The Sesto mosque — when built — would revitalize an abandoned part of the city, Mr. Tchina said.
“Each wall slows down the course of a society or of a community,” he said, noting that shortly after Mr. Di Stefano was elected, the mayor refused permission to the city’s Muslims to celebrate their most revered religious festival, Eid al-Adha, at a local arena, as they had done for a decade.
“When the delays increase, the community sees that it is being excluded from their rights” and “that’s when negative thoughts begin,” Mr. Tchina said.
The Rev. Leone Stefano Nuzzolese, the most senior of Sesto’s priests, said the city’s primary problems — economic and social — actually resulted from the abandoned factories pockmarking the city.
“Until that issue gets resolved, the city remains blocked,” he said. Fueling populist rhetoric by vilifying immigrants was a distraction that “comes at zero cost,” because most migrants can’t vote, he said.
Patrizia Minella, a longtime volunteer in the city who now works with migrant mothers, said Sesto had always been “an important melting pot,” initially of Italians come to work at the factories.
“You can count the families that have been here for three generations on one hand,” she said. “It’s an unstoppable, historical phenomenon.”
Many recent arrivals said they saw their future here.
“I like living here, living with Italians,” said Ibtissem Mabrouk, who moved to Italy from Tunisia nine years ago, and now works as a translator and interpreter, mostly for Arab women.
She feels assimilated in Sesto, she said, and wants to raise her two sons here. “I am Arab,” she said. “I am proud of it, but I like the way that Italians educate their children.”