When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

LA STAMPA

How A 'Refugee Town' Fell Victim To Italy's Populist Politics

Fourteen months ago the progressive mayor of Riace, in Calabria, was arrested. Soon after, many of the refugees he'd help settle pulled up stakes and left.

Manifestation of solidarity to the mayor of Riace Mimmo Lucano on May 11, 2018
Manifestation of solidarity to the mayor of Riace Mimmo Lucano on May 11, 2018
Filippo Femia

RIACE — The blue plaque at the entrance of the pottery shop says "Home sweet home." It also seems to read Tsehayneshe's thoughts. This is where she belongs and plans to say, even if things aren't as they used to be.

"In Eritrea, my name means sun. Here in Riace, it feels like the sun's been gone for some time now," she says while hand-coloring a terracotta butterfly.

Staring at the deserted street outside the store, she remembers when everything began to change in the village, located in the Calabrian province of Locri. The turning point came in October 2018, soon after former mayor Domenico "Mimmo" Lucano was arrested on charges of favoring illegal immigration, embezzlement and abuse of office.

"So many people left, many friends," says Tsehayneshe. "Here the streets used to be noisy. Happiness was in the air and we used to dance. Now it's all over. But, you know, this is my home, and here I'll stay."

Just scraping by

Tsehayneshe arrived in 2003 to the refugee town of Riace, which a year ago still boasted some 450 residents. But now Tsehayneshe is one of only about 40 people left. Together they represent somewhat of a resistance.

Domenico Lucano, former mayor of Riace in Calabria attending the Left Party Congress in Berlin on Nov. 23, 2019. — Photo: Joerg Carstensen/DPA/ZUMA

The few remaining families saw the migrant-friendly Riace model begin to crumble away, not unlike the rainbow colors scraped off the steps of the concrete amphitheater at the entrance of the village. Dozens of children of all origins used to play in front of this rainbow. Now, Riace's square is silent.

"My son and I will not go away," whispers Tsehayneshe, smiling.

Seen through her eyes, the end of the Riace resettlement project spearheaded by SPRAR, Italy's Protection System for Asylum Seekers and Refugees, was the beginning of a nightmare. It triggered the exodus of refugees and asylum seekers who had been living in Riace for years. Some found hospitality in other cities in southern Italy. Others left for Belgium, France and Germany.

But in the last few months, the situation again seems to have changed — for the better. Hope in Riace now carries the scent of freshly squeezed olives. Thanks to donations from the "It was the Wind" Foundation, a community olive oil mill has opened.

The hospitality policy helped to resurrect Riace, but the village risks dying out again

The money has also allowed the reopening of the artisanal workshops that were the cornerstone of former Mayor Lucano's utopia, a resettlement model to revive a progressively abandoned town that was celebrated by the director Wim Wenders and dozens of universities around the world.

In the textile workshop, Rafia Munir is finishing up a violet carpet. She used to be a teacher in the Northern Indian province of Kashmir, which she fled in 2014. For her, weaving is a return to her origins. "My grandparents produced carpets," she explains.

When the SPRAR resettlement project ended, she, her husband and two children found themselves in an apartment suddenly cut off from water and electricity. "Mayor Lucano found us a new home," she explains. "We wouldn't be here without his help."

Three weeks ago, they received official authorization to sell their wares to the few tourists who still pop into Riace. "Before it was different," Munir says. "Hundreds of people arrived every day, but now you see almost no one."

The Riace workshops provided jobs to native Italians, too. Inside the "Kites from Kabul" shop is Daniela Pisani, a 48-year-old from Rome who married a Calabrian. "The hospitality policy really helped to resurrect Riace, but the village risks dying out again," she explains. "The new mayor is dismantling what his predecessor did. It's a thumb in the nose not just to Mimmo Lucano, but to all Riace's inhabitants."

Pisani invokes the controversial removal of the plaque at the entrance of the village, which once read, "Riace, The Town of Hospitality." In its place now is a sign depicting the patron saints Cosmas and Damian.

The current mayor, Antonio Trifoli, elected six months ago by a council dominated by the far-right League party, defends his actions. "Here, there was never a division between those who were for or against a policy of welcoming refugees,"he says. "Former Mayor Lucano abandoned a part of the village, and he was punished for it at the ballot box. He also left the municipality in financial disarray."

A village divided

It only takes walking the nine kilometers between the village itself and the marina to discover another Riace. Here, Mimmo Lucano was never popular. And the relief of the citizens at his ouster is evident. "We're much better off without illegal migrants," says Domenico Rullo, a 26-year-old construction worker.

He helped my family when I didn't have a red cent in my pocket.

"Lucano provided jobs only for migrants," he adds. "Under the new administration I've already had a few little jobs — this is how it should be, locals first. I'm with Matteo Salvini, and I'm not ashamed to say it."

This is the symbol of a village divided, ripped in two.

Lucano, meanwhile, returned from his court-ordered exile, after the Court of Appeal revoked the ban on his residing in Riace this past April. Now he must stand trial for allegedly facilitating illegal immigration and fraudulently awarding government contracts for waste collection services.

As he drives by, a girl sitting at the bar greets him. "He is my mayor!," she says. "Everyone makes mistakes. And even if the court finds him guilty, he's innocent to me. He helped my family when I didn't have a red cent in my pocket."

Lucano just returned from the United States, where he spoke about the Riace model at the Library of Congress. "Nobody will ever be able to take away the pride I feel for what we did, for showing the world what we were able to do for this little forgotten village," Lucano says.

He hasn't lost his will to continue the struggle. "I don't pretend to know the pace of justice, but being mayor of Riace is what has so far given me the most satisfaction. I wouldn't be opposed to doing it again. But first I have to understand what it is my people want."

At this, the girl at the bar, a spontaneous vox populi, sends up her cry once more: "This is my mayor!"

You've reached your limit of free articles.

To read the full story, start your free trial today.

Get unlimited access. Cancel anytime.

Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.

Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries.

Society

Parenthood And The Pressure Of Always Having To Be Doing Better

As a father myself, I'm now better able to understand the pressures my own dad faced. It's helped me face my own internal demands to constantly be more productive and do better.

Photo of a father with a son on his shoulders

Father and son in the streets of Madrid, Spain

Ignacio Pereyra*

-Essay-

When I was a child — I must have been around eight or so — whenever we headed with my mom and grandma to my aunt's country house in Don Torcuato, outside of Buenos Aires, there was the joy of summer plans. Spending the day outdoors, playing soccer in the field, being in the swimming pool and eating delicious food.

But when I focus on the moment, something like a painful thorn appears in the background: from the back window of the car I see my dad standing on the sidewalk waving us goodbye. Sometimes he would stay at home. “I have to work” was the line he used.

Maybe one of my older siblings would also stay behind with him, but I'm sure there were no children left around because we were all enthusiastic about going to my aunt’s. For a long time in his life, for my old man, those summer days must have been the closest he came to being alone, in silence (which he liked so much) and in calm, considering that he was the father of seven. But I can only see this and say it out loud today.

Over the years, the scene repeated itself: the destination changed — it could be a birthday or a family reunion. The thorn was no longer invisible but began to be uncomfortable as, being older, my interpretation of the events changed. When words were absent, I started to guess what might be happening — and we know how random guessing can be.

Keep reading...Show less

You've reached your limit of free articles.

To read the full story, start your free trial today.

Get unlimited access. Cancel anytime.

Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.

Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries.

The latest