18 September 2012

Chapter Nine: Riace, Città d’Accoglienza – a Visit in Utopia?

A Sicilian Diary of Nina Perkowski

Wednesday morning, 10.30am. I am sitting on the little square in Riace, a 1700-people village in Calabria, southern Italy. Around me elderly men, locals from the village who spend their time chatting, watching what is going on, dozing off in the shade. People here know each other, greet passersby. As a friend in Catania said, “time in Riace seems to be reversing. A visit there is almost like a time travel, like going back to Italy in the 1960s.” Only the children running around and playing with each other don’t seem to fit this description. They show that something has changed in the last 50 years: the small village of Riace has become a truly multicultural community.
I arrived here two days ago, came to learn more about this community, its population, its experiences. By coincidence, I joined a work camp of young people from Malta, Finland, Romania and Italy, young people who also came here to find out more about the model village Riace, and who are constructing a big, wooden statue commemorating the arrival of the first boat people in 1998. Since that date, much has happened in Riace.

When entering the village, one can’t fail to notice the colourful signs welcoming visitors to Riace, ‘città d’accoglienza.’ Walking through the streets of the old town, one discovers a number of little workshops where Italians and Eritreans, Afghans, Romanians, and many other nationalities, which I have not yet had the opportunity to meet, work together. They work together in traditional Italian crafts – they make and colour glass, pottery, wood, they sew and cook and serve food in a little restaurant. Their carefully handcrafted products are bought by tourists and they teach their skills to local school classes, which come to visit the project. Instead of being housed in big, collective centres, refugees are welcomed into this community with open arms, they are provided with individual houses and support and if possible a job in the village’s social projects.

About 10 years ago, a small group of people wanted to provide sustainable assistance to boat people arriving on their shores. They had a vision: to stop the negative trends apparent in the village – young people moving away to find work, abandoned houses degrading in the city centre – and to revitalise the community with the help of refugees and asylum seekers. Domenico Lucano was a key figure in making this vision reality. Ten years ago, the first refugees moved to the village. Two years later, Domenico Lucano was elected as Riace’s mayor.

Talking to the local population, it is striking how positively recent developments seem to be perceived. An Italian lady I encounter in the sewing workshop confirms: “of course, you will always find one or two who are not happy. But overall, it has been great for the community. After some initial suspicion maybe, we all got to know each other. We became friends – this project is running really well.” What impresses me even more is the visibly different demeanour of the refugees here. Compared to the people I encountered in Mineo and Catania, people here seem relaxed, at ease as they go about their everyday life. Their body language does not signal desperation and hopelessness.

When I had a long, more in-depth conversation with one of them, I realised that of course, being welcomed in Riace as a refugee does not mean life is suddenly easy, all worries are suddenly gone. The pain of having been separated from loved ones for many, many years remains and gets stronger every day. The wish to return, one day, to the native Afghanistan is strong. And the sadness when witnessing the vast inequalities is intense – on the one hand European young people, coming to work camps and being able to study and become virtually whatever they would like to, go wherever they want; on the other hand there are young men and women in Afghanistan and other ‘crisis’ regions around the world without such opportunities, instead being faced with war, death, and destruction. While talking, I see the pain in his eyes, I feel his powerlessness. A powerlessness I share to a certain extent, while at the same time possessing many privileges and freedoms he will never profit from. When he needs to go to lunch after 1,5 hours, I am partly relieved. This intense feeling of pain, sadness, injustice always threatens to paralyze me. Again this nagging, inner question ‘will we ever manage to change anything?’

And yet, at least Riace decided to try, as a community, to show that things can be done differently. They can’t take the pain from those who had to flee and leave everything behind. But they can offer them a new home, a new beginning, a warm welcome. After 10 years, it clearly is a success story. Despite occasional tensions, despite efforts by the local mafia to sabotage the project, despite the decision of many refugees to leave the village if they cannot find work, it has proven that boat arrivals do not have to be feared. In a little book on the community, Chiara Sasso reminds readers of the saying “the sea takes and the sea gives.” According to her, Riace succeeded in transforming the fear of those arriving in boats into something positive – a resource enriching the local community, bonds of friendship between newcomers and old residents, the cooperative production of goods and the re-vitalisation of a previously degrading little town. In her words, “the secret is in the passion, in the sense of justice, in the imagination, in the determination of those who, from the very beginning, believed.” Those who believed that it would be possible to transform Riace into the role model of integration and reception it is today – first and foremost, but certainly not only, Domenico Lucano.

Nina Perkowski came to Sicily to research the living situation of immigrants from Africa in Sicily for her PhD. For borderline-europe, she reported the situation in Cassibile and Mineo, where there is a collective home for asylum seekers. Within ten chapters Nina wrote down her experiences and her monitorings.

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