Jerry Essan Masslo

Jerry Essan Masslo was born in Umtata, one of the South African Bantustans. He was the son of peasants. He got married very young and had got three children. During a protest demonstration his father was killed. His daughter, only 7 years old, was killed too. On that moment Jerry’s flight began. Fist, by boat along with his brother, then on his own. He reached Nigeria, where he bought a flight ticket after he sold his watch and his golden bracelet. On 2nd March 1988 Jerry landed at Fiumicino Airport (Rome). There he applied for asylum. At that time Italy granted refugee status to applicants coming from Eastern Europe (from countries under communist regimes) only. So the response to his application was negative. Jerry was kept in the airport for four weeks. Amnesty International and the UNHCR negotiated with the Italian Ministry of Interior and eventually obtained an entry permission to Italy for Jerry. He was then recognized as a refugee by the United Nations not by Italy.

Amnesty International asked the Community of Sant’Egidio to shelter that refugee. So on 3rd May 1988 Jerry was welcomed as one of the first guests of the first house of the Community for displaced people in Rome, Tenda di Abramo (the Abraham’s Tent). Everyone was welcomed there regardless of nationality and religion. For the first time Jerry experienced a situation totally different from apartheid. He was surprised he could sit and eat among white people. With his direct ways he became dear to many. He was loved by the other immigrants. He played guitar and with his music he made very different people feel close to one another.

Jerry attended the classes of the School of Language and he ate to the soup kitchen of the Community of Sant’Egidio. He attended the functions at the Baptist Church. He was a religious man. During his stay at the airport the only thing he asked was a bible. Leafing through his bible one can gather that he meditated on its pages: some passages have been marked. Jerry had the joy to meet Archbishop Desmond Tutu too, when the latter came and visited the Abraham’s Tent on 26th March 1988.
In the summer of 1989 Jerry and his friends went to Villa Literno (Caserta) for the tomato harvest. I visited him. He was very happy. I was impressed by the desolation of Villa Literno: a town where life was hard for everybody, all the more for the African labourers. They felt they were not accepted and hid.

On the night of 24th August Jerry and his friends were attacked by young local people. They tried to steal their little money. Jerry opposed. The assailants shot him dead.
Italy was deeply shaken by his death. For the first time in Italy a black person’s funeral was broadcasted by the state television (RAI). The deputy Prime Minister Claudio Martelli along with other authorities attended. Associations and trade unions mobilized. In October 1989 the first huge anti-racist demonstration was held in Rome: more than 150,000 people gathered. In November Andrea Riccardi wrote: “The debate about the people from the Third Word present in our country for once is getting a quick solution. Paradoxically, Jerry Essan Masslo’s murder facilitated such a process”.

A new law about immigration (the so-called Legge Martelli) originated from Jerry’s death. The ‘geographical’ limitation about asylum was abolished: since then people from any country could apply for asylum in Italy. At the same time the foreign workers already present in Italy could regularize their status: 220,000 immigrants emerged from their illegal condition. Associations named after Jerry Essan Masslo came to existence in Italy and particularly in Campania. In September 1989 the School of Italian Language and Culture of the Community of Sant’Egidio ‘Jerry Masslo’ was inaugurated in Naples.

This memory is by Daniela Pompei