Norristown's Italian aid office may close

Elvira Raieta, who came to Norristown from Italy , talks with Raffaele Cimina of the Italian welfare office. MICHAEL MATZA / Staff
Elvira Raieta, who came to Norristown from Italy , talks with Raffaele Cimina of the Italian welfare office. MICHAEL MATZA / Staff
Posted: September 03, 2013

Born in Italy in 1926, Elvira Raieta worked on a farm until 1971, then set sail for opportunity in America.

She and her husband used their savings to buy a house in a thriving Italian-immigrant neighborhood in Norristown.

Today, she is the sole Italian on her mostly African American street. The non-Hispanic white population of the borough that is the Montgomery County seat has dropped 18 percent since 2000, according to the U.S. Census, and had been falling for decades.

"Forty-five years ago, we were all Italians. Then some died, some moved, some bought houses in the suburbs," said Raieta, a wiry widow with strong hands wrapped around a stainless-steel walker.

She gets Social Security from her work in America.

To process the paperwork for her agricultural pension from Italy, she relies on Norristown's "Patronato," an Italian-government-funded social welfare office in a brick building on East Main Street that soon may have to close because of Italy's debt crisis, slashed funding, and lower demand due to changing demographics.

Raffaele Cimina, who runs the one-man bureau, said he assists about 300 Norristown-area clients on a continuing basis by filing their documents via a direct-to-the-mainframe link with Italy's social security administration.

Cimina gets a salary of $1,600 a month, and $500 a month for office rent, both provided by Italy.

The services he provides are free of charge.

He investigates payment delays and pounds his stamp - "Patronato Acli, Ufficio Zonale di Norristown, PA, USA" - onto documents. He helps clients get notarized proof, required annually, that they are still alive.

He reassures these pensioners in fluent Italian, and makes house calls if they can't come out.

"How can I refuse? I see my father or mother in each of these elderly retired workers, who have so often been mistreated during their working life," said Cimina, who was born in Rome.

He moved to South Philadelphia with his parents when he was 10, then returned with his family to Italy four years later because his mother was homesick.

Cimina and his wife moved back to America about seven years ago.

He calls himself a "fresh Italian."

In South Philadelphia, Cimina's father did piecework as a tailor. To help him save time, the family threaded 200 to 300 needles each night before the next day's work.

Welfare networks, called patronati, generally aligned with Italy's trade unions, were created around 1945, after World War II, to assist Italians worldwide.

The one in Norristown, with the acronym Acli, opened two years ago. It is affiliated with the Christian Association of Italian Workers, which has offices in 30 countries.

"Since the bureaucracy in Italy has always been a nightmare," says Cimina, "the government established these offices" as a relief valve to speed the processing of documents.

But recently, Acli notified him his volume of business, measured by a point system, didn't warrant continued operation and his patronato would have to close by Oct. 1.

There are two other such offices in the region, one in South Philadelphia, the other in the Northeast, both affiliated with different unions, Cimina said.

But for housebound pensioners like Raieta, a trip to the city can be a hardship.

"I like this office in my town," she said, bristling at the thought that the Norristown office would close. "Philadelph? Philadelph," she said, "no good."

Cimina is looking into the possibility of alternative funding. Local churches are exploring ways to subsidize his rent. But he will need a continuing relationship with a patronato to keep his authorized computer link.

" Pronto. Si. Domani. Domani," he said, taking a call from another client on a recent day. "See you tomorrow."

Contact Michael Matza at 215-854-2541,, or follow on Twitter @MichaelMatza1.

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