BBC News, Apr. 19
In the foothills of the Italian Alps, hidden among row after neat row of wooden-shuttered chalets is the Residence Prealpino, where overcrowded, chaotic Dakar has been recreated in suburban Europe.
Several hundred immigrants, mostly Senegalese men, have completely taken over this hostel, with up to 16 sharing a single room.
As you approach, you can smell the exotic fragrances of Senegalese rice and fish being cooked.
When they are not working, many immigrants prefer to hang around outside rather than remain cooped up in their rooms, which reek of multiple layers of body odour.
At the weekend, Senegalese clothes and food are displayed for sale outside the front entrance, giving it the appearance of a West African market.
When Billy finally reached Brescia in 2000 after a gruelling six-month journey, he was unable to contact the cousin he was looking for.
Senegalese outside the Residence Prealpino.
But he bumped into some Senegalese taxi-drivers at the train station, who took him to the Residence Prealpino — the perfect landing pad for newly arrived immigrants to become acclimatised to living in Europe.
Lack of integration
Some of the Residence’s rooms have been converted into restaurants selling Senegalese food or shops full of African clothes, music, videos and beauty products.
There is also a mosque, with the muezzin opening the door to call the faithful to prayers.
The immigrants have even got a satellite dish which picks up Senegalese television and use special radio sets to listen to broadcasts from home.
When I was there, life came to a standstill as everyone watched a bout between two of Senegal’s most famous wrestlers, broadcast live from Dakar.
Moustapha Gueye, who has lived in Brescia for three years, blames the Italians for the lack of integration.
“It’s hard for us to rent flats. Even if we have the money, the Italians don’t want us to,” he said.
After four years in Brescia, Billy has just two Italian friends — they run a restaurant near the factory where he works.
Indeed, when I got into a car with a Senegalese driver, we were immediately stopped and asked for our papers — it seems racial mixing is still uncommon enough to warrant police intervention.
Most of the migrants I spoke to had come to Italy with a single goal — to earn enough money to set themselves up in business back home and then return.
“I haven’t come here as a tourist, I’ve come to earn some money. As soon as I’ve done that, I’m going back home to live with my family,” said Mody Kante, who shares a room with Billy.
Sharing rooms means rent is cheaper, so more of the meagre salaries the immigrants earn working in factories can be sent to the families back home, or saved up for their own eventual return.
Rent is about 50 euros a month each — more if there are fewer people in the room — and it is obvious that hardly any of this goes on the hostel’s upkeep.
Inside, paint is peeling off the walls, plaster is falling off the ceilings and water leaks into the basement.
In Billy and Mody’s room, there is a double bed which is shared by three people. For chairs, they use six mattresses stacked in two piles. At night, these are pulled out to cover the floor, so all eight room-mates can sleep — or at least lie down.
“It’s not good for our health, we don’t sleep well because there’s always too much noise,” Mody said.
Billy uses the ear-plugs he was given when working in a noisy factory, to block out the snores of his room-mates.
The men take it in turns to clean the room and cook for each other, all eating around a huge bowl in typical Senegalese fashion.
They hardly ever go out, trying to save as much money as possible.
When I asked Billy to recommend a good Italian restaurant in Brescia, he was completely stuck.
But the European dream of working for 10 years or so and then going back home with enough money to go into business has not come true for everyone.
I met one man who has been in Brescia for 30 years — he was among the first Senegalese to come to Brescia and remembers when there were some non-Africans in the Residence.
He does not have a job at the moment and has been unable to save much money.
He would like to return to Dakar but after spending so long supposedly getting rich in Europe, he could not bear the shame of going home empty-handed.
Looking for peace
Issa Traore left his home in Burkina Faso 10 years ago to seek his fortune in Saudi Arabia.
It’s not easy to find what you need and whatever you have, you want more
That did not work out and he now sells coffee and breakfast outside the Residence Prealpino.
“I conclude that everywhere in the world it’s the same. It’s hard everywhere,” he says.
“In Burkina Faso, in Saudi Arabia, in Italy, I believe it’s the same in the United States. It’s not easy to find what you need and whatever you have, you want more.”
But he says he had to go abroad to find that out and now he is ready to go back home.
After four years in the Residence, Billy wants to move out, even if it would be more expensive.
“Some people don’t understand the importance of hygiene and cleanliness,” he says. “And the police often raid the Residence, looking for those without the right papers. So life would be more peaceful elsewhere.”
Billy says that the Brescia police want to close down the Residence, knowing that it attracts illegal immigrants to the town.
He hopes to move out and rent a flat with his brother and Mody and eventually bring his wife Idiatou over from Dakar.
In the meantime, if he ever feels homesick, he can always go back to the Residence to eat some rice and fish, watch Senegalese TV or buy the latest releases from Dakar’s vibrant music scene.
Joseph Winter will be answering questions about African migration at the end of April. Use the form below to send your questions.