Authored by Maxwell Schafer
In the summer of 1929, Mrs. Giustina Micono and her son arrived at Ellis Island from their home in Naples, Italy (“Death” 1929). Her husband had made a similar trip six years before, saving money to eventually send for them, but perished tragically while constructing a skyscraper just one day after the ship his family was aboard departed for America. Without money or a husband with a job, Mrs. Micono faced almost immediate deportation, but was saved by the Italian Welfare League, which fought on her behalf to be allowed entry, and won.
The Italian Welfare League has a presence in the New York landscape that is almost a hundred years old (Moreno, n.d.). What began as a resettlement effort for Italian-Americans who fought in the Italian Army during World War I, placing these “riservisti,” as they were called, with civilian jobs and assisting with daily necessities, transitioned to a broader mission of aiding Italians in becoming Italian-Americans. This included the areas of “immigration, Americanization, family case work, actual distress, employment, and medical care” (LaGumina et al. 2000, 309). World War II placed another difficult burden on the League’s shoulders – Italian-Americans were eyed suspiciously as “enemy aliens” (Moreno, n.d.), but the League was still permitted to render assistance to those in need. When the war ended in 1945, the League set up a large fund to provide food, clothing, and medicine to Italian war orphans, among their many other projects and works. Renowned conductor Arturo Toscanini, an Italian himself, conducted several benefit concerts to aid these war orphans, all of which were organized by the League (“Toscanini” 1945), and drew in other big names like then-mayor Fiorello La Guardia and Countess Alice Paolozzi.
These days, the work of the League stays closer to home, but it is no less busy for it – pages of pictures of happy children whose families received grants for their needs in coping with trauma and disabilities are available through the “I Nostri Bambini” page of their website (Italian Welfare League, n.d.), for those who need a good reason to cry. A recent article from the New York Times also mentions the League in their series on the Neediest Cases Fund, where a substantial gift was given to help alleviate the stressful lifestyle of a woman with Stage 3 ovarian cancer and her family (Otis 2016).
The spirit of the Italian Welfare League is focused, effective, and admirable. They do well to quote Margaret Mead at the top of their page – “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
“Death Foils Reunion.” 1929. New York Times, June 26, 1929. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times with Index.
Italian Welfare League. n.d. “I Nostri Bambini.” Accessed March 28, 2019. http://italianwelfareleague.org/i-nostri-bambini-new/.
LaGumina, Salvatore J., Frank J. Cavaioli, Salvatore Primeggia, and Joseph A. Varacalli, eds. 2000. “Italian Welfare League.” In The Italian American Experience: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge.
Moreno, Barry. n.d. “The Story of the Italian Welfare League.” Accessed March 28, 2019. http://italianwelfareleague.org/our-history/.
Otis, John. 2016. “Strangers Extend a Helping Hand to Struggling New Yorkers.” New York Times, February 27, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/nyregion/strangers-extend-a-helping-hand-to-strugglingnew-yorkers.html.
“Toscanini to Assist Children of Italy.” 1945. New York Times, September 16, 1945. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times with Index.