Pakistanis in Italy III: Breaking out of low-paid work

Daud Khan, Ahmed Raza and Mahnoor Malik

Pakistanis in Italy III: Breaking out of low-paid work
We met Sibtain Malik on a hot day in May 2021 in the picturesque Monti district – an area on the “must see” list for all visitors to Rome. It is an area with narrow streets near the Colosseum, full of bars, restaurants and small boutiques. Sibtain’s shop sells stationery, as well as mobile phone and computer accessories. It is also one of the few shops in the area with internet and printing facilities. All things for which there is strong demand from tourists.

Sibtain spent his childhood in Lahore in a large family of eight brothers and sisters. His father was a schoolteacher – a man of letters, wisdom and vision. Money was always tight and their financial situation could become dire if there were unexpected expenses such as illness in the family. Sometimes even finding enough money for local transport could prove to be challenging. Despite their limited means, his parents managed to educate all their children, including the women.

Sibtain got his Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the Dayal Singh College Lahore with a goal of studying law. He is a driven individual who, from a young age, was used to hard work and striving to better himself and his family. While studying at college he was giving “tuition” to several students, an activity which then led him to establishing a small four-room school near Mochi Gate. He did this without a penny to his name; by borrowing money from the local maulvi and from friends, and by getting people to do repair and refurbishment work on credit. The school was a success and ran for another 15 years after he left.

However, the success of the school and admission to Islamia College for a law degree was not enough. The family was living in a small rented house in Lahore, money was always short, and there were big expenses on the horizon for the marriage of his sisters. He was also looking for greater challenges and Europe was beckoning. He managed to borrow Rs300,000 and got a ticket and tourist visa to Turkey. He left Pakistan in 1998 – he was 24 years old at the time. As most other migrants he had very little money, no clear idea where he would end up, and clueless about what he would do once he got there.

He spent six months in Istanbul doing odd jobs and then moved to Cyprus where there were people who could apparently smuggle him into France, Germany or the UK. But in one of those unforeseeable but decisive moments which is part of all our lives, he met a Pakistani who had a cousin in Rome. And so it was that he found himself in Naples and a few months later, in 1999, in Rome. For the next three years, he worked odd jobs, as a cook, dishwasher and cleaner. In summer he sold jewelry on beaches near Rome.
There are good trade opportunities in Italy and Pakistani textiles, handicrafts and carpets are much appreciated. The embassy organizes events when big businessmen come from Pakistan

TFT: How and why did you decide to start up your own business?

SM: I was fed up with doing odd-jobs. Italy is not an easy place for us Pakistanis to find a good job. There are several barriers, including the language, which is very difficult to master, lack of education and skills among migrants who come from poor households and a tendency among Italians to offer us only menial jobs. To me the only way out seemed to start my own business. Many migrants, most often those from Bangladesh, open grocery, or fruit and vegetable shops. But this requires good logistic backup – someone has to pick up fresh produce from the wholesale markets almost every day. We Pakistanis don’t have such a system.

Also, I wanted to do something different. Being the son of a school master, and having done some teaching myself, a shop selling stationery was appealing. But the riskiest decision was to try my luck in the Monti area. I always liked this area. When I was a newcomer in Rome, I used to come here with my family on weekends. It is easy to get to by metro and it is lively and so international. So, we picked this district. It was a very brave decision – maybe even foolhardy. But all through my life I have taken risk. I always believed that my hard work and willpower will take me to success.

TFT: Still, opening a business in the heart of Rome is not simple. Did you have other means and resources not typically available to new arrivals?

SM: It is difficult to open a business here, absolutely. To start with, there are many rules that one has to follow. Not following rules can have massive fines and tax implications. I had to read all of these rules myself, as I did not know anyone who could help me. I certainly did not have any significant financial resources of my own to invest. I was unable to obtain a loan from a bank, as I did not have any collateral. I ended up asking friends. I borrowed money left, right and center. I opened this place in partnership in 2002. Things have worked out well. We picked the right area and the right line of work. In addition to my partnership in this shop, I am also part owner of the laundry shop next door and, for some time, part owner of a restaurant nearby. The COVID-related crisis has hit us hard but we have managed to keep our head above water. Hopefully thing will improve in the coming months as the economy opens up and tourists return to Rome.

TFT: What would you like the Italian authorities, or Pakistani authorities in Italy, to help those like you with entrepreneurial leanings?

SM: I am not sure if there is anything that the Italian authorities can do. The laws and regulations governing the setting up and running of small businesses are complex but well established. And they apply to everyone – locals as well as migrants. Eventually one needs to hire the services of a good accountant, as one has to be very careful of tax liabilities.

With regard to Pakistani authorities in Italy, it would be good if they could do a bit more to help and organize the community. For example, they could hold events that provide tips and guidelines about business opportunities for small entrepreneurs. Guidance on practical things, like regulations, tax laws, accessing credit, getting support from associations, government and trade unions; and how to avoid links with organized crime who often try to enlist small businesses for money laundering.

There are good trade opportunities and Pakistani textiles, handicrafts and carpets are much appreciated. The embassy organizes events when big businessmen come from Pakistan but there are no initiatives for helping the local Pakistani community to set up small businesses.”
The Italy of today is not what it used to be. The situation has changed: there are fewer job opportunities and many migrants from many countries

TFT: What guidance do you have for any Pakistanis here in Italy or those who wish to come here and start their own business?

SM: The most important thing is having skills (hunar) - such as knowing how to repair cars or computers or plumbing or masonry. It is better than academic studies in some cases. Of course, if you are educated and also skillful that is even better. You must know about the rules of doing business here. These range from health and hygiene regulations, labor laws, laws on labelling and of course, tax laws.”

TFT: Are you satisfied with your life here and feel fully integrated?

SM: “Very satisfied and proud of my achievements. I am here with my family. We married in 2007 and I have two children who are five and 10 years old. We bought a house outside of Rome (for which I got the loan from a bank). It has been a fruitful journey. Being here, I have been able to support my family in Pakistan. I have financed the weddings of my sisters and brothers. I have always sent money back home on a monthly basis – I only missed two months in the last 20 years.”

TFT: Do you still feel a connection with Pakistan?

SM: Of course! I took my children to Pakistan recently. It was in the hot days of August. At first, they did not much like what they saw and felt that everything was alien. But they are young and after two, three days, they fit in.”

TFT: How are the children integrating in Italy? Are you worried about them finding it difficult to navigate the two identities?

SM: They are doing great here. They go to good schools and are doing well. My wife teaches them Urdu and they have online lessons to learn the Quran. They know about both the Pakistani culture and the Italian way of living. The system here is respectful of our values. For example, at school lunches they are served only those kinds of meat that we eat. I am not concerned about my kids being confused about their identities.

TFT: Do you miss Pakistan? If so, what do you miss?

SM: Of course, I miss Pakistan. The family, the food, the culture and the general buzz and vibe of Lahore. I will tell you something: when I go back to Lahore, I love to visit my old neighborhood and places that I used to frequent as a young man and as a student. I often walk around by myself. It helps me refresh my memory of who I am and where I came from.”

TFT: Has Pakistan changed?

SM: Yes, very much so. A change that is very noticeable is the use of mobile phones. Kids these days are always on Tik Tok making videos. They have also become bad tempered and are often not respectful towards their elders. I don’t like this behavior.”

TFT: Would you advise young people in Pakistan to come to Italy?

SM: No. I would think that they should start something of their own in Pakistan.

TFT: But, you yourself are here?

SM: I know. Many people I meet in Pakistan say the same thing to me, especially my relatives who think I don’t want them to come here and have to help them. I tell them that I would have liked to live in Pakistan if I had a job or business that made good money. So, if young kids can find something in Pakistan that would be better. Also, the Italy of today is not what it used to be. The situation has changed: there are fewer job opportunities and many migrants from many countries and not all are honest and hardworking. Earlier, there were fewer migrants and they were respected by locals. Now, it is different and many political parties blame migrants for all kinds of problems, from crime to joblessness.”

TFT: On a lighter note, is there a song or movie that you think about or watch when Pakistan comes to mind?

SM: I do not have any such interests. My younger days (jawani) went to work. I could not enjoy art, culture and music. That said, I have been able to benefit from the struggle. I do, however, follow politics in Pakistan fondly.”

The writers are Pakistanis who work and live in Rome. This is the third in a series of articles on Pakistanis in Italy

The writer is a retired UN staff member who lives partly in Italy and partly in Pakistan