Syracuse, Italy – Until recently, Ramzi Harrabi felt at home in Sicily, where he has lived for more than 20 years after leaving Tunisia.
But he reconsidered his place in Italian society after the 2018 election of a populist government, championed by former Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini.
Watching Salvini’s latest attack against the Tunisian community in Italy last January partly confirmed his worries.
“I couldn’t believe my own eyes. I was sure I was watching a parody video with dubbing,” said Harrabi.
In the clip, he and a group of local supporters, escorted by policemen and journalists, ring the Labidi family’s doorbell. He then asks the Tunisian family, through an intercom system: “We heard rumours you are drug dealers, is that true? Let us in.”
The incident caught international media attention and sparked a diplomatic dispute between Italy and Tunisia.
Moez Sinaoui, the Tunisian ambassador to Italy, wrote a response to Italy’s Senate speaker criticising Salvini’s lack of respect towards Tunisian migrants, a deep-rooted minority in Italian society for decades.
Harrabi, an artist, felt compelled to respond.
“That scene reminded me of the times punishing squads would knock on the doors of Jewish families under fascism in Italy,” Harrabi told Al Jazeera. “I wanted to offer a counter-narrative giving a human face to the many people unfairly judged just because they don’t bear an Italian last name.”
The day after Salvini’s video went viral, Harrabi launched a Facebook page, Io Spaccio, an outlet for Tunisian migrants in Italy to tell their own stories of positive contributions to the country.
They listed all the things they “dealt” that were not drugs – such as culture, solidarity and good food.
“Migrants in Italy don’t often have a voice, others speak for us, even when we are attacked,” Harrabi said.
“So I wanted to create a virtual space to present our view on the matter for the Italians who wanted to hear us.”
Adel Chehida, Harrabi’s friend, quickly signed up to the page.
“It’s deplorable to see a man in a strong position attacking a vulnerable category basing his actions on racist assumptions rather than facts,” he said. “It was a disturbing scene to watch, that doesn’t belong to a European democracy.”
Chehida moved to Italy in 1999 for love. He married an Italian woman he met during a university exchange in France and has always been proud to call Italy his second home.
In his video – which was watched more than 113,000 times in three days, Chehida said he was a doctor, husband and father of three children, and explained that his nationality did not threaten the Italian identity.
“My advice to Mr Salvini is to study history, because Tunisians and Italians have a common past, and our shared Mediterranean culture makes us more similar than he claims.”
Italians and Tunisians share a long history of shared migration; in the early 20th century, Italians were a consistent migrant community in Tunisia.
“In the 1920s, Tunisia had an Italian population of about 100,000, while Tunisians have been present in Italy for decades long before the refugee crisis,” said Daniela Melfa, professor of Euro-Mediterranean relations at the University of Catania.
She underlined, however, that even before the latest populist outburst, Muslim migrants in Italy were often on the receiving end of hatred.
In recent years, she added, a single politician, Salvini, has been able to channel anti-Muslim sentiment to legitimise his power and grow the far right.
“Salvini is an entrepreneur of fear, who gave a louder voice to that portion of Italian population influenced by insecurity and ignorance, that found in migrants a scapegoat to their problems,” Melfa told Al Jazeera.
As a Tunisian citizen, I felt hurt and discriminated by Salvini's behaviour. Personally, I don't think I would like to go to Italy anymore, because I don't want to go to a country where there's no respect for human rights.
After seeing social media posts mocking Salvini’s behaviour rather than condemning it, Sarah Yacoubi, a university professor who has lived in the southern Calabria region for 16 years, wrote to Italian President Sergio Mattarella.
“Salvini’s actions can be legally prosecuted, especially because he’s not just an ordinary citizen, but an MP representing his people,” she said. “He violated a family’s personal domicile and right to privacy in front of cameras.
“When I received Italian citizenship, I cried out of happiness because my second home had officially recognised me. I’m worried new generations won’t have that same privilege.”
Despite the current atmosphere, Yacoubi tries to stay hopeful.
“I have neighbours and friends in Calabria that have welcomed me since I arrived, and haven’t changed opinion because of what is happening right now. But this doesn’t mean we have to bypass unlawful, racist attacks on the institutional level.”
Harrabi’s Facebook page currently has about 60 videos, with new clips added each week.
Recently, some Italians and representatives of other migrant communities have sent videos to him to post.
“It’s not a platform to debate politics, but an outlet encouraging Italians to verify the other version of the story,” Harrabi said.
On February 2, Tunisians in Italy gathered in main cities demanding a public apology from Salvini.
Harrabi led the rally in Palermo, Sicily’s capital, where he was joined by the city’s mayor, Leoluca Orlando, a champion of migration rights.
“We want to make sure that no micro-aggression like the one in Bologna passes unnoticed,” said Harrabi, referring to the harassment of the Tunisian family.
“We’ll keep posting new videos and gathering in squares until certain situations will no longer be considered normal,” said Harrabi, adding that another demonstration is planned for early March.
The Labidis, the Italian-Tunisian family targeted by Salvini, told Tunisian 216TV that they were “shocked” and “disappointed” by the politician’s attack against them, which had been based on a neighbourhood rumour.
The incident had mental health repercussions on their 17-year old son, a football player now too embarrassed to keep playing with his Italian teammates.
The Tunisian community in Italy accounts for 1 percent of the local population, with more than 100,000 legally residing within its territory, mainly in the regions of Sicily and Emilia Romagna.
Many still have relatives in Tunisia, where the League’s misconduct attracted widespread criticism.
“As a Tunisian citizen, I felt hurt and discriminated by [Salvini’s] behaviour,” said Nour Aloui, a radio presenter from Tunis who was planning to move to Milan to join her boyfriend.
“Personally, I don’t think I would like to go to Italy anymore, because I don’t want to go to a country where there’s no respect for human rights.”