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Proprietors taken for sales girls

· Report on foreign women who have started businesses in Italy ·

The only case in Italy: seven women of different ages and nationalities united in a fisheries cooperative, Bio&Mare. Before sunset they cast their nets at sea near Marina di Carrara and at dawn they haul them in. They sell as much as possible of the catch and turn the remainder into organic sauces. The mind and heart of this initiative is Radoslava Petrova – Radi for those who frequent the pier – who was born at Plovdiv in Bulgaria in 1974 and arrived in Tuscany at the age of 24 after marrying an Italian. For her, as for so many other women coming from distant lands, the new country did not have much to offer at the beginning. Her educational qualifications were not recognized and the few job opportunities were always channelled in the same direction: domestic worker, waitress, and carer. However, her passion for the sea and a lucky encounter gave Radi the chance to build herself a different future. 

Two women employees of the Bio&Mare Cooperative at work

Through Telethon where she was a volunteer, the young woman met the fishermen of the Maestrale cooperative and began by serving as their secretary. Very soon she had a brilliant idea: to use the fish waste to make jars of sauce to put on sale. “Before the fall of the Berlin Wall – she said – there were no supermarkets in Bulgaria and all sorts of preserves were prepared without throwing anything away. So seeing all that wasted fish annoyed me. My boss was sceptical at first, then he trusted me and we have had great success!”

In 2011 Radi started up on her own and created Bio&Mare. Around her she gathered a group of women “who had always worked in fisheries but in secondary roles”, and together they became the protagonists of a great challenge. Today the cooperative employs four Italian women and three foreigners, “all dead tired but proud of the results they have achieved.”

According to the Centro Studi CNA’s latest data Radi’s case is by no means isolated. The foreign entrepreneurs in Italy are nearly 420,000 (about 11 percent of the total). More than 90,000 are women, of whom a little less than half own their businesses. This is an ever expanding phenomenon clearly against the trend. Indeed, the CENSIS reports that while from 2009 to today the number of Italian businesses decreased by 3 per cent, the number of foreign ones increased by 21 per cent, a gap that is also reflected in other sectors, from building to crafts. Then one statistic is striking: Unioncamere calculates that these new entrepreneurs provide work for almost 3 million Italians. These figures are enough to shatter all the stereotypes awash in the popular imagination of immigration, especially as regards women. Far from suffering a destiny imposed by society or the market, ever more foreign women are showing that they have the creativity and the guts to pursue their own inclinations, thus making a powerful impact on the human and economic fields in which they operate.

They are still little talked about: the media always tend to report the migratory phenomenon from the same angle and according to established plans. For this reason the Province of Rome is funding a project – Migrazione donna: una risorsa – that aims to promote direct meetings between several foreign business women and the people of the city. In the intention of Sarah Zuhra Lukanic and of Maria Antonietta Mariani who conceived it, this unheard of project presents a richer and more complete picture of women immigrants to public opinion.

Among the protagonists of the first appointment is Aida Ben Jannet, born in Tunis in 1970, who has restored the Italian firm she worked for after saving it from bankruptcy. When she tells her own story Aida begins: “It is Italy that sought me and not vice versa”. In fact after taking a degree in jurisprudence she was asked by a close family friend, Ermanno, to give him a hand in getting his car spare-parts shop in the outskirts of Rome back on the rails. Aida accepted and in 1995 left for Rome, but in a few months the situation deteriorated. The shop accumulated a debt of 120 million lire and Ermanno fell ill. She did not want to leave him and decided to stay on. She went on for a while making a great many sacrifices until she realized that she had no business acumen either. We had nothing left to sell and one day, to keep myself busy, I opened some old boxes that were to be thrown out. They were full of period car parts, put away years ago because there was no market for them. I took them out, cleaned them and arranged them on the shelves. They were really beautiful! I then began reading catalogues and instruction manuals and I became passionate about them. Our clients, having noticed the innovation, sent us collectors and experts in this field. This was our salvation!”. Today, a lovely sign hangs over the shop: Autoricambi Aida, even if those entering for the first time mistake the owner for the sales girl: “They find it hard to accept that a woman understands cars and that a foreigner should be the owner of the business”.

Aida’s husband and an Italian employee work with Aida. At home her son, born in Italy seven years ago awaits her with her old friend Ermanno, whom they took to live with them when he succumbed to Alzheimer’s. Aida and her husband are Muslims, but they have chosen to send their son to a Catholic school “where there are no differences between black and white, rich and poor, or Italian and foreigner. My son’s best friend”, she says, “is Catholic and a few weeks ago they shared the excitement of the Pope’s visit to the school”. True integration passes through this, the foreign mothers are convinced of it: finding themselves every day side by side with their Italian peers in the school halls, on the bus, in the gym, helps the new generations to delete differences and prejudices.

Edith Eloise Jeomazawa from Madagascar, the owner of a spice shop in Turin (Atelier Madagascar), has given birth to four children in Italy and has been bringing them up alone for some time. “The oldest”, she recounts, “are teenagers and no longer experience the colour of their skin as a problem, whereas the youngest one still asks me a lot of questions. A short time ago, however, at the Jesuit school that he attends, a famous African American basket ball player visited the Jesuit school he attends. He instantly became an idol of the children and my son is now proud to be black like him!”. Edith, like many other foreign business women, says that after a certain initial diffidence, people accepted her well: “only at the Teatro dell’Opera do they continue to stare at me as if I were an extraterrestrial being!”. Instead, what all these women loudly complain of are the bureaucratic obstacles, the excessive number of taxes and the difficulties in obtaining funding. Rarely, however, do they want to leave. They continue to struggle in the certainty that the crisis will pass. “How could I tell my children that there is no future in Italy?”, Edith asks herself. “It would not be right, this is their country and they have the right to grow up with the hopes and dreams of their age”. She too arrived in Italy after marrying an Italian and at a certain point combined her experience in Madagascar with the demands of the new country. “I started with vanilla, a spice that my family has cultivated for four generations. In Italy a great deal of vanilla is used, but it is almost always synthetic. I went to Madagascar, I bought several kilos of vanilla pods and sold them to the pastry shops in Turin”.

Since then, in recent decades there has been a continuous escalation. Edith took a course in nutrition. She set up a spice trade business importing spices from all over the world, she started several plantations in Madagascar which give work to as many as 300 people in the season and in 2010 she was nominated “Foreign Entrepreneur of the Year” in the context of the MoneyGram Award, a prestigious prize for immigrant business people in Italy.

In the Innovation category the following year, the same recognition was awarded to Margarita Perea Sánchez, a Columbian dressmaker who opened her own business in Rome in 2005. Having arrived in Italy in 2001 with her husband and her son, who is 20 years old today, at the outset Margarita managed with part time jobs. Then she found work in an important haute couture business in the capital and saved up to open her Clinica dei vestiti , [clothes clinic], a name that pays tribute to her childhood dream. “I wanted to be a doctor but we could not afford university and my father insisted that I learn to sew”. Today, in addition to making new dresses, Margarita refurbishes old ones with great enthusiasm: she adapts them, repairs them and gives them a second life. “Until a short time ago – she explains – the crisis played in my favour. People preferred having their old clothes revamped rather than buying new ones. Now however, there is not even any money for repairs”.

Margarita, however, will not admit defeat: “In my own small way I want to make a contribution to solving this horrible crisis, I am an optimist and I never lose hope. Perhaps”, she laughs, “it is part of the Latin American spirit, it is enough to see what Pope Francis has done: thanks to him people have started to believe in the future again!”.

Silvia Gusmano




St. Peter’s Square

Oct. 19, 2019