Sean McLaughlin highlights the south Italian region of Calabria, where refugees are contributing to the revival of local villages and bringing life and colour back into a forgotten part of Italy. Sean was in Italy to see first hand how the country is dealing with one of the most serious problems of our time and decided to embark on the trip with his mother who had a background in social care. This is Sean’s personal account of his experiences.
Many who visit Italy have a vague idea that poverty haunts areas south of Naples. Leaving the city, the train passes through haphazard industrial parks. Beside empty spaces lie churches perched into the trees on long beaches. After Catanzaro, there lies only one rail track for both directions of travel, such is the infrequency of the trains.
This is Calabria. Lacking the fascination of Sicily, or the attractions of Naples, this is truly the far-flung, forgotten corner of Italy.
A history of influx
Calabria has a rich history, yet it is not conspicuous. Greek and Roman settlements were founded at Croton and Sybaris and later, the Saracen would wage invasions for control of the region’s mountains. Byzantine monasteries dot the land, still intact from the Arab invasions. During the crusades, ships would later sail to the Holy Lands from these shores.
Now, it lies quiet, a prisoner of its past and considered irrelevant by its country. Going inland, from Monasterace Marina, the land slowly rises as the road bends around the mountains. Much higher now, the valleys drop away to the side and the road goes towards the setting sun.
One arrives at a fountain in the 16th century hilltop town of Camini, streets narrow and steep. At the top of a mountain, a panoramic vision of the valley leads down to the sea. This quaint town has pursued a policy of accepting refugees and asylum seekers to lift it out of its spiral of decline, deprivation and depopulation.
A central part of the programme, known as Jungi Mundu, is providing jobs to refugees and migrants in renovating the town’s long-abandoned houses. Lead by Giulio, the programme will eventually renovate every derelict house in the town. He teaches his skills and knowledge in construction to the newcomers, such as Hassan, who came from Senegal and Adama, who came from the Ivory Coast.
This is a harsh environment. The odds are stacked against such a programme. Local materials of the highest quality are trucked uphill to the town, then transported on wheelbarrows and trailers through its narrow streets, to the sites. They may not have much, but what they do have is their souls and each other’s company, the landscape and the houses, abandoned houses.
In mid-morning, the heat is stifling. Hammers bash and the machines spin, breaking the powerful silence.
Giulio tells me, “I teach them all I know. If they want to stay for five months or similar, that is fine. I had it difficult as a kid. My mother died when I was 21. My father went for 20 years to Germany… I was left here. This is a school of life, you have to be resourceful.”
He told me, “you’ve come here and seen this is not a fantasy… this place is real”.
Locals, meanwhile, pour out and tell me of the glories of this simple miracle.
Asif played on the Syrian under-20 football team before war broke out in the country. Having made his way to Italy, he has brought with him his coaching skills, taking various age groups through gruelling two-hour sessions.
The evening humidity gradually cools off. A young boy breaks the serious atmosphere. Instead of jumping over cones, he decides to dive over them, bringing the entire group to hysterical laughter.
Abel tells us of his remarkable story, escaping the military dictatorship of Eritrea. “If we fell off the trucks in the desert, they would have kept going. If we fell off the boats in the Mediterranean, they would have kept going.” Now, he grows tomatoes, figs and water melons on small cooperatives of land outside the town, arid and otherwise empty.
At the end of Ramadan, the town lights up as though a switch were flicked. Lively middle-eastern music plays through the streets. Smells of coffee and sugary bakes weave through the alley ways. I heard of a party. My daily Italian classes to Syrians are cancelled. Families start to come in one by one, with no sense of time. “Unfortunately, we are here because of war … However, I hope you will find peace and happiness here.” The leader of the project says. A member of the guest families, Idris, responds, “We owe it to you, we love it here, we have freedom. It is so peaceful.”
Idris’ daughter, Fatima, translates the messages, between perfect Italian and Arabic. She aspires one day to become a lawyer and seems comfortably on her way. The reason for Idris’ walking stick was being caught up in one of Al-Asad worst massacres, which killed around 400 people in one day, in August 2012.
“There was just blood everywhere”, he tells me.
A party ensues with laughing, drinks, dancing and food. To be sure, the reception of new arrivals is not without its problems. It should not be seen as a long-term solution to Calabria’s impoverishment. Energies at a national level could be directed at improving governance in Calabria, which is notoriously corrupt and dysfunctional. For example, a lack of organisation means that many European Union structural funds for the region, that could build crucial infrastructure, remain unclaimed.
Many natives of Calabrian often feel resentful of resources being given to migrants whilst they scrape a living on the few jobs available. The influx of such high numbers has tested the patience of many Italians as the problem now dominates national discourse and Italy’s upcoming election. In neighbouring towns, many arrivals experience much tougher treatment and less training prospects than those in Camini. A trip to centres in Africo, dubbed Italy’s poorest town, revealed this. According to local media, the Calabrian mafia has also infiltrated some refugee-settlement centres.
Yet Calabrians have good reasons for pursuing the programme. The leader of the programme in Camini (which receives European Union funding), tells me that without the project “this town would be dead, resigned to history”. True, virtually all of the jobs in the town are in some way connected to the programme, schools have re-opened local businesses been supported. Around 250 live are native to the town, with 150 new arrivals.
It is a silver lining of Italy’s informal labour markets that refugees can pick up work easily, helping enterprise to thrive in this unforgiving region. More generally, the settlement programme is an example of how Italians take initiative in dealing with their own unique problems in unique ways. With worrying low birth rates, declining populations and unable to reform its pension system, many would argue Italy has little choice but to accept immigration.
The programme raises a fundamental question, one of the responsibility of wealthy nations. It may be easy to claim to be an altruistic country when there are no obligations. This becomes harder when arrivals come to one’s shores, seeking a new life, in desperation. Liberty and affluence are fundamentals that should be given, not just enjoyed. History is never kind to nations that denied a home to those in refuge, when they had to ability to do so.
A new local colour
If anything, the arrivals have made Camini a place of utter fascination. Time and geography feel irrelevant in this unlikely escape. I float between the tongues of Italian, Arabic and English. From the porch of her house, an older lady, holding rosary beads, tells me of the virtues of patience and tolerance, Syrians sit in circles telling fascinating stories. I watch the Bangladeshis descend the steep streets and their stunning, multi-coloured robes floating behind them.
A lane above the town leads to an open alter and crosses. The tranquillity of the mid-day has one contemplate. The intense sun lights up the land and the hills that roll down to the edge of the Mediterranean.
That is the sea that sits as a crater between those who enjoy freedom and prosperity, and those who seek them.
The names of those mentioned in this article have been changed for security reasons.