Mahdi Sarhan was born in Naples, Italy, to Lebanese parents. He is completing his studies in Social Innovation, Communication and New Technologies at the CPS in Turin (the Department of Culture, Politics and Society at the University of Turin). He is also an interpreter for refugees with the UNHCR and a member of and photographer for Nili, the Italian Network of Leaders for Inclusion. He has consolidated his roots and Muslim faith thanks, in part, to an “adoptive” Moroccan community and imagines a future where new Italians will be a model for a new multicultural generation.

How did you get to know about Nili?

“Nili was created from the ambition of young people who were already active in the social and political spheres. I was already part of the close network of new Italians that made it possible. The rest is simply ‘success’. I photographed their events, but at the same time, I kept myself informed. During this journey, I eventually realised that I could become a young leader too”.

How does a young person with a migrant background become a leader in an evolving society like ours?

“By using one’s dual culture as an asset. In the beginning, I participated as a spectator, then I realised that I could also be a resource. My generation is carrying the burden of a civil war that tore Lebanon apart. The political and social culture of my country of origin can help others to understand politically difficult times like the ones we are living in. Those who are born Lebanese are born suffering politically”.

Even though you were born in Italy, you still have strong Lebanese roots. How do you feel about what is happening in Lebanon? As a Lebanese in Italy do you feel you have a more rational point of view?

“There is a cold civil war taking place in Lebanon. I have followed and supported the Thawra, the protests that have been going on for the last year, from a distance and I have tried to raise awareness in Italy. The problem is that many young Lebanese have no political knowledge, they cling to ideals that they think are authentic but are actually influenced by external factors. It is frustrating for me, the Lebanese community in Italy is almost non-existent, during my growth path I eventually learned a lot about the Moroccan community in Turin”.

That’s quite unusual…

“Yes, it rarely happens. Also, I am a Shia Muslim while the Moroccan community is almost entirely Sunni. Initially, I preferred not to mention it, but it came out little by little. It was the right move, I got past the prejudice and showed that I was there with them, praying alongside them. People were curious about me and it was a starting point for a dialogue about Islam. I wanted to focus on the sense of community which is very strong in this religion”.

The lack of cooperation is often not only between Italians and Italians with migrant backgrounds but also between the communities themselves, do you agree?

“Yes, the communities can be quite closed, based on your country of origin. I am a positive model but I am an exception. What I really struggle with is the talk of ‘us’ and ‘them’. There is still a rather patronising and post-colonial approach which makes us think, even with the best of intentions: we (Italians) must educate newcomers or people born to foreign parents. Events like the one NRW organised on 2nd October at the Triennial show that this does not have to be the case, and more importantly that it is not a winning model”.

It should be the people with migrant backgrounds themselves who have the resources to become role models for the new young people, the next ones in the cycle. This creates a real connection and an incentive to stand out

Many young people struggle with the relationship between the society where they grow up and their communities of origin, which can often isolate them. What advice do you have for them?

“It’s a painful reality, which is why I would like to take Nili’s work to the outskirts of Turin as well. I want to tell these kids to study because education is the basis of acceptance. But also to take your talent out on the street. I’m thinking of street art and hip-hop dancing. You have to take advantage of every opportunity to develop your talent, if the opportunity doesn’t arise, you have to create it. Then listen, because only then will you understand that you are not alone”.

Translated by Sarah Chaudhry