A Small Town In Italy Embraces Migrants And Is Reborn

Apr 12, 2016
Originally published on April 19, 2016 2:56 pm

The town of Riace lies near the toe of Italy's boot. Small shops line its winding, cobblestone streets. It's perched on a hilltop, a typical medieval village with a church at its center.

But there is nothing typical about Riace's people. Out of a population of 1,800, 450 are former refugees. Their children outnumber native Italians at the local school. Riace now calls itself a global village, whose residents come from more than 20 countries beyond Europe.

"So many civilizations have left their mark on this land," says Riace's three-term mayor, Domenico Lucano. "The ancient Greeks and Romans, the Arabs, Turks and Saracens. And this has helped us have very few prejudices about other peoples."

Lucano says in the past 18 years the town has welcomed more than 6,000 migrants. As they arrived in Riace, an aging place with high unemployment, the mayor sensed an opportunity to revive what was quickly becoming a ghost town. He offered refugees abandoned apartments and job training.

Bahram Akar, 50, arrived one night in the summer of 1998 on a boat carrying him and about 250 other Kurdish refugees.

"Next day, in the sunlight," Akar said, "I looked at the landscape and I liked it immediately. It felt like home."

The town receives about $40 a day in government subsidies for each refugee for one year. A portion goes to the migrants and the rest pays for their living expenses. Once they've received regular documents, most move on to northern Europe, where more jobs are available.

But some, like Akar, remain. Their impact can be seen in the town's shops.

Zara Hosseini, 34, weaves fabric on a loom and then embroiders it with delicate needlework. She and her daughter fled Afghanistan and arrived in Riace three years ago after a harrowing trip across land and sea. She says she feels safe here.

"The Taliban are very, very bad for women," she says, speaking Italian. "Terrible, no democracy, women are kept down. I came to Europe so that my daughter could go to school. I don't want her to die in war."

Selma Giamah, a young Somali woman, also works in the shop. Despite her halting Italian, she's able to convey the horrors she went through fleeing her country. Her journey took her through Ethiopia, Sudan and Libya, where smugglers kept her captive for eight months.

"They made us sleep on the filthy ground," she says. "They kept asking for money. They beat us. No food. No water. Then three men took me outside."

Selma's voice drops off but her expression and gestures make very clear what the men did to her. She's been in Riace for two years and has no intention of leaving.

In contrast to other parts of Europe, Riace's natives say the migrant experiment has been good for the town. Mirella Cogocoru credits their arrival with enabling her to expand her bakery into a grocery store and to open a cafe next door.

"It's good the migrants are here," she says. "The town is now full of people. Before, there was nothing, no work."

Mayor Lucano — who is bemused to have appeared on Fortune magazine's list of 50 great world leaders — doesn't claim Riace's choice can work everywhere. But he offers his town's experience as a counter to European politicians who keep migrants out.

"To those Europeans who fear migrants bring disease, take away their jobs and sense of security," he says, "they bring us their culture, their world, their colors and their knowledge."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's hear now about one mayor in Italy who many years ago put out the welcome mat for refugees. That's earned him a place on Fortune magazine's list of the world's 50 greatest leaders. As Europe tackles the migration crisis, NPR's Sylvia Poggioli visited the town that could serve as a model.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: One night, in the summer of 1998, a boat carrying 250 Kurdish refugees landed on this southern Italian shore. Bahram Akar was one of them.

BAHRAM AKAR: (Through interpreter) Next day in the sunlight, I looked at the landscape, and I liked it immediately. It felt like home.

POGGIOLI: Akar, now aged 50, and the other refugees were given shelter and assistance by the townspeople of Riace, an aging place with high unemployment. Domenico Lucano, the town's three-term mayor, sensed an opportunity to revive what was quickly becoming a ghost town. He offered the refugees abandoned apartments and job training.

DOMENICO LUCANO: (Through interpreter) So many civilizations have left their mark on this land, the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Arabs, Turks and Saracens. And this has helped us have very few prejudices about other peoples.

POGGIOLI: In the last 18 years, Lucano says, the town has welcomed more than 6,000 migrants. Riace receives about $40 a day in government subsidies for each refugee for one year. A portion goes to the migrants, and the rest pays for their living expenses. Once they've received regular documents, most move on to northern Europe, where more jobs are available. But some like Akar settle here. Out of a population of 1,800, 450 are former refugees, and migrant children outnumber Italians at the local school. Riace calls itself a global village whose residents come from more than 20 different countries beyond Europe.

(BELLS CHIMING)

POGGIOLI: The old town of Riace is perched on a hilltop, a typical Italian medieval town with a church at the center. Winding cobblestoned streets are lined small shops. Many sell handcrafts produced by new residents.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Speaking Italian).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: Zara Hosseini puts down her delicate needlework and shows us fabrics she has embroidered and woven on the loom. She's 34 years old and fled Afghanistan with her daughter. After a harrowing trip across land and sea, she arrived in Riace three years ago. Here, she says. She's safe.

ZARA HOSSEINI: (Through interpreter) The Taliban is very, very bad for women, terrible. There's no democracy. Women are kept down. I came to Europe so that my daughter could go to school. I do not want her to die in war.

POGGIOLI: The other person working here is Selma Giamah, a young Somali woman. Her Italian is halting, but she's able to convey the horrors she went through fleeing her country seeking a better life. Her journey took her through Ethiopia, Sudan and Libya, where smugglers kept her captive for eight months.

SELMA GIAMAH: (Speaking Italian).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Speaking Italian).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: (Speaking Italian).

GIAMAH: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: "They made us sleep on the filthy ground. They kept asking for money. They beat us, no food, no water. Then three men took me outside." Selma's voice drops off, but her expression and gestures make every clear what the men did to her. Finally, she was put on a boat that landed in Italy. She's been in Riace for two years and has no intention to leave. Mirella Cogocoru used to run the local bakery. She says the Riace migrant experiment has been good for the town.

MIRELLA COGOCORU: (Through interpreter) It's good the migrants are here. The town is now full of people. Before, there was nothing, no work. It's thanks to them I expanded my bakery into a grocery store and opened a cafe next door.

POGGIOLI: Lucano has no idea how he got on Fortune magazine's list of 50 greatest world leaders, and he doesn't claim the Riace experiment can work everywhere.

LUCANO: (Through interpreter) But in all these years in Riace, we've had no problems living side by side. We created this experiment in unity all together.

POGGIOLI: It's a response, says Lucano, to European politicians who keep migrants out, building walls that lead to more deaths and tragedies. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Riace. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.