Italy in Ohio, meet the Italian Honorary Consul Serena Scaiola

SScaiolaIn times of spending review Italian institutions are trying, more or less, to rationalize their costs: we have to say, with mixed results. The complex system which belongs to the Farnesina, the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs which performs many activities to represent our country all over the world, weighs on the state budget for a measly 0.2%. You read that right: 0.2%. In this writer’s opinion, it is just crazy.

If with this ridiculous percentage Italy can still meet and satisfy, perhaps not always as one would hope, the needs of Italians Abroad (potentially, if all who are entitled by the law would ask the citizenship, we’d have 60 million of Italians abroad: the same number of the inhabitants residing in Italy today) and of the many foreigners who come to Italy or just pass through for work, study and tourism, is thanks to the dedication and professionalism of the best civil servants that the country has, diplomats, and also thanks to the help of people who have not pursued a diplomatic career but that represent (with the word “honorary”) Consulates and Vice-Consulates very committed in helping to solve the enormous amount of paperwork required by Italian law, often almost incomprehensible. One of the most dynamic Italian Honorary Consuls in the USA is Serena Scaiola, in Cleveland, Ohio: where we discover that there is also a lot of good Italy. We are proud of that, and grateful to honorary Consul Scaiola.

Consul Scaiola, what are the activities of your honorary Consulate?

Basically the activities of the honorary consulate are divided into four main macro areas of equal importance. The first is the promotion of the Italian language and culture through the entire organization, support or participation in events throughout the state of Ohio that I personally do: art or photography exhibitions, concerts, book presentations , organization of film festivals, sporting events. As for the language, we also maintain contacts with schools and universities to try to boost the number of Italian language courses and the AP Program.

The second macro area is the promotion of trade between Italy and the Ohio and vice versa: in this case we organize events, I keep relations with the mayors of the various cities and the office of the Governor of Ohio and help to facilitate contacts with Italian companies to enter the market or setting up a business. In this regard, for example, in these days in Toledo we held a very interesting event for the promotion of the city’s commercial and financial opportunities with meetings with local companies, which also involved FCA Fiat Chrysler, organized by professionals from Emilia Romagna who brought here in Ohio several entrepreneurs.

The third key area is the representation of Italian institutions: as Honorary Consul I participate in official events and ceremonies which push towards the strengthening of relations between the Italian authorities and those of Ohio, and I assist the Italian authorities on their visit to Ohio.

Finally there the assistance to all those who, for various reasons, have to relate with the Italian system from the bureaucratic point of view: pensions, visas, elections, passports, renewal of documents, constantly updated consular data, citizenships and the dissemination of news, etc..

The Italian bureaucracy is not easy to understand and accept for us Italians: we can only try to imagine how hard is having to “represent” it to Americans, less used to that huge mess of paperwork and laws…

One interesting thing to note is that Italy has a Registry of Italians Resident Abroad (AIRE), while for instance the United States have not something like it: so we enroll all Italians resident abroad, who can then use the services of the Consulate. For those who reside in the United States while maintaining their Italian citizenship, the services we provide are critical, because they avoid them the obligation to do something directly in Italy.

At the same time it is important to emphasize that we make the same number of services to U.S. citizens and also to foreign citizens who are here in America: we basically work either for the Italians and for the Americans, because all visas and citizenship applications we take care about come from non-Italian citizens. And often we do it at no cost to them. This service, for example, is not made by the United States, who do not have a consular registry.

It’s interesting, but who are these foreign nationals who use your services? Maybe students? We know that Italy is the first non-English-speaking for the incoming of American students: every year they are 35,000 ...

Of course, there are many students. But they also are some of the many tourists who come to visit Italy, and that have a specific need: for example Americans who want to stay longer than 90 days, or foreign nationals who just have to pass through Italy; physicians and researchers from abroad who come frequently to Italy to participate in conferences or professional exchanges (and I can assure you that from this point of view the very important medical facilities here in Cleveland create a considerable amount of work for the Consulate); or those who travel for business reasons: in short, a whole range of services that we give to the Americans. We maybe can say that we work for almost 50% for them. A “traffic” which is important for our country in many ways: we are fully aware of its importance and therefore we manage with efficiency, but also with limited resources.

According to your experience, is there a change that, with no additional costs for Italy, would improve the Italian legislation and simplify some of the many paperwork involving the Consulate and the Italians in America?

Probably INPS could try to revise some of the procedures. There is certainly need for control, because in the past there have been too many cases of fraud, due to the failure to report the death of a pensioner entitled to INPS or the real incomes in the United States. Unfortunately, however, the documents that are annually sent are numerous, often written in a language that is very difficult to understand for those who have been here for a long time – and all our pensioners have been here for several years.

With the documents that these people receive, the certifications that have to fill in – a statement of existence and income, for example – and then what we have to validate and to return to INPS in Italy or City Bank in the UK … there can be many misunderstandings, confusion, difficulties, delays and lost parcels. And in this sense, the expansion of the telematic support of INPS gives little help to retirees who are not able to access to it independently. Our offices do their best to act as a bridge and solve problems on a daily basis, but a little simplification would do well in the first place to these people, now older and accustomed here in America to a more streamlined bureaucracy.

As mentioned, the area of expertise of your honorary Consulate is the State of Ohio. Are there many Americans of Italian descent?

Numerically it is one of the largest communities in the United States, probably the fourth or fifth. Officially, according to data from the U.S. Census of 2010, in Ohio there are about 770,000 Americans of Italian descent (Ohio population is about 10,500,000). 5% of the entire population of the metropolitan area of Cleveland has Italian origins. The mayor of Cleveland Frank G. Jackson is Italian on the maternal side: thanks to the Consulate together in 2009 we signed the Sister City Program between Cleveland and Vicenza.

As for the Italians most recently arrived, let’s say from a newer generation like me, we are about 5,000. Ohio is benefiting from the famous Italian “brain drain” because among these 5,000 Italians in Ohio there are a lot of really smart people: researchers who come to work for universities, doctors (such as the new director of The Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital, who is Italian), business owners, museum curators and musicians, because here we have the Cleveland Orchestra that is the second most prestigious in the USA.

When did you arrive in Ohio?

I arrived at the end of 1995, “passing” for study reasons from Cornell University in upstate New York, but I have been holding the post of honorary Consul for about seven years now. To be precise, when I accepted it was an honorary Vice Consulate. Two years ago, because of the activities carried out, there was an elevation to honorary Consulate. A recognition of all the work done on a voluntary basis, that made me extremely pleased. Until the 80s, the consulate of this jurisdiction was here in Cleveland, and the one in Detroit was a Vice Consulate. It was decided to change and bring the Consulate in Detroit because although in Michigan there are fewer Italian Americans than in Ohio (about 500,000), they have more Italians recently emigrated (about 7,500).

What is the history of Italian emigration in Ohio?

Many Italians arrived in the great emigration of the early ‘900. About their origins, the classic regions of central and southern Italy are prevalent: however, Cleveland has also a good component of people from Veneto and Friuli. They were tailors, stonecutters, masons … manual workers. The Italian stonemasons – especially from Friuli – built some of the most important structures in Cleveland, including for example the sculptures called “Guardians of Traffic” on the Hope Memorial Bridge, the Little Italy and a beautiful cemetery called Lake view Cemetery.

After the historic mass emigration, in the last twenty years there has been a very interesting development of more than 50 Italian companies that have created very valid bases here in Ohio: Luxottica, Eurostampa, Salvagnini, Panaria – just to name a few – are here in Ohio, along with some others established earlier and others more recent, thanks to the economic benefits and tax incentives offered by local governments, to operating costs significantly lower than elsewhere, and to the ideal geographical location of the State.

Are there places of special significance, in the past and even now, for the Italians in Cleveland and in Ohio?

Obviously the first thing is Little Italy, where we organize different events: we celebrate Ferragosto and the Feast of the Assumption and Columbus Day; besides since 2009, in collaboration with the Mayor, at City Hall in October we celebrate the Italian American Heritage Month.

Then there’s the Italian Cultural Garden, which was founded many years ago thanks to a donation from the Italian Government, which has a long history of involvement with it: in 1930 for the inauguration of the garden, it donated a bust of the poet Virgil, along with a column of the Roman Forum; two years later came another donation, a rock called “Montegrappa memorial stone” to honor the Italian American veterans who fought in Italy during the First World War. In Vicenza – as I said before, twinned with Cleveland since 2009 – there is a similar plate.

In 2010 we brought to the Italian Cultural Garden the celebrations for the feast of the Republic, that here in Cleveland had never been celebrated before, while since 2009 we’ve been also celebrating Veterans Day.

What happens under the formula of the Sister City program between Cleveland and Vicenza?

It is based on commercial motivations and opportunities in the medical-scientific sector. The twinning has included, for example, an agreement signed between the Cleveland Clinic and the San Bortolo Hospital in Vicenza for the testing of a machinery with regard to kidney transplantation. In recent days, the primary Claudio Ronco, who signed the agreement for the Italian side, received a prestigious award from the American Kidney Foundation. The choice on which Italian city to propose the twinning led us to Vicenza in particular for its excellence in the production and testing medical instruments and equipment: here the Cleveland Clinic is practically the engine of the city. Another concrete step was an agreement signed between the University of Vicenza and the Cleveland State University for exchange programs between students and faculty. These are the two most important results so far.

In addition there is a match in the music industry, because as I said the Cleveland Orchestra is a true excellence, and Vicenza is also known for its traditions in the production of musical instruments.

Cleveland is in the area of the Great Lakes, here in Italy less known and perhaps considered not so attractive, compared to the big cities on both coasts that hosted many Italian … in your opinion, are there differences between the experiences of the Italian American emigrants in these two different types of destination?

Indeed Cleveland is still a mistreated city, because too little known: by someone it is still described with the motto “Mistake on the lake,” or as the city with the river that caught fire, or the city you fly over to get from New York in Chicago, either for tourism or for business. All of us who live here are trying to change this image.

A very interesting part of Cleveland (as well as Cincinnati and Toledo, to be super partes) are the business opportunities, because the city still remains much less expensive than New York or Chicago. In addition, Cleveland is a city that culturally has much to offer: we have one of the most beautiful museums in the United States, the Cleveland Museum of Art; we have the second important orchestra in the United States; we have the Rock Hall of Fame, the only one of its kind in the world. About three years ago I had the pleasure to collaborate in the organization of a concert of Zucchero right there: he was the first Italian artist to perform in that venue, a project and a show literally unforgettable!

Anyone who has attended an event here, maybe thanks to an invitation from me, each time remains amazed by the welcoming and by what he or she finds here: from architect Massimiliano Fuksas, our host for the AIA conference last year, to Beppe Severgnini, who came here for business months ago; from maestro Matteo Fedeli, who brought his magnificent Stradivari in Ohio for some concerts we organized, to the leaders of the Italian Tennis Federation who accompanied Corrado Barazzutti and our team of FedCup here in Cleveland in February … all of them were positively surprised. In short, the hardest part is to bring the people here.

With regard to the experiences of the Italian American immigrants here or in the big cities, all things considered I think that the story of the great Italian emigration to the USA is a universal story, regardless of where they stopped: the reasons were the same, as well as the difficulties, the experiences, the discriminations, the struggles but then also the successes.

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