“I will do all I can to reverse the decision” is the message that came from the Italian Embassy during an urgent crisis meeting with a group of campaigners fighting the decision to close consulate services in Bedford.
The group of people, who call themselves “Italian Bedfordians”, travelled to London today for a meeting with the deputy ambassador of the Italian Embassy Minister Charge D’Affaires Stefano Pontecorvo and Uberto Vanni d’Archirafi, Consul General of the Italian Consulate.
And the Times & Citizen travelled with the group of delegates, as well as leader of the labour group Sue Oliver, to London, to find out the local feeling of Italians in Bedford on the closure.
The outreach service called the Sportello Consulare closed on Saturday, but staff will remain in the office until October 1.
During the meeting, it was also agreed that the service will remain open once a week while negotiations are being carried out, but it is not known which building this will be in.
Campaign organiser Doctor Luigi Reale said: “We have fought long and hard for our voices to be heard and the message now seems to have been received in London and Rome.
“We put a reasonable compromise on the table and were very clear that we would work with the Italian Government to find a solution.
“That was warmly welcomed by the minister and I look forward to working with him to make that happen. If we do, we will be protecting the needs of some of our most vulnerable citizens in Bedford.
“We were all agreed that this is in no-one’s best interests, now we just need to convince those who control the purse strings that this will save them money”.
I travelled to the Italian Embassy, which is located near Bond Street, with the group on a minibus driven by Bedford Borough Labour Councillor Mohammed Nawaz.
They decided on a minibus due to older members of the group suffering from ill health, which proves their point, older people cannot be expected to travel to London every time they need help or have to show paperwork.
Councillor Sue Oliver said: “Would you let your grandparents get on the train and tube to London three times a year? Probably not, it is disrespectful to expect the first generation of Italians in Bedford to do this. That is why we are fighting this.”
One of the campaign organisers Luigi Reale came to Bedford 12 years ago after he met his wife Sue Chirico, who was uniquely Bedford born and bred, in Rome.
They decided to raise a family in Bedford, and Luigi already had friends and family who had moved to Bedford from his home village of Ferratano, near Rome.
His aunt and uncle moved to Bedford in the 1950s, and he says, they worked hard to forge a lasting link with Bedford.
He said: “After the war, there was nothing for people in Italy. There were no jobs, no opportunities, no life. So an opportunity came up for people to move to North Europe, and one of those places was Bedford.
“It was difficult at first life in Britain was very different to life in Italy. But the first generation of Italians to come to Bedford worked very hard to integrate into Bedford life.
“They got hard-working jobs, they joined in with community life and they brought something different to Bedford, and Bedford started to accept them. I think what we have now, more than 60 years on, is a very unique and shining example of how Italian can integrate into British life.
“We are here today to fight for our Italian community. I want to keep the Sportello open for at least the next four years. to look after our first generation.
“They went through a lot, and it is our duty and care to look after them. They cannot be expected to get the train, or bus, which are both very expensive, several times a year with important identification documents. It’s nonsense.
“I understand that we are in a passage at the moment, things are changing, we have a new era dawning. But it is too soon to close the service, we have one of the biggest Italian communities here in Britain, and we need to look after the older people, who are pensioners now.”
I can tell just by talking to them that Luigi and his wife are brimming with passion for Bedford and all that it offers to Italian people. They think it is their duty to fight the decision to close the Sportello.
The Vice-Consulate in Bedford closed in 2008 and was replaced by a smaller office to handle paperwork, and offer help and advice, the Sportello Consulare. Italians are required to show paperwork to prove they are alive three times a year.
Bedford is thought to have the biggest Italian community outside of London, with he first generation of Italians arriving in Bedford in the 1950s.
Luigi’s wife Doctor Sue Chirico was born in Bedford after her parents emigrated to England from Italy in the 50s. Her father, who sadly died several years ago, was a greengrocer, and more recently owned Chrico’s Bakery and Chirico’s Pizzeria in Bedford.
She said: “My parents moved back to Italy twice, the first time when I was the two but the second I was 12 and refused to go. So I stayed with my aunt. Two years later though they had come back. I think my mother preferred life in Britian.
“At that time in Italy women had no freedom. When they came to Britain, they could wear trousers, they could drive cars, they could work, they could do everything.
“The women wanted to stay in Bedford, and that was really why all the men ended up coming here as well, because all the women were here. My parents worked very hard when they came here, but it gave them a better quality of life.”
After a lengthy meeting, the group emerged from the Embassy with an anxious, but happy look. I was keen to hear the verdict.
Dr Chirico said: “It was half and half. It was very positive, but I still feel that some of our issues weren’t addressed. They have agreed to keep the Sportello open one day a week, while negotiations are taking place, but they don’t know where that will be yet.
“The minister did not seem to be aware that we were only told nine days before the actual closure of the consulate service, which is completely unaccesptable.
“We told him that we may have found an alternative building that would be a lot cheaper to run, and would actually save them money in the long run. And they said this was new news for them.
“He said he will do everything he can to reverse the decision, which is very positive.
“So, he will now go back to Rome and it will be the Minister of Foreign Affairs who makes the final decision.”
It is hoped a decision will be reached by Christmas.