Italian-Maghrebis in Belgium, Part 2

by HANANE EL HAJOULI | University of Bologna
This essay on Italian-Maghrebi youth and families in Belgium has been adapted from the author’s Masters thesis (Italians-Maghrebi: an ethnographic exploration) that was prepared in Italy and at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium. Presented here is Part 2 of the essay. Read Part 1 here.

This flow of people between Italy and Belgium brings many changes in regards to how individuals think of themselves and make sense of their belonging. It is interesting to see how the teenagers and young adults built their identity. Individual identity reflects the belonging to a community in different scales of social situations and interactions. In such a context, identity emerges as a dynamic and relational entity that constantly shifts in interactions with others.

I conducted in-depth interviews and to the question, ‘Here in Belgium do you feel Moroccan or Italian?’ I had noted three different ways of making sense of belonging:

  1. Omar, 20, who has lived in Charleroi from 2012 claimed to feel Italian:

My boss is Italian and my colleagues are from all over the word, not like in Italy. Here they call me ‘The Italiano’, even if there are Italians and Moroccans. I assume for the accent when I speak in French or because I’m always smiling. I don’t know and actually I don’t care. Plus how can I feel Moroccan if people of my age, born and raised in Belgium don’t speak Arabic? They are all Berbers and really rude with the Arabs, they call us the Moroccans but they are Moroccans too!!

Omar sees himself as Italian in the context of work but the language, the Italian accent, is an important marker of his identity. The interactions with others are really fundamental to this, and when his accent is noticed this is a crucial tool strengthening the Italian identity. He can’t see himself as Moroccan because he can’t speak Arabic with his native Maghrebi-Belgians group of peers as he used to do with his friends in Italy. The majority of the Moroccans in Belgium have Berber origins, instead of the Moroccans in Italy who are mainly Arabs. This fact makes Omar feel a distance between himself and others Maghrebi-Belgians.

  1. Soukaina, 17, says she feels Moroccan:

I don’t know why but I’m Moroccan and proud of it. It’s not that I’m not integrated or something, I have Belgian friends. In Italy I didn’t have Italian friends. I never thought about this thing of the identity but maybe because here it’s not that important like in Italy. Here I’m just Soukaina, not Soukaina-the Moroccan. Or maybe because I have my mother’s family here in Ghent so it’s like being at home.

In this case, Soukaina links her identity to the presence of her mother’s family. The presence of the family who she used to see once a year in summertime in Morocco is fundamental. Here we can observe a link and emotional bonds with Morocco. In fact the idea to migrate to Belgium was first discussed in Morocco where she used to spend the summer with the part of her family who emigrated to  Belgium. Her aunts helped her parents to find a job and a house. Now, in a context different from Italy, the identification with Morocco is stimulated through the emotional attachment she had for the family.

  1. Amira, 23 years old, said that both the identities are important and fundamental:

My boss is Italian, when I did my interview he had many questions on the veil and religion but I assumed that was normal. But when we arrived at the point when I told him my story in Italy he changed. He was more relaxed and he started to be, how can I say, kinder? We spoke in Italian so I guess he made me feel Italian. Still, I feel Moroccan for my mother tongue and religion but when it comes for other stuff I’m Italian because my education was Italian. It’s changing all the time.

In such a context, the Moroccan and the Italian identity in a young soul can form a sort of hybrid identity. Depending on the social situation, Amira claims to assume different ethnic identities. There is not a particular ethnic identity that prevails, rather there is a dynamic relationship between different layers of one’s belonging. It is a dynamic and dialogical relationship in every situation and the boundaries shift depending upon the context.

Having explored the different kinds of identities that Italian-Maghrebi youth have constructed in Belgium, it is important to observe that nobody would return to Italy. Italy became a sort of a myth of the childhood that evokes a memory of joy of when they were children. Yet they all see Belgium as the new home when they compare it with Italy. While cultivating feelings of disappointment against Italy, all respondents have proven not to have any type of ‘myth of return.’

Amira, 23:

Now I’m attending an ‘haute-école’ and I’m struggling to learn Dutch, it’s really hard. I’m really motivated because one day I want to move to the Flanders because there, you know, it’s better. The life is better there and I’m also studying English because I feel that it’s fundamental, I’m planning my future here; I don’t belong to Italy anymore.

Another element that acquires a fundamental value in comparing Belgium and Italy is the Italian gastronomic culture, as seen in the opinion of Aya.

Aya, 21:

I miss the weather, the food, the fashion but I would never come back in Italy, I have many beautiful memories of my childhood but I wanna stay here.

These youths’ new identities go beyond the traditional concept of the nation-state form, which create boundaries that delineate “us” from “them”. Alternatively, it is possible their identities are still under construction. These young adults have been in Belgium for less  than  3 years. They have just created a small balance between family, home, work or studies. When the questions of my interviews were about their friendship network otherwise, they expressed a similar reaction:

Reeda, 20:

I have my family, finally I have a job, and I just wanna live peacefully. I’m happy and I don’t need anyone.

Or Omar:

We escaped from the crisis, when I go to the mosque with my dad we can understand if a Moroccan comes from Italy or Spain from their sad-posture. They all have that sad face and you can see the desperation. The Moroccans of Belgium don’t talk with us, you enter and you can see two groups: us from Italy and Spain, and them.

The voices of the research are mainly the young adults.  Ethnographic data gathered through participant-observation and  in-depth interviews reveal that uncertainty among the youth will open up the space for future prospects and issues such as the alienation of immigration. Belgium is perceived as a myth land but it is too early for them to have an objective perspective. Belgium, like Italy, is theoretically tempted by racist tendencies and worried by the risk of a radicalization of Muslims. Another significant point of interest is the effect of different experiences of  undertaking the migration between children and  fathers. On one hand we have parents who have already experienced in the early 80s the migration and on the other hand young people arrived in Italy at an early age or born on Italian soil.

Language and food help to emphasize the sense of identity of the informants. When it comes to comparing their North African origins in Belgium, however, there emerges a sense of alienation and disappointment especially for the youngest. The main reason is the language barriers. They appear deprived of a significant interaction with the Belgian culture, but it still reflects a strong desire to know the culture and be well integrated within the Belgian society. The European perspective helps us here. The construction of a European citizenship concept manages to reconcile rights and duties respecting the plurality of cultures. The integration of the second generations is not only a crucial issue of migration, but also a challenge for social cohesion and a factor in the transformation of the receiving societies.


Hanane El Hajouli recently graduated from the University of Bologna with a Master Degree in Italian Language and Culture for Foreigners.
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