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African immigrants create media, challenge racist viewpoints in Italy

ROME -- Seven years ago, Dagmawi Yimer was “between life and death” when Italian navy officers rescued him and 30 others from a skiff in heavy seas between Libya and the island of Lampedusa.

Today, Yimer directs documentary films about immigrants like himself from the home in the northern city of Verona he shares with his Italian partner and their two-year-old daughter.

He is part of the fast-growing immigrant population that is changing the face of Italy, just as it has transformed the populations of more northern European countries such as Britain, France or Germany.

He is also one of many foreigners who are trying — through cultural initiatives such as films and books — to change the racist views of many Italians toward the immigrants in their midst.

Contrary to popular perceptions, immigrants are making their mark across the Italian economy, politics and society. African-born author Kossi Komla-Ebri, a 59-year-old medical doctor, has published six books, all in Italian.

“Many immigrants think our emancipation is only economic and political, but we are convinced it's cultural and that we can have a more profound influence through culture,” he said.

It isn't easy. Italy's immigration wave is swelling just as the country is struggling to emerge from its deepest economic downturn in the post-war era.

Nearly eight percent of the population here is foreign born, and in 50 years the number will triple to 23 percent, according to a projection by Catholic charity Caritas.

To help pay the pensions of an ageing population and to ensure long-term growth, Italy needs to integrate its immigrant population into the workforce, economists say.

But high unemployment, especially among non-student young people, has fuelled anti-immigrant sentiment among the Italian mostly white population.

Italy's one-million strong Afro-Italian community, a fifth of all legal immigrants, got a high-profile representative earlier this year when African-born Cecile Kyenge became the country's first black minister.

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