05/08/2013 12:13 EDT | Updated 07/08/2013 05:12 EDT

The African Woman Changing Immigration in Italy

It was Saturday night, the sun was setting over the ancient towers and porticoes in Bologna, and Italians were filling outdoor terraces for their evening caffè.

Just north of the city, I sat in a room full of frustrated immigrants who had gathered to listen to promises made by Cécile Kyenge, who just last week made history when she was appointed Italy's first black cabinet minister.

Kyenge, 48, was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and moved to Italy 30 years ago to study medicine. She's an eye surgeon and lives with her Italian husband and their two children about 50 kilometers west of Bologna in the city of Modena, known for its legendary balsamic vinegar.

The group that had gathered that Saturday night in February, was made up of mostly Africans, Romanians, and Filipinos. At the time, Kyenge was gearing up for the election, and many looked to her to bring change to a nation plagued with an ugly race problem.

There was talk about unemployment and welfare, drugs and suicide rates. But mostly, people were eager to discuss what Kyenge and her centre-left Democratic Party would do about the country's citizenship law.

That's because in Italy, if you are a child of immigrant parents, you are considered extracomunitari, a "foreigner" before the law.

Blood-right or birthright?

It didn't matter that you were born in Italy, spent your entire life going to school in the country, spoke Italian fluently and felt as Italian as the nonna living next door -- if your parents were born in another country, then you don't have the "right of blood" and you aren't privy to Italian citizenship at birth.

The children of immigrants must wait until they turn 18 to apply, and the process is not easy. Meanwhile, the law gives citizenship to children born to at least one Italian parent, and it doesn't matter whether they live in Italy or abroad.

For Sun Wen-Long, the son of a Chinese immigrant in Italy and others like him who are part of the so-called "second generation", the denial of citizenship has been a painful reminder that they are aliens in their own homeland.

Wen-Long, or Wen, was born and raised in Bologna. He's a university student, speaks impeccable Italian with a distinct Bolognese accent. He enjoys pasta, loves to plays soccer, and he has fabulous long hair typical of Italian men.

Wen told me how tiring it is when fellow Italians continue to ask where he's from. "The answer is Bologna," he says.

For five years, Wen has been a part of the battle to reform the country's citizenship law, joining an alliance of 22 civil society organizations that are campaigning for citizenship to be based more on "soil" than on "blood". Their slogan: L'Italia sono anch'io. I am also Italian.

That day in February, Kyenge promised Wen and the crowd: If elected, she and the Democratic Party would address the citizenship law within 100 days of being sworn into office.

She kept true to her word. The day she was sworn in as minister, Kyenge told the media one of her top priorities was to make it easier for children of immigrants born in Italy to obtain Italian citizenship.

The backlash was swift and revolting, showing the world a side of Italy few outside of the country understand.

In the last week Kyenge has been the subject of racist taunts from far-right websites calling her "Congolese monkey", "Zulu" and "the black anti-Italian." A member of the anti-immigrant Northern League party, which has been allied in the past with former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, warned in a radio interview that Kyenge would try to "impose tribal traditions" from her native Congo on Italy.

"This is sadly ordinary speech and words from media and Italian politicians," Wen told me.

Immigration new to Italy

Millions of emigrants left Italy in the 19th and 20th centuries to start new lives in the Americas, but in the last three decades, the country has struggled to deal with an influx of citizens from other countries who have come to Italy looking for work.

Today, there's an estimated 4.5 million foreign residents in Italy, which means 7.5 percent of the country's 60 million people are immigrants. According to official statistics, nearly 80,000 babies were born to non-Italian parents last year. A total of 900,000 non-EU minors are living in Italy today (some of them were born in Italy, others arrived at a very young age).

Wen remembers, as a young teen, trying to sign up for something as simple as a local soccer league. As the children of immigrants are not granted Italian citizenship at birth, they adopt the citizenship of their parents. On paper, Wen was a citizen of China. In order for him to join the soccer league in Italy, he was told it was necessary to request a document from the government of China certifying that he wasn't playing in a Chinese sports league. That of course, would be a conflict of interest.

It didn't matter that Wen had never even been to China or that he couldn't even speak Chinese very well. It took six months to get the right documents before he was finally allowed to join the team.

Wen recalls turning 18 and finally becoming eligible to apply for Italian citizenship. "It was like waiting 18 years to be officially Italian but I've felt Italian from the time I was a child," he said.

Now 25, he has spent years volunteering with ASSOCINA, a group of second-generation Italian-born Chinese dedicated to creating dialogues and bridging the gap between Italian and Chinese cultures.

Wen was cynical but hopeful after Kyenge's meeting back in February. But after the backlash last week, he seemed more exasperated than ever. "Nothing has changed. Italian society is still saying 'no' to this law," he said.

Italians need to wake up and smell the cappuccino. With Kyenge and the new government in power, the world is now watching to see how the country, its politicians and its people will act.