Ainom Maricos, former city councillor and Medhin Paolos, filmmaker are two generations of Eritrean-Italian women activists from Milan. They discuss their experiences with identity, citizenship, and institutional racism in Italy—and its consequences on Black communities.


September 13, 2020, 12:00 CET | Updated on September 14, 2020, 14:02 CET

 A group of women chatting.

Photo Credit: Vito Scifo e Lalla Golderer, Eritrean in Milan Archivio di Etnografia e Storia Sociale – Regione Lombardia

“Ainom Maricos Street,” says Ainom Maricos, the 62-year-old former Milan city councillor from Eritrea, with a mix of pride and gratitude. Ainom Maricos is one of the first social workers of foreign origin at an Italian public institution. She was touched by a tribute for her work with migrants and refugees that she received for the project “Tell Me About a Road” in the city of Uggiano la Chiesa in southern Italy.

In this city, they dedicated, for one day, a street to migrants and refugee activists during the celebration of International Refugee Day, on June 20, 2020, as a recognition of their engagement with migrants and refugee rights.

The road for Ainom to get there was long. And, until today, it remains long for young generations of African descent, like Medhin Paolos, a 39-year-old Italo-Eritrean filmmaker, photographer, and electronic musician. Since Medhin was very young, she has tried “to understand and feel on my skin the fact that some people read me as a problem for the simple fact that they read me as a stranger.”

On her pathway to self-discovery, Medhin became an activist for “Rete G2 – Seconde Generazioni,” an organisation campaigning for the citizenship rights of children born in Italy to foreign parents, the so-called “second generation,” like Medhin. Italian law on citizenship (Law 91 from 1992) excludes anyone who does not have an Italian parent from having Italian citizenship at birth.

Medhin’s experience as a so-called “second-generation” Italian and Ainom’s experience as a “first-generation” reveal how Eritreans and other migrants of African origins navigate the intersections of race and nationality in Italy.

 A group of Eritrean women, Milan, 1983.

Photo Credit: Vito Scifo e Lalla Golderer, Eritrean in Milan Archivio di Etnografia e Storia Sociale – Regione Lombardia

Ainom Maricos


Medhin Paolos


Ainom Maricos

Photo Credit: Ainom Maricos

Medhin Paolos

Three Eritrean women in traditional dress for a wedding, Milan, 1983

Photo Credit: Vito Scifo e Lalla Golderer, Eritrean in Italy, Archivio di Etnografia e Storia Sociale – Regione Lombardia 

The Journey

“I found myself from a quiet Asmara neighbourhood life to Milan, at the beginning of winter, with people talking and the steam of their mouths coming out in the cold [laughs.]. I cried. Where’s the sun? Where am I?”, remembers Ainom of the first impacts of her arrival in Italy in 1973. She came when she was 15 years old from Asmara, the Eritrean capital. “It was difficult,” she says.

Among all difficulties, the main one was overcoming the longing for her eight younger brothers, who stayed in her hometown. “I want to go back!” I said to my parents, crying. I missed my brothers; it was the first time I left,” explains Ainom. Only later did her brothers follow.

Ainom Maricos and her mother, 1973


Ainom Maricos and her mother, 1973

The History

Ainom’s family was one of few that came from Eritrea to Italy in the 1970s. During that time, the number of migrant communities in Italy, especially Eritreans, was small. It’s complicated to determine the exact number, as the first census on migrant population in Italy was created only in 1981. But Ainom states that “in the ’70s, it was a presence that didn’t even reach 200 people.”

Today, Eritreans are still a small migrant community in Italy.Estimations in 2019 say Eritreans were around 8,500 of 5,300,000 foreigners in Italy (0,16%). Half of them are in the cities of Milan and Rome. Those Eritreans with Italian citizenship are not included in the demographics of the Eritrean population, though.

Regardless of their number, Eritreans in Italy have strong historical ties with Italy due to almost six decades of Italian colonial rule. From 1882 to 1941, Italy colonised Eritrea. Ainom remembers well what her father told her about the fascist era, including the implementation of racial laws.

“My father, who has always worked with Italians, told me that he had a special permit to enter the upper town [in Asmara], where there were white people, their hotels, their restaurants, their houses. There was one cinema in the outskirts for the locals and in the centre for the Italians. There were buses for the locals, and others for them [Italians]”. A clear example of apartheid.

Unequal social power structures would accompany Ainom through her young adulthood as well.

Ainom Maricos, 1974


Ainom Maricos, 1974

The Settling

Her parents had left a year earlier for Italy. Following the upheaval of the Eritrean War of Independence (1961 to 1991), in 1973, the political situation in Eritrea was getting worse under Ethiopian occupation. So Ainom’s parents organised a way for her to get “a document.” Two days before her departure, Ainom was told she would need to leave. “I was a minor, and I couldn’t get out. We were under the occupation of Ethiopia. This document said I was 19 years old, and so I got out.”

In Ainom’s memories, she remembers being one of the youngest of many Eritrean women arriving in Milan at that period. Many of these women came as live-in domestic workers for wealthy Milanese families, living in slavery-like conditions, as Ainom explained: “…without a social life, limiting themselves to having Thursday and Sunday afternoons free, sometimes returning to serve dinner.”

Ainom was one of the few able to read and write. Thus, she was in charge of reading all the letters that arrived from Eritrea and writing replies. “There were days of frustration, spending all that time like that because my father cared [about them]. He said: ‘You have to help them [Eritrean women]!”

At that time, Eritrean, Cape Verdean, and Filipina women were pioneers in the transnational domestic work sector in Italy. Today, in the domestic sector, 88% of the workforce is women, and 74% of them are migrant women, with many of them finding employment only in the domestic sector. But Ainom’s journey took her down other paths.

Black Lives Matter Protest, Rome, 2020

Photo Credit: ©Alessandra Notaro


Black Lives Matter Protest, Rome, 2020

Photo Credit: ©Alessandra Notaro

The Black Skin

“You couldn’t talk about racism in the seventies in Italy,” affirms Ainom. But from the middle of the 1980s, she started to be alert to racism. “In the general context, a huge number [of migrants] really arrived with the mass migration starting from ‘84- ‘85. They were seasonal workers, coming from all over the face of the Maghreb. You could find them on the beaches and everywhere, selling everything. Also, the Senegalese occupied entire sidewalks. They were hard workers, but they did not have the tools or documents to work regularly. This visible presence began to hit the population as if it felt suddenly invaded by this presence.”

From that moment until today, Black people and migrant communities in Italy have faced a daily struggle, since their presence is always questioned.

In her journey as a political activist, Ainom became the leader of the Eritrean liberation movement and representative of the network of Eritrean women’s associations in Italy. From 1996 to 2001, she was a councillor in Milan. Even since then, she has held positions in the associative and cooperative world in Italy. “I realise that I am one of the old women who, through political activism to reaffirm rights, have spent a lot of time together with other comrades. We have created networks, associations, aggregations. We have done everything to say that we exist,” says Ainom.

Still, Ainom believes that, regardless of their personal stories and experiences, positive contributions to the country, and adherence to the laws, Black communities face systemic racial discrimination in different areas. “Just because you are the bearer of this skin colour, everyone questions you. It is as if you had to fight every day to reaffirm your adherence to this country, to its rules. I find it exhausting,” says Ainom.

The Stares

Talking about skin colour and her experience as an Afro-descendant in Italy, the Italo-Eritrean filmmaker Medhin remembers above all “the constant, not necessarily negative, gaze that follows you everywhere.” Even while she was doing ordinary things like buying milk or drinking a glass of wine with friends: “Because non-white Italians are still seen as a foreign body.”

Among the episodes of her childhood are particularly fixed in her mind the times when, in the eighties, she went to summer camps for children organised by the Eritrean community. Those summer camps lasted a few weeks and took children to typical holiday resorts in Italy, like the seaside or the mountains. The Eritrean children visited the same places as the Italian Caucasian children. Medhin remembers how tourists, who were there on holiday, were surprised to see so many Black children altogether and stopped to take pictures of them.

Moreover, she remembers a couple of times when, during primary school, university students who were writing a thesis on migration went to her school, located in a neighbourhood with a high presence of foreigners, and asked the children of migrants if they identified themselves more as Italians or as foreigners.

The same questions Medhin has been asked again and again while growing up. “There is always a request for justification. The question that has not been asked but that I hear is: ‘Why are you here?’ Medhin explains, underlining that in fact, it is the immigration of non-white people that is always under scrutiny.

“When the white-skinned immigrant can speak Italian well and cannot be recognised from the outside, they will be left alone. I could stay in Italy for another five generations; the children of my children’s children will visibly always be something else. Until there is more inclusive cultural advancement, Black people will always be seen as other.”

That gaze that has always followed her, now that she is grown up, has sometimes become an “exoticising” gaze. In Italy, there is a cliché that Somali, Eritrean, and Ethiopian women are “the most beautiful in Africa.” “Whenever I have heard that about myself or other people, it has always turned my stomach. I can never accept this as a compliment because I recognise its colonial origins, and a cruel story for the Eritrean population, which is why I was born in Italy,” says Medhin.

“The Italian colonial past is denied. For example, Italian colonialists used Nervine gas, which exterminated entire villages”, explains Ainom. Today, these practices are denied by Italians and missing in schoolbooks. Ainom believes that there has been a removal of history, so colonial fascism is relived almost with nostalgia.

Although she recognises that Italians modernised Asmara, she explains: “They [Italians] made plans, and this enables them to forget everything else… As if they had come there [Eritrea] to civilise a wild people and to build [the country]. But it was our grandparents, made slaves, who built it!”

Medhin Paolos


Medhin Paolos

The Identities

Aware of her Eritrean roots, language, culture, history, and identity, Ainom says: “I am proud of who I am.” However, she is unsure about future generations of Italians with African origins. Although born in Italy with Italian as their first language, this constant questioning about their identity creates an unsafe environment for their self-esteem. “Our children don’t have these antibodies,” says Ainom.

Indeed, identity was a topic early in Medhin’s life. In 1991 the thirty-year war of independence of Eritrea from Ethiopia ended, and in the following year Medhin, then eleven years old, was able to visit her parents’ hometown of Asmara. This visit had a substantial impact on her. “It was the first time I was in a place where everyone was Black and everyone looked like me,” Medhin remembers.

But her joy was dimmed. She had expected to find home, but instead, she felt like “a stranger” once again. “Despite the peace of mind that being in a river of Blackness gave me, at the same time I was recognisable by the way I dressed and moved as a person raised in Europe,” says Medhin.

A turning point proved to be fundamental in her path. “This unfulfilled expectation let the realisation hit me: I have had enough of letting other people have the responsibility of defining me. I also have had enough of trying to fit into these preconceived labels of who is allowed to call themselves Eritrean, Italian, European, African!” exclaims Medhin. At that point, Medhin began to understand that she was part of a “middle ground full of people with mixed identities” and with experiences similar to hers.

This experience helped her to shape her identity “evolving and constantly seeking balance, as it is natural when you belong to two different cultures.” Today, her identity is composed of different elements from both Italian and Eritrean traditions. Some elements were sometimes lost and later rediscovered, as was the case with her mother tongue.

Tigrinya was the first language Medhin learned as a child, but she lost it growing up with Italian as her primary language. Finally, she is recovering it as an adult. “My relationship with my native language is a sore point for me: I feel guilty for not speaking it well,” confesses Medhin. Her efforts to reclaim Tigrinya are intertwined with her activism for migrants’ rights. Medhin has felt compelled to speak Tigrinya to help Eritrean migrants arriving in Milan in recent years.

According to data from Eurostat, in the last 10 years (2010-2019) 19,500 Eritreans have applied for political asylum in Italy. This is only a portion of the thousands of Eritrean migrants arriving in Italy every year before journeying on to seek asylum in other European countries.

Medhin Paolos


Medhin Paolos

The Citizen

Despite all the ups and downs in her relationship with Italy, Medhin is fully aware of all the opportunities she has been able to seize thanks to her Italian citizenship, from her tours with the Italian music band Fiamma Fumana (1999-2009) to other European countries, the USA, and Canada, to her fellowship at Harvard. “Freedom of movement is probably one of the biggest problems we have globally; with an Italian passport, I was able to come to Boston; with an Eritrean passport, I would be the same person, but I could not be here,” remarks Medhin.

Still, the memory of when, in 1998, she was granted Italian citizenship at the age of 18 is tainted. “I remember that after taking the oath, the lady who was representing the Municipality of Milan got up and said to me: ‘Welcome to Italy’.” This episode stuck with Medhin, who was born and raised in Milan. “That’s when I realised that the fundamentals are missing. Even in her kindness, she reiterated that I was something else.”

Micro-aggressions such as this are the problem. “The moment there is a structure that makes another person feel like a guest, it’s over,” says Medhin, referring to the citizenship law in Italy.

According to current legislation, anyone born in Italy to foreign parents remains a foreigner until the age of eighteen, and during this period must have “resided legally without interruption” in the country to apply for Italian citizenship by the age of nineteen.

The situation is even worse for the children of foreigners who arrived in Italy during their childhood. There is no facilitated path for them: to become Italian citizens they have to follow, from the age of 18, the same bureaucratic way as an adult foreign immigrant, i.e. to reside and work legally in the country for at least ten years.

After years of battles with activists including Medhin and “Rete G2”, a draft to reform the current law was approved by one chamber of the Italian parliament in 2015. The proposed reform aimed at facilitating the path to citizenship for children of migrants born in Italy or who had arrived in Italy during their childhood.

Around 800,000 minors, children of migrants without citizenship would have benefited from the reform. However, after two years, the draft law was vetoed by the Italian senate in 2017.

“I wonder, from the identity perspective, what kind of problems and crises do you inculcate in these young people?” asks Ainom, worried with the political environment in Italy. “I was astonished by my son, who is now 30 years old, and he said to me, ‘Mom, forget the seventies you knew, forget the eighties. There’s nothing. It is a difficult society!’ For me, it’s a punch to the heart,” says Ainom.

Foreign Workers Demonstration, Rome, 2006

 ©David Shay

Foreign Workers Demonstration, Rome, 2006

Photo Credit: ©David Shay

The Laws

The unsuccessful attempt to reform Italian citizenship law is not the only source of disappointment for Ainom. She remembers all the things she has done to support racial equality in Italy and how today the country faces a backlash against migrants and refugee rights. “With the Bossi-Fini law, we have reached a culmination where the person is a presence with an expiration date,” explains Ainom, frustrated. She talks about a law allowing the residence of immigrants to be strictly linked to a work contract.

But this is only one of the many tough measures imposed by this law, almost 20 years in the force. Bossi-Fini (July 2002) is harsh immigration law, criminalising migration and reinforcing racial tensions. Under this law, an immigrant stopped without a residence permit will be accompanied to the border and expelled immediately. This has increased deportation, arrests, and detentions, including for asylum seekers awaiting asylum review. This is in infringement of many human rights treaties, including Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which states, “Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person.”

Following a sequence of new laws and policies designed by the far-right without international human rights principles, Decreto Sicurezza is an additional bill targeting migrants. This bill results in actions such as blocking NGO rescue ships from Italian ports and abolishing essential forms of migrants’ protection, making deportation easier.
The connotation of migrants and African communities with trouble is one of the many faces of racism in Italy.

The Racism

“Racism in Italy today believes itself to be new, but it is not,” Medhin emphasises, referring to the roots from which it sprouts: colonialism. “It is a type of mentality that has been propagating underground up to this day,” says Medhin.

To solve the problem of racism in Italy, according to Medhin, the foremost requirement is awareness, so as not to be afraid of what it is different. “On a cultural level, we must have an open mind so as not to read the other immediately as a danger.”

She hopes for a radical and structural change of all systems, at all levels: school, prison, health care, and every other public institution. For example, Medhin would like the deep historical ties between Eritrea and Italy to be officially acknowledged and the Italian colonial past to be openly discussed, starting in schools.

Moreover, she would like for scholars from diverse backgrounds to do so, not just European scholars, so that the perspective does not remain Eurocentric. It is a change that she started noticing in recent years, but which is progressing very slowly.

Further, Medhin points out that Italy lacks the appropriate words to discuss race, discrimination, different cultures, and migration. For example, she explains, over the years, some words like “race” and “Blacks” have been branded as disrespectful in the Italian context. As a result, many Italians say, “people of colour” when in reality they mean “Black people.”

More often than not, issues such as race and racism are directly avoided, hidden under the rug. “To talk about these topics would lead us straight to talk about colonialism. It is a delicate balance between political correctness, censorship, and truth. A balance that Italians do not master.”

The filmmaker argues that a more honest and in-depth conversation about race is long overdue in Italy, and that would bring considerable advantages, starting with fairer immigration law.

“A language is a powerful tool that allows us to be in tune with or alienate each other,” Medhin reiterates and adds: “If you lack the words, you cannot speak.” Instead, the activist is convinced of the importance of confrontation and dialogue. “It is important to talk to each other. Maybe this is the solution for racism: find the meeting points and do not be afraid of differences.”

 A group of Eritrean women, Milan, 1983

Photo Credit: Vito Scifo e Lalla Golderer, Eritrean in Milan Archivio di Etnografia e Storia Sociale – Regione Lombardia

 A group of women chatting.

Photo Credit: Vito Scifo e Lalla Golderer, Eritrean in Milan Archivio di Etnografia e Storia Sociale – Regione Lombardia

The Hope

While asked about the possible actions to challenge racism in Italy, Ainom remembers a lot of things already done. “I was a consultant for many years for Livia Turco [an Italian member of Democratic Party], at the time Minister for Social Affairs, and we developed projects on the right of citizenship, the right to vote. We were nearly there, just a small step was missing, and then the documents were buried. And still today it is difficult,” says Ainom.

She explains that she also appealed against the Bossi-Fini law. “I had collected thousands and thousands of signatures, I gathered both Italian and foreign friends.” But there is still a lot to do. “This country needs a serious rethink on immigration, starting with that the child born in Italy is Italian. We need to rethink the topic of immigration in a constructive way, not as destructive as it has been done.”

Ainom also believes nature itself will fix things. “In the sense that those born here, those who naturally acquire Italian citizenship, in 15-20 years, will be a significant and decisive presence in this country,” believes Ainom.

Despite everything, however, Medhin knows which country is her home. “Wherever I’ll find myself taking root, Italy will forever be my home. Eritrea will always be the missing home in some way, the family home, those roots that always remain unknown even if I try to get to know them more and more,” concludes Medhin.

Also, Ainom knows why she stayed in Italy: “Those few noisy, harmful [far-right politicians] are visible, but there is an active, healthy, perhaps less noisy Italy…a vast, incredible, truly healthy society. It’s one of the reasons why we stay in this country with our heads held up,” remembers Ainom the tribute she received, a street named after her.

In the end, with a smile, she concludes: “Together, maybe we can make a positive change. So, I’m between disappointed and hopeful.”

This article is supported by the Stars4Media pilot project.