It was a groundbreaking moment when Kyenge was appointed Italy’s first black minister by former premier Enrico Letta’s government in April 2013 – a message to the world that Italy had matured in its attitude towards non-white foreigners.
But what ensued quickly gave the impression that the country – now home to almost five million immigrants — was anything but tolerant. Within a matter of months, Kyenge had bananas thrown at her and was likened to an orangutan by a senior politician, while a local councillor called for her to be raped.
With all this to deal with, one might conclude that she spent most of her ten months in the role dodging bananas and insults – but, in fact, she was plugging away at legislation that would define her legacy: a new citizenship bill.
The bill, which would finally give citizenship to the babies of immigrants born on Italian soil, was passed by the Lower House on Tuesday.
Currently, children born to immigrant parents in Italy have to wait until they turn 18 before being eligible for citizenship.
The legislation still needs to be passed by the senate before being enacted, but Kyenge, who is now a Democratic Party member of the European Parliament, said it “was a day to celebrate”.
“I’m very proud, it was one of my battles,” she told The Local by telephone from Brussels.
“The whole battle isn’t over yet, but it’s a very important first step towards better integration and inclusion. Children born to foreigners can finally be 100 percent Italian.”
Kyenge, who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, knows how it feels to be excluded.
When she moved to Italy in 1983 on a student visa, she said she was one of a small number of foreigners, something she said triggered “curiosity” rather than hostility.
She went on to obtain a degree in medicine and surgery from the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Rome, before qualifying as an ophthalmologist.
The 1990s saw big changes in her personal life as well as professional one. In 1994, she married an Italian engineer, Domenico Gristino, and went on to have two daughters.
But it was also a decade that saw the number of foreigners coming to Italy swell, with most of the media coverage whipping up xenophobic fears. It was within this context that the anti-immigrant Northern League, founded in 1991, gathered prominence as its politicians climbed the ranks in Italy’s northern regions. An alliance with Silvio Berlusconi later facilitated its rise to power at a national level.
As racial tensions flourished, Kyenge entered local politics in Modena, fighting for immigrant rights and integration. She joined the Democratic Party and in 2004 was elected to Modena’s city council.
Less than 10 years later – in February 2013 – she entered parliament, and three months after that received a call from Enrico Letta asking if she’d like to be integration minister.
Kyenge, now 51, grasped the role with fervour, despite knowing the appointment was bound to set the cat among the pigeons.
Even at the height of the venomous campaign against her, she insisted Italy was a tolerant country. And still does to this day.
“During the time of the attacks, I always said this was just a small group of ignorant people,” she said.
“But the reality is Italy has changed. It’s multicultural and still has much to do in terms of adapting and integration.”
She said the citizenship law should go some way towards repairing the damage that high-profile racist attacks – not only against her, but also against the footballer Mario Balotelli, have done to Italy’s reputation abroad.
“It sends out a positive message…that our country is open to people with different skin and who have different parents.”
Still, Italy missed a big opportunity to redeem itself in September when senators voted not to bring racism charges against Roberto Calderoli, the Northern League member who compared Kyenge to an orangutan.
He made the slur during a rally in July 2013, telling the crowd that when he saw pictures of Italy’s newly appointed black minister he “could not help but think of features of an orangutan”.
He apologized, brushing the remark off as a “joke”, and in his defense described himself as a “misunderstood animal lover” rather than a racist.
At the time, Kyenge said she felt betrayed by the vote, especially as some of her Democratic Party colleagues had gone against her.
“The senators missed an opportunity to send out a positive message – they made a technical and a political error.”
Calderoli, who had made a string of racist remarks in the past – including saying Italy beat France in the 2006 World Cup final because the French team was “made up of Negroes, Muslims and communists” – is still being pursued for defamation over the case by a court in Bergamo. The next hearing is scheduled for October 27th.
Kyenge has also said she will petition the European Court of Human Rights over the slur.
“Now it has become more symbolic…political representatives must understand that they have a responsibility and shouldn’t get away with making such insults.”
There has been some success with seeking justice through the courts so far, with another Northern League politician earlier this year being fined €150,000 for posting a photograph of Kyenge with an orangutan’s face on Facebook.
The role of integration minister was scrapped when Matteo Renzi’s cabinet came on board in February 2014, but amid the torrent of abuse, her tenure can also be credited for opening up a much-needed debate on racism in Italy – something she hopes will pave the way for a stronger, more tolerant and better integrated country.