We stand on the summit of a hill in sweltering heat.
“This is our Ellis island,” says Nicolas flourishing his hand across the landscape.
“It’s where migrants first came to Luxembourg and, indeed, still come.”
But instead of Atlantic waves lapping beneath our feet railway tracks, bordered by disused steelworks, sweep towards France.
And, across the valley, instead of the Statue of Liberty there is a water tower, now a gallery, showing photos of the American Depression. Below us is “Little Italy’ built by migrants recruited by scouts from Piedmont and further south to work in the steelworks at the end of the 19th century. The Italians built the houses spontaneously in the style they knew best. Steep narrow steps connect the two streets that weave around the hill. Some have balconies.
The houses are now painted in bright colours but, until the 1970s, when the steelworks bowed down to foreign competition, they were coated in red, white and black smog. Life for the steelworkers was not always grim. ‘Little Italy’ once housed 4-5000 workers, had a lively café scene, sports clubs, a grocery that still exists and of course a pasta factory. The men came before their families – sharing beds with other shift workers and gathering in large groups to be fed by the few women in the village.
On the way down the hill we stop to admire a steel sculpture donated by an Italian organization in celebration of a special centenary. In 1906 Dudelange, thanks to the number of Italian migrants, achieved city status. A steel figure, the factory boss perhaps, stands under a gateway welcoming a bedraggled line of tired, laden migrants.
“Some think it paints too positive a picture, “ says Nicholas. “The artwork doesn’t portray the exploitation that went on.”
But Italians, he explains, have come a long way since then. The President of Luxembourg’s parliament has roots in Dudelange. The city’s mayor has an Italian name. In fact 50 % of the country’s residents are non-Luxembourgers, the highest percentage in Europe and not including the children of migrants who were born in Luxembourg.
“So do Luxembourgers welcome migrants?” I ask.
“Well yes, from the start,” he replies.
But there is another side to the story. In a recent referendum 80% of the Luxembourgers voted that non-Luxembourgers, who had lived in the country for more than 10 years, should not have the vote.
“It contributes to a deficiency in democracy,” says Nicolas.
The non-Luxembourgers include those who work in the banks and European Union offices as well as migrants from across Europe particularly southern Europe. A third of migrants are from Portugal. And there are more recent migrants from war-torn areas such as Syria.
We clamber down to the railway station, Dudelange Usines, now the Centre de Documentation sur les Migrations Humaines. This delightful yellow stone building houses 10,000 books, journals, registers, photographs, family and other documents all beautifully archived including on line. It is a treasure trove for anyone interested in exploring their ancestors or for serious students of migration and globalisation. The Centre is open by arrangement and from Thursday to Sunday 3 – 6pm during exhibitions.
Nicolas, the sole member of staff, shows me round the present exhibition on Women and Migration. He introduces me to Umberto Cappelari, a studio photographer at the beginning of the 20th century who began to document life in Dudelange. It is thanks to him that we gain an insight into the early life of the Italian migrants. A stiff looking girl in her first communion dress holds a bible and rosary in one hand, a tall candle in the other; a woman moves trucks of steel during World War 1 and young women stand beside their market stall in front of Consumo Italiano.
Later work by other photographers show Portuguese migrants, the steel works emitting clouds of smoke, men playing cards and children playing in the doorways of smog-coated terrace houses.
The Centre’s own archives are supplemented by other exhibitions of women and migration – a display of excellent photographs by local children of their mothers at work and of children with special care needs as volunteers.
The Centre may not yet have a permanent display, nor be open long hours, but it has a lively programme of events. There are Sunday afternoon talks and a recent international conference on Migration and Gender attracted 150 people from across Europe. Past exhibitions included photographs of a Tunisian artist who has integrated migrants’ belongings found on the beach into his work. The next photographic exhibition is of refugees from Mali living in Mauretania in applying conditions.
“And the local community? Do they come? “ I ask.
“When we have a new temporary exhibition, yes they come. And people with migrant backgrounds sit on our committee,” he adds.
As Nicolas sees me out he says.
“ We are all migrants. My parents came to Dudelange from the north of Luxembourg.”
I stand on the station waiting for the train to take me back to Luxembourg city. My only regret is that it is too late to visit The Bitter Years in the water tower, Dudelange’s Statue of Liberty. Edward Steichen who curated the exhibition was not only a famous photographer and Director of Photography at MOMA in New York but an emigrant from Luxembourg. I must come back. Meanwhile it is time to see some more of Luxembourg.