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Romanian actress battles racism in Italy

Emigrant heads 'charm offensive' to counter anti-Romanian feeling

As Italy struggles to contain a rising tide of xenophobia and racism, the largest and most despised minority in the country has acquired a glamorous standard-bearer. Like 1.2 million other residents of Italy, Ramona Badescu is an immigrant from Romania. The willowy actress and singer from Bucharest moved to Italy after the fall of the communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989 and is the closest thing Italy possesses to a Romanian household name.

Now Rome's mayor, Gianni Alemanno, has made her his counsellor for the Romanian community's integration. "I hope to become a bridge between the Romanians and the mayor," she said. "Romanians here have many problems connected to work: more Romanians die at work sites than any other nationality." Her first policy idea is to set up a free phone service in both languages to help Romanian migrants find information, residence permits and other practical information.

But some Italians have greeted the appointment with derision. "What does this bird know about what the Romanians in Italy get up to?" was one web comment. "She's one of the privileged, she knows nothing about reality..."

"It's scandalous to give this job to a 'lady' who has no qualifications for the job..." wrote another ."Another nobody who has failed in showbiz and throws herself into politics," sneered a third. "It makes me sick!"

Ms Badescu, who has a degree in commerce and economics, insists she is the right person for the job. "I'm an emigrant and emigration is never a happy act. It's full of problems: you leave your family behind. You are hoping and dreaming of a better life, but when you arrive it's very different from what you imagined."

Italy's attitude to immigrants was turned upside down last year after an admiral's wife was murdered. A Romanian gypsy was quickly blamed and, amid a media witch-hunt, politicians demanded the mass expulsion without trial of undesirable foreigners. Romanians were the scapegoat of choice: Walter Veltroni, Mr Alemanno's left-wing predecessor, said Italy had become "unlivable" since January 2007, when Romania entered the European Union.

With a growing number of crimes blamed on Romanians, Italians began to fear and suspect these hidden strangers in their midst. Clinching the prejudice was the belief that romeni (Romanians) and rom (Roma, gypsies) were one and the same. It has become an urban legend that all Roma are Romanians and vice-versa.

"The Romanians and the Roma are two completely different peoples," Ms Badescu points out. "The crime reports have created this prejudice against an entire people. Now there are Romanians in Italy who are scared to speak their own language."