From asylum seeker in Italy to organic yoghurt entrepreneur

They say entrepreneurial spirit flourishes in the face of great adversity and Barikamà, an organic yoghurt business which employs six former asylum seekers in Rome, is the perfect example.

From asylum seeker in Italy to organic yoghurt entrepreneur
Suleman, from Mali, has set up a yoghurt business in Rome. Photo: Patrick Browne

Each week the staff at Barikamà produce 200 litres of organic yoghurt which they deliver to customers by bicycle and sell from stalls at local markets in the city.

The operation has been such a success they have started to branch out into organic vegetables and now cultivate a hectare of land on the outskirts of the city.

Barikamà – a word which in Bambara, the principle language of Mali, means 'resistance' is a successful example of a micro-enterprise, a small-scale business which provides its workers with self-sufficiency and requires little or no initial investment.

“I set the business up in 2010 because I had no work and refused to go and toil in the fields of southern Italy, where I had spent painful six months before coming to Rome”, Barikamà founder Suleman, a 30-year-old from Mali, told The Local.

Suleman's story

A journey of 1,958 miles begins with a single step and Suleman took his in July 2008 when he left his small village in southern Mali bound for Italy.

Ahead of him lay the Sahara dessert, an illegal journey across the perilous Mediterranean, six months' exploitation in the fields of Calabria and finally, his own business in Rome.

“When you begin the journey you don't see it as dangerous. I don't think anybody does,” Suleman said.

“Everybody thinks: 'if something terrible is going to happen, it will happen to the other guy, not me.'”

After working for two months in Libya to amass the $700 needed to pay a trafficker to take him to Europe, Suleman was dropped in a dinghy off the coast of Sicily with 28 other Africans.

“But arriving is only he beginning of a new set of problems, the biggest of which is getting your papers in order,” he said.

Upon arrival, Suleman quickly applied for asylum on humanitarian grounds, but while laws state the granting of permits should take no more than 35 days, the process normally takes between 18 months and two years as the Italian system is overwhelmed by the volume of applicants it receives.

Processing is one of the biggest problems facing both the Italian state and its refugees, despite the establishment of a series of so-called 'hotspots' last year.

In the first six months of 2016, more than 70,000 migrants have arrived in Italy – the majority of them from sub-Saharan Africa.

“We waited for months, but nothing came through. Being unable to work left us all in terrible limbo, so we left Sicily for Rosarno, Calabria, where most illegals go to work,” Suleman explained.

Oranges and exploitation

For the next six months, Suleman and his friends spent 12 hours each day working in the citrus groves of Calabria for a mere €20 a day.

During that time they lived in the makeshift camps around Rosarno alongside thousands of other illegal workers. The medical humanitarian organization, Doctors Without Borders, has described the living conditions in the camps as 'worse than third-world.'

“You finally can make some money but you can just as easily die,” Suleman said.

It's not an exaggeration. Last year, tens of workers from sub-Saharan Africa dropped dead from exposure and exhaustion, having been pushed too hard in the sun-baked fields of southern Italy.

“Then there's the danger that someone will shoot you,” he adds bitterly, referring to a period of violent clashes between migrant workers which erupted after three labourers were shot with an air-rifle on their way back to the camps in January 2010.

The shootings sparked numerous protests and string of violent clashes between local residents, migrants and the police, which left 66 injured.

As racial tensions reached breaking point the government shipped 1,300 migrants off to different cities in Italy.

Suleman and his friends ended up in Rome, where they slept rough at the central Termini station and relied on the Catholic church-run charity, Caritas, to provide him with meals.

The wounds in Rosarno have still not healed. Last month tensions flared up once more, when police shot and killed Sekine Traorè, a worker from Mali, after he allegedly pulled a knife on a police officer.

Eventually Suleman and his friends were taken in by volunteers from ex-Snia, a social centre housed in a former factory in central Rome, who helped the group get their papers.

They may have been legal workers, but they were now at the back of Italy's job queue and feared they would end up toiling in the fields once more .

“The guys at ex-Snia helped me set up the business and I started by making just fifteen litres of yoghurt, which I sold at a local market. Since then, things have been steadily growing,” Suleman explained.

A model to follow

“Now the business provides work for six migrants, from all over Africa, and we've also added an Italian, Mauro, who suffers from Aspergers Syndrome. He joined us last year and has been great.” 

According to the International Office for Migration (IOM), micro-enterprises like Barikaimà represent the best alternative to humanitarian aid, and boost levels of social integration and self-esteem among refugees.

Suleman is living proof. Thanks to Barikimà, he is a fully-integrated member of Italian society, making an important contribution to his local community and economy.

Working to set up the business he has learned to speak fluent Italian and fallen in love with Ilaria, a Roman who he met at Ex-Snia.

The pair has been together ever since and earlier this year celebrated the birth of a baby boy.

“People say Italy is a racist country, but even after my time in Rosarno, I don't think so. Racists, idiots and hateful people can be found all over the globe.

“I wish people would stop calling high immigration 'a migration crisis' though. When people come to live in your country to work, share their culture and expertise, it should be seen as a blessing.”