From Shining Shoes in Africa to a Seat in Italy's Parliament

    14 October 2022

    When Aboubakar Soumahoro was a child in his West African home country of Ivory Coast, he cleaned people's shoes to make money. He also had a dream to go to Italy. He would cut out magazine pictures related to the country and save them in a record book.

    His dream came true in 1999 when he arrived in Rome, Italy's capital. He was 19 years old and shocked by the difficulties he faced in a country he had prized for so long.

    "Sleeping rough in the streets was traumatic, especially when I realized that this was the result of a political decision that targeted the migrants," Soumahoro told Reuters.

    Italian-Ivorian activist, trade unionist and newly elected member of Parliament Aboubakar Soumahoro points to his head during an interview with Reuters in Rome, Italy on October 5, 2022. (REUTERS/Yara Nardi)
    Italian-Ivorian activist, trade unionist and newly elected member of Parliament Aboubakar Soumahoro points to his head during an interview with Reuters in Rome, Italy on October 5, 2022. (REUTERS/Yara Nardi)

    Now an Italian citizen, the 42-year-old has the chance to re-shape migrant life in the country – from within parliament.

    Last month, Soumahoro won a seat in Italy's lower house of Parliament, representing the Green and Left Party. He faces a conservative government that is seeking to increase restrictions on asylum seekers.

    "One thing I will try to do is make sure that no one ends up living in the streets like me," Soumahoro said before the opening of parliament on October 13.

    "People need to be treated as human beings regardless of what passport they have," he added.

    The new lawmaker is the only Black member of Parliament's Lower House, a group of 400 representatives.

    "I do not want to represent just one part of society. I want to make sure that everyone, both the dispossessed and those who struggle to make ends meet, can recognize themselves in what we do," he said.

    Soumahoro's election comes from a great many steps he took before arriving in office. They include field work harvesting crops, employment at a gasoline station, sociology studies at Naples University, and writing a book.

    Soumahoro is restrained in discussion of his personal life. He says he has a young child and stays in touch with his family in Africa. He told Reuters that Italian politics was too personal already, and said, "It is more important to talk about 'us' and not 'I'."

    Within a few years of his arrival in Italy, he became an activist helping migrants who were without official documents. He worked to improve working conditions for temporary farm laborers. Later, he established an agricultural workers union.

    Soumahoro accuses the extremely conservative parties, Brothers of Italy and League party of making migrant policy a political issue for electoral gain.

    Brothers of Italy won the most votes in the elections last month. It and the League party have promised to block migrants coming by sea from North Africa. The alliance calls their stated policy "Italians First."

    Soumahoro says the policy is flawed.

    "Putting Italians first is not going to pull 5.6 million Italians out of poverty." He said the lawmakers fail to understand the severity of problems faced by average families.

    The election winners have said they will reduce access to government assistance known as "citizen's income." The monthly payment goes to poor and unemployed people.

    Soumahoro argues that the program needs to be expanded, not reduced.

    "Politicians haven't seen the coming hurricane of poverty," he said. He warned that rising energy and food prices would create growing difficulties. And he argued that a better spread of wealth would help decrease rising social tensions.

    He said, "The politics of happiness is real. It can be done."

    I'm Gregory Stachel.

    Crispian Balmer reported this story for Reuters. Gregory Stachel adapted it for VOA Learning English.


    Words in This Story

    rough – adj. difficult or unpleasant to deal with

    traumatic – adj. causing someone to become very upset in a way that can lead to serious mental and emotional problems

    regardless – adj. without consideration

    society n. people in general thought of as living together in organized communities with shared laws, traditions, and values

    sociology n. the study of society, social institutions, and social relationships