Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg

Italian Villages Welcome Refugees to Avoid Oblivion

  • African, Asian refugees seen as last hope for deserted towns
  • Calabria region with top jobless rate tries to revive economy

A mild February afternoon finds nine young men kneeling in prayer on small green and red carpets in a dimly lit dining room of an 18th-century palazzo overlooking the distant shores of the Mediterranean Sea.

The worshipers from countries including Pakistan, Somalia and Mali have crossed continents to arrive in the town of Satriano in Italy’s Calabria region. Their quest for survival or for a better life may also be the last chance for Satriano to escape oblivion in a region whose youth unemployment of 60 percent has made it a land of the aged.

A group of refugees pray at the Palazzo Condo

Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg

“Thank God they brought us these people," said Luigi Marotti, the village’s 68-year-old sacristan, a layman charged with caring for the local Roman Catholic church. "Satriano was dead. Thanks to them it’s alive again. The village can start growing. If they leave, I don’t know where we can go.”

While in large parts of Europe the influx of mostly Muslim refugees is sparking resentment and fear, the possibility of repopulating dying villages in rural parts of the continent is bringing them a grudging welcome in places like Satriano. Thousands of refugees from war-torn Syria, Africa and elsewhere are knocking on Europe’s doors, with their influx prompting states to put up barbed-wire fences and restoring border controls.

In just the first six weeks of this year, over 80,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Europe by boat, the United Nations’ refugee agency said on Feb. 12, more than in the first four months of last year. The UN has called on European Union member states to speed up the identification and relocation process for 160,000 people already in Greece and Italy.

Empty Homes

Although Satriano has taken in just 21 migrants since the summer of 2014, the new arrivals have been a godsend. A walk through the village’s steep streets shows tell-tale signs of a town on its last legs, from worn-out ‘for sale’ signs on empty houses to the mostly elderly residents shopping at the few remaining stores.

A sale sign on the door of a residential property in Satriano

Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg

Satriano’s population, which neared 4,000 in the 1960s, has shrunk by 75 percent in the last 50 years as people have emigrated to northern Italy or overseas in search of a job.

Calabria’s poverty and its youth unemployment, the highest in Italy, make it an unlikely home for refugees. Its per-capita gross domestic product gap with Lombardy in the prosperous north is wider than that between European powerhouse Germany and near-defaulted Greece. 

‘Christian Traditions’

Still, the region needs workers for tasks few Italians are willing to do, like picking olives and oranges. So Calabria has been setting aside its trepidation over refugees and sees them plugging some key labor gaps even as many parts of Italy remain strongly opposed. In the northern Italian town of Pontoglio, for example, a signpost proudly says: “Town rooted in Western Culture and deep Christian traditions; Anyone who doesn’t plan to respect the local culture and traditions is asked to leave.”

QuickTake Europe’s Refugee Crisis

“When they first arrived, there were some prejudices,” said Satriano Mayor Michele Drosi. “Then the socialization started, and integration is gradually growing. They play football with the local youth, they join the town’s celebrations, they do street maintenance works.”

The village is part of a national network of 382 municipalities called SPRAR -- the Protection System for Refugees and Asylum Seekers -- created by the Italian government. The goal of the group is to resettle people, bring towns back to life and offer a model for Europe as it faces problems integrating ballooning migrant populations.

Not Sitting Around

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi told the Lower House in Rome in a Feb. 18 speech that mayors are willing to take asylum seekers, but they don’t want “to let them sit around in the squares doing nothing all day except smoking or betting at the local bar.” There needs to be “a path, a project, a horizon to offer them," he said.

In Satriano, some refugees have found such projects. Adnan Sajjad, 24, who arrived in Italy two years ago from Pakistan, helps pick oranges and vegetables from a field owned by Concetta Mongiardo, a mother of four and deputy chairman of the elderly association, on the outskirts of the village. 

Ijaz Ahmed and Adnan Sajjad pick oranges on a small holding

Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg

Sajjad, who was a hairdresser for five years in his home country, was given a state-subsidized temporary job with Satriano’s barber shop followed by other short-term jobs in the countryside, including collecting olives.

Friendly People

"There are too many problems in Pakistan," said Sajjad who journeyed through Dubai and Libya to finally cross the Mediterranean on a boat and reach Italy. "I’d like to stay in Satriano because people here are friendly and I have a chance to work."

In a communal kitchen for the migrants, Lahore, Pakistan-born Muhammad Afzal Ajaz, 28, cooks rice with saffron, onions, tomatoes, peppercorns and diced veal for the refugees and some senior citizens visiting the center. Mongiardo contributes deep-fried dough balls known in Italian as zeppole, made of potatoes, anchovies and flour.

The refugees "are many, young and can give us some help," said Mongiardo, whose husband was made redundant last year by a local mozzarella cheese maker.

Local residents join refugees for a meal at the Palazzo Condo.

Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg

Too Expensive

For all that, Satriano has only taken in 21 refugees since the cooperative became operational in July 2014. Three of them later left to join families in the U.K., leaving the village with 18 migrants aged between 19 and 33. Five have worked with local companies thanks to a state plan that gives employers breaks on social charges and provides the refugee with a monthly salary of about 400 euros for three months. Two refugees from Mali subsequently got regular close-ended contracts.

Such cases are rare because most employers can’t afford to keep the migrants after the subsidized three-month period, said Francesco Liberale, the owner of a construction company in Satriano, who hired a refugee on a temporary basis.

"I was happy despite his lack of previous qualifications and would have kept him on because it’s difficult to find a young worker from Satriano to replace him," says Liberale, 47, as he looks out the window of his van onto a deserted street. “I had to give up due to the social contributions and work insurance costs involved in a new non-subsidized contract. I just could not afford it.”

All Brothers

A community trust owned by local residents and refugees, initially financed with European Union and regional funds, might help, says Khalid Elsheikh, 47, who arrived in Italy 27 years ago from Sudan and is now the deputy head of Mediazione Globale, a local cooperative with an annual 200,000-euro ($221,000) budget that hosts the refugees, helps with asylum applications, provides Italian lessons and temporary jobs.

"We could take advantage of what nature has to offer, such as the river for a fish farm or the prickly pears that blossom here twice a year," said Elsheikh, who moved to Satriano two years ago to open the refugee center. "We could produce niche products, from jams and juices to beauty ointments or items for therapeutic use."

As the town works on finding new ways to integrate new arrivals, Satriano’s sacristan Marotti has a message for his compatriots:

“We Italians went to places like Argentina with cardboard luggage in our hands and nobody sent us away,” he says. “In the past we went there. Now, they come here. We need to all be brothers.”

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