I remember every detail of that moment. Feelings, smells, clothes I wore, music I was listening to and what was going on in my head. Just like my approach to elementary school. When at the age of five, I had to face the shock of being the only child in class who didn’t have the pencil case.
I’m sitting on the floor of Milan’s police headquarters at via Fatebenefratelli waiting for my turn. No, I haven’t committed any crime. I will leave this country in a few years with an immaculate record. I’m not here because the police brought me here. I came of my own free will. My residence permit expires soon, and I have to renew it. I have to renew it so that I can reside in Italy so that I can study so that I can continue to play football so that I can live and do the same things that my friends do.
I am sitting, tired, and mentally exhausted. I woke up at five this morning, and at six I was out here. The queue was already long, and after an hour, I was only one or two metres ahead. Knowing what was waiting for me, I decided to commit something unacceptable, something I should be ashamed of now. Still, I feel no remorse. I crossed the queue; I made a shield of my appearance as a white-skinned boy, of my blue pants to which I matched a blue shirt and an innocent face to look like an Italian. To look at me, anyone would have thought I was just any Italian student. I grabbed the card with the number 181 and sneaked in. It was 7:00, and a few minutes later, I thought I’d get out of here after lunch. I was too optimistic.
It’s 16:30, and I just texted the girl I’m dating that our date has to be postponed for tomorrow. I’m still waiting for my turn, and from the moment I walked in, I’ve been doing nothing but looking at the people around me. The air stinks. It smells like sweat, like bad food, like exhaustion.
Some children cry, others play to deceive time.
Some mothers breastfeed, others try to put their babies to sleep.
Some fathers lose their patience and others who don’t give any hint of nervousness. There’s the whole world in this immigration office. Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia. We’re all here. Nobody’s missing.
The number 150 has appeared on the screen; my turn is coming up. Thirty or so numbers and this hellhole will be over. There’s nothing left for me to do but think about all the time I’ve spent here since I’ve been in Italy. It’s the first time I’ve been here on my own; it’s the first time since I came of age. Before it was a hell I used to share with my parents. Going to police headquarters meant missing a day of school. It meant going to Milan and then taking the train and the subway. These were all things that I liked, and I feel like an idiot when I think about how much coming to the police headquarters to renew my residence permit was a good day for me.
I always liked Milan. The trains, the subway, the crowds of people, the shops, the kind of life you breathe here. I’ve always wanted to live here. I don’t know yet, but after a few years I will have the chance to study in Milan, and I will finally take away all that desire to enjoy this city in every corner.
There’s a family that attracts my attention. They must be Indian or Pakistani. The family consists of five members: father, mother and three little girls. The father figure has just received what I think is the renewal of the residence permit for himself and everyone else. He does a liberating run towards his women. Their faces, smiles, and the hugs they give themselves are the best representation of the happiness I could give right now if anyone asked me.
I look at them, and instead of empathizing their joy and being happy, I feel strong compassion. I pity them, as I do myself. I would like to get up, join them and tell them to leave. To leave this country and go back to live in theirs. I’m so tired of all this that I’d go back to mine, even now. On foot, if I had to. It was a life spent like that: renewing the residence permit. According to the laws that governments enjoy changing every time, the merry-go-round changes. Sometimes the renewals last longer, sometimes less. They say that after certain years you are entitled to citizenship. Some people have been waiting for it for so long that they forgot the date’s application.
No one forced you to come, some might rightly say. I’d be inclined to agree with a fierce statement like that right now. I’d go back and do anything to stop my father. I’d tell him to stay, not to convince my mother to go after him. I’d try to persuade them to stay in a place where even if you want to work there’s no job. A place where the war will come and who knows if you’ll be lucky to survive or not. Because after hearing the war stories, I think it’s all about luck. But this waiting, this bureaucracy, this constant spotlight reminding you that you’re not like the locals has tired me out. And now, as I stretch my legs and try to relax my muscles, I almost give a shit about all the things a developed country puts at your disposal. I’d like to close my eyes and catapult myself back to where I was born.
As if that wasn’t enough, you grow up in an environment where you always hear locals saying that we are all the same, that we are all in the same boat. Bullshit. I needed a residence permit to go to school, to play with my friends and to register for the football team. No, we’re not all the same. We never will be. That’s the sad, raw truth. But it’s okay.
As I follow that family out of the police station with my eyes, I tell myself I don’t even want to be the same as the locals. I don’t care anymore. Because you get to a certain point where it takes away your strength and you accept it passively. You come in here, you get in line, and you wait for your number. You get your permit renewed, and you go home.
It’s been an hour, and finally, it’s my turn. The guy at the counter is a few years older than me. I give him everything he asks for, and after about ten minutes, he makes me sign a paper with an orange card on it. My new residence permit. It is valid from 2009 until 2014. It’s 2010; a year has already passed. Five years, I’ve never had a residence permit this long. Before I leave, the guy reminds me that the next one will be indeterminate. He expects me to be pleased, to smile and react in who knows what way. I thank him and leave.
“I don’t give a shit“, I’d like to say. But it’s not his fault; he had nothing to do with it. It’s nobody’s fault. I wish I could find someone to blame for all this. Who makes some people have to leave their places and spend their lives in places like police headquarters to renew residence permits.
All I can do is get out of this place. I went in there ten hours ago. It was dark; it’s dark again. I’m texting to mom that I’m out, that I’m stopping for something to eat because I’m exhausted. There’s a McDonald’s down the road. I get thrown in. I order a big menu and try to enjoy it with all the calm in the world. After a couple of fries and the first sip of Coke, I can hear my cell phone vibrating. He’s my best friend.
“Football in an hour or so?”
“I can’t, I’m in Milan.”
“What are you doing in Milan at this hour?”
“I was at police headquarters. I just finished.”
“At police headquarters? What the fuck did you do?”
“Nothing, calm down. I had to renew my residence permit.”
I take the first bite of the burger, and I smile. My Italian friends know the police headquarters as the place where you are taken if you have committed a crime. They don’t know that there is an immigration office, a room where foreigners spend their lives renewing their residence permits. The burger’s good, I’ll take another bigger bite. I think in four years I’ll still be here, another time.
It will be the last one, but I don’t know yet.
The highlighted image was taken by Claudio Furlan.