Gunshots at parish latest sign of Italy’s immigration tensions

The logo welcoming refugees at a parish in Tuscany, Italy

A small Italian town in Tuscany became the setting for aggression against an immigrant late last week, when a young man, originally from Gambia, managed to escape injury despite facing gunshots (which turned out to be blanks) and return home to a parish that hosts him and another 100 migrants.

On Aug. 2 around 11 pm, Buba Ceesay, 24, from Gambia, was taking his usual evening run near the parish, when two people on bicycles approached him shouting racist slurs.

“If I’m walking around, I don’t even look at those people, you know? Because they always talk rubbish, I always pass them like this,” Buba later told local reporters.

“But I never expected that they would shoot a gun,” he said. The four bullets fired were blanks, but Buba said he froze upon hearing the shots and later managed to pick up one of the cartridges before running back to the parish.

The first sign that something was wrong was around 10:30 pm, when two young men, came by the parish yelling profanities and insults at immigrants. Fr Biancalani was in a meeting to address the issue when Buba ran in carrying the cartridge.

The parish priest, Fr Massimiliano Biancalani, who has been active in welcoming immigrants for years, took to Facebook to report the attack, drawing comments ranging from support to ridicule.

The day after the shooting, a crowd gathered in the nearby city of Florence to protest the rampant racism that has taken over Italy carrying banners under the famous dome of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore reading: “Florence will always be on the front lines against racism!”

Biancalani opened a small center in 2015, following Pope Francis’s call to dioceses worldwide to open their doors to migrants. The beds were sufficient for 20 people, but soon the parish decided to open its doors to immigrants expelled from other welcoming centers, bringing the tally up to 110.

“Unfortunately, we have to have mattresses on the floor because we don’t have the resources,” the priest said. “It’s all on our shoulders from an economic perspective, but with a few initiatives we go ahead.”

The initiatives include a pizza place entirely managed by immigrants welcomed in the parish once a week, called “Pizza at the Refugee,” where visitors can pay what they want and the money is divided among the staff.

Another initiative is bringing the immigrants for a day at the pool in the heat of summer. Last summer, a picture posted by Biancalani on Facebook showing several young black men enjoying the pool caused backlash on social media including negative comments from Italy’s Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini.

The intimidations ranged from death threats to graffiti on walls, and even holes being punched in the tires of bikes belonging to guests at the parish. But the bulk of the threats, Biancalani said, take place on social media and the internet.