,000. Unfortunately working conditions are miserable. In fact Sikh farm workers are often called the ‘modern day slaves of Italy’ working 10 to 11 hours a day and earning between €2.50 and €5 per hour without any paid leave*. Consequently, as I visited some of the Gurdwaras in that part of Italy, I heard 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 distance 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 Brother Orlando and a few other leaders from the ‘Cristiani Evangelici’ church. The church has started outreach towards the South Asians but generally finds it hard to build long-term friendships with them. They told me that they would love it 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 industrialised but also has a rich agricultural sector with dairy farms, ham and cheese factories. It is here that many Sikhs are employed as it has the largest concentration of South Asians in Italy (137,000).
I noticed that the South Asian community had grown over the eight years since I was last here. It seems that the community has established itself. This can best be seen by the number of temples and Gurdwaras that have been built in recent years. It is estimated that there are about 50 Gurdwaras in Italy mainly 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 temples vary in size and appearance. It seems unlikely that the growth of the South Asian communities will slow down in the years to come.
The questions in my mind that come back again and again are: 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? How can the Kingdom of God grow amongst the Sikhs in northern Italy? Honestly at the moment I don’t have 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? Who will go and share his life with those desperate to make a living in Europe?
Thomas Hieber, Co-ordinator, South Asian Network in Continental Europe
*Getting to Work as a Slave published by the Migration Association