By Juliane von Mittelstaedt AFP A boat carrying would-be immigrants is seen off the coast of Italy in this 2008 file photo: One Italian village is welcoming refugees in a bid to reverse its economic decline. Domenico Lucano, a 51-year-old man, is the mayor of Riace, Italy. The village — with its three churches, two patron saints, sheep grazing on the surrounding hillsides and tangerine trees growing in the valleys — is like a corn on the sole of the foot of the Calabria region.
By Juliane von Mittelstaedt
A boat carrying would-be immigrants is seen off the coast of Italy in this 2008 file photo: One Italian village is welcoming refugees in a bid to reverse its economic decline.
Domenico Lucano, a 51-year-old man, is the mayor of Riace, Italy. The village — with its three churches, two patron saints, sheep grazing on the surrounding hillsides and tangerine trees growing in the valleys — is like a corn on the sole of the foot of the Calabria region.
Until recently, Riace was rapidly becoming a ghost town. People had left to find their luck elsewhere — in Milan, Turin or Genoa, in Germany or the United States. Riace's population had shrunk so drastically that the village didn't even have a bar, a restaurant or a butcher's shop, and there weren't enough children to fill classes in the school. That was before Mayor Lucano decided to revive his village: with immigrants from Somalia, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq and Lebanon.
It all began with a ship. The boat arrived 12 years ago, on July 1, 1998. Lucano, who was a teacher at the time, was driving along the coastal road when he saw a large group of people wading toward the shore. They were Kurdish refugees, 300 men and women, and a few children, stranded on a beach near his native village.
It was the same spot where two bronze statues had been found under the sea in 1972, putting Riace on the map. For Lucano, it was a sign. "The wind has brought us a special cargo, and who are we to turn it away?" The Greeks once sailed across the Mediterranean to Calabria, followed by the Arabs and the Normans — and now the refugees were coming.
Lucano welcomed the Kurds into his village, earning him the nickname "Mimmo the Kurd". Other refugees followed, the flotsam of wars and poverty around the world. He decided to create a place where the refugees and local inhabitants could work and live side-by-side — a global village, in the poorest corner of one of Italy's poorest regions, a land of shattered dreams. He established an association and gave it an ambitious name: Città Futura ("City of the Future").
Europe's population is shrinking, and Italy now has one of the lowest birthrates on the continent. Lucano believes that he may have found a way to bring growth to Europe once again. His approach is to resettle refugees in places where the population is shrinking. He reasons that in areas where the population is already in decline, fears of overpopulation are less likely to surface.
Lucano set up his office in the Palazzo Pinnarò, an extravagant name for an ordinary house. Even though he has been mayor for the past six years, Lucano still works in the same office at his worn wooden desk, surrounded by maps of the world, a pastel drawing of Che Guevara and a poster depicting Mexican Zapatista rebels. He is a small man with big dreams and a favorite word: utopia. He is not a member of any political party, and when he ran for office, his campaign was based on nothing but a simple idea: The poorest of the poor would save Riace and, in return, Riace would save them. He won the election.
Since then, Lucano has accommodated refugees in empty houses in the medieval village center, where they are given free room and board, electricity included. In return, they are expected to learn Italian and work. The women make handicrafts and the men renovate houses that are then rented out to tourists.
Helen from Ethiopia, eight months' pregnant when she arrived by boat, weaves Calabrian fabrics out of high-quality wool. Mohammed from Iraq, persecuted by the Mahdi militias, now sells kebabs and works in construction. Shukri, a petite Somali woman, is 23 but looks 13, and has two children. She works as a glassblower, making glass butterflies.
There are now 220 immigrants living in Riace as well as the 1,600 Riacesi, as the village residents are called. The mayor hopes that the population will eventually return to its previous level of 3,000 people. The new residents are opening shops and sending their children to the local school, and tourists are now coming to Riace to buy the handicrafts they make. "A place that people were once leaving has now become a place of welcoming," Lucano says proudly.
A few weeks ago, when African fruit pickers, who earn €25 ($35) a day, staged a protest in nearby Rosarno, villagers responded by shooting at them and beating them with metal bars. After the incident, Lucano said in a television interview that Riace would welcome the immigrants. A short time later, three young men from Guinea, hardly more than boys, showed up at his door, one with a gunshot wound in his hip. Lucano explained the rules to the Guineans: They would receive €2 a day in spending money, plus €500 for a month of work. The boys were stunned. It seemed like a miracle.
It does sound almost too good to be true, but the concept seems to work. Lucano has won over the older people in the village, who were afraid of the immigrants, and the young people, who were worried that they would take away their jobs. Città Futura is already the biggest employer in the village, both for refugees and local residents.
There is one group, however, that doesn't like the fact that it no longer calls the shots or is able to collect money in Riace: the Calabrian Mafia. Its thugs poisoned Lucano's three dogs and fired two bullets into the door of the Donna Rosa tavern. But for Lucano, it is a compliment, a sign that he has done his job well. Two neighboring villages have already adopted Lucano's approach, and the regional government in Calabria enacted a law that will allow even more villages to follow suit. Politicians are making pilgrimages to Riace, and last fall German filmmaker Wim Wenders even paid a visit to the village.
Wenders had intended to make a film about boat refugees, but it ended up being a 27-minute, semi-documentary, semi-Hollywood film, shot in 3-D, mostly about Riace and its new residents. The film is called "Il Volo" ("The Flight").
A short time later, Wenders gave a speech in Berlin, where celebrations to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall had just ended. "The true utopia is not the fall of the Wall, but what has been achieved in Calabria, in Riace," he said.
Lucano had the Wenders quote printed on his New Year's cards, which he sent around the world. He hopes that the miracle of Riace will spread elsewhere.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan