Speaking to Omar Neffati in the wake of Italy’s election in the autumn, he returned repeatedly to the moment in which he had to leave his friends and wait outside the polling station while they voted.
“I accompanied my friends to the polling station, we were chatting outside, then they all went in to vote together,” the political activist recalled.
Neffati had arrived in Italy from Tunisia at the age of six months and grew up in the town of Sutri in the mountains outside Rome, where he was to become the lifeblood of local campaigning.
He was the spokesman of the Italians without citizenship movement, campaigning for the reform of laws which, like Ireland’s, are strongly based on descent, leaving more than a million minors in Italy without citizenship, the vast majority born in the country.
Neffati died by suicide last week aged 27, never having received the citizenship for which he longed.
His untimely death and the manner of his passing have been a brutal blow to all those who loved him and to the activist circles of Italy of which he was a stalwart.
‘People die of racism in Italy too’
“Above all he was a person who got out of bed each day and worked to right wrongs,” the 25-year-old centre-left lawmaker Rachele Scarpa said in a speech to parliament, recalling how they had known each other since their days as student activists in high school.
“I remember a kind person, driven by the values he had in his heart. He was a campaigner through his own existence.”
She recalled his hurt at being forced through the bureaucratic battle of renewing his residence permit, his exclusion from hiring drives, from the Erasmus exchange programme, and from voting.
Such people are “systematically rejected by the only place they call home,” Scarpa said, urging the chamber to push ahead with reform.
My first interview with Neffati for this newspaper was about his proposal for a compromise in Italy’s long-stalled debates on citizenship reform. He pushed for a path to citizenship linked to school attendance: an integration process in itself, so much so that foreign national children often do not realise they have a different legal status to their schoolmates.
We spoke again when the right-wing Giorgia Meloni was propelled to power in September’s election. Typically for Neffati – the kind of activist who threw himself into supporting the campaigns of others as well as his own – he was most energised to tell me about the fight for abortion access rather than the implications for citizenship reform of the rise to power of the anti-immigration right that had long thwarted it.
Full of bravado, he described rallying his friends after the crushing results of the election came through.
“It’s time to roll up our sleeves, to restart from where we were, and step by step fight for our rights. Understand where we went wrong, where we can be better, and that nothing is lost because at the end, the dawn always comes,” he said.
But it was also clear that his exclusion from voting in the crucial election had hurt.
He had been open about the toll of discrimination in the past. “The colour of my skin has been a cause of suffering many times,” he told a Black Lives Matter rally that he organised in 2020, describing the daily drag of questions about his origin, or compliments on his Italian.
“Pointing it out means not considering me part of the community. An eternal stranger. People die of racism in Italy too,” he said.
Local reporting described “tears and rage” last weekend, as his friends, family, and political comrades gathered outside the family home where his coffin had lain in repose.
As it was carried out on to the street, the gathered crowd began singing Italy’s hymn of protest and resistance, “Bella Ciao”: goodbye, beautiful.