A Dying Town In Sicily, Reborn With Immigrants

The village of Sutera was facing demographic doom as young people have been leaving for generations. Then locals started to wonder about those migrants coming to Italy.

Sutera, in central Sicily, has seen its population drop to 1,500 over the past generation.
Niccolò Zancan

SUTERA â€" After 40 years working in Sicilian high schools, retired school teacher Mario Tona now gives Italian lessons to newly arrived migrants as an unpaid volunteer. On a recent day downtown, he was eagerly welcoming his new students for a quick tour of the village in central Sicily.

He points out the important landmarks. “This is the bank where you can deposit your savings and send money back to your families.... This is the town hall, which represents us â€" all of us,” he says. “It’s the place where we try to resolve our problems.”

Tona's class consists of 34 students, hailing from Gambia, Nigeria, Pakistan and Nepal. They repeat the words he teaches them, but the lesson is soon halted as passersby greet the students by name: Carmelina Salomone, owner of a nearby grocery store, hugs and greets Kufi, Shyam, Sonna and Alex.

“Sutera is a town of emigrants,” says mayor Giuseppe Grizzante. “In the 1960s we had 5,000 inhabitants, but now only around 1,500 are left. Young people have always left town, many for northern Italy, and later also for northern Europe.” Prime destinations over the years for Sutera emigrants included working on farms in England and in mines in Germany.

But after so many departures, those left in Sutera began to welcome new arrivals to revitalize their dying town. “When we left Sicily we always hoped to be welcomed with dignity,” says Tona. “As much as I possibly can, I try to make these young people independent.”

Far from the coast

The journey to Sutera is a difficult one. Though a mere 39 kilometers from the provincial capital of Caltanissetta in the heart of Sicily, covering the distance takes 90 minutes by car on a winding, unfinished and mountainous road. The town is isolated among fields of grazing sheep, blooming almond blossoms and prickly pears, at the foot of a giant monolithic rock called the Mountain of San Paolino.

“The isolation is the only problem,” says Chris Richy, a Nigerian immigrant. “There’s only one bus that leaves at 5:50 in the morning, but in Sutera there are good people, not racists. They really do help us, and when I finally get a job as an electrician I want to repay them for the help they’ve given us.”

Sutera’s decision to welcome migrants began after the sinking of a boat in October 2013, when 366 people died near the island of Lampedusa. It wasn’t easy for the town to embark upon this path, and some of Sutera’s elderly had serious doubts, and even fears, about the plan that cut against the widespread policy of confining migrants to the peripheries and out of public view.

The town decided on laying out clear rules for its policy of maximum integration, offering a home for each arriving family to safeguard newcomers’ privacy. Now migrants live in the historical town center, in old neighborhoods with arabesque names, and work as clerks in Sutera’s small shops.

In conservative central Sicily, however, the true mark of success came just before Christmas. The town proudly hosted its annual live nativity scene, which regularly draws 15,000 visitors â€" and this time Richy, the Nigerian migrant, took part as one of the three Wise Men.

New friendships

Carmelina, the shopkeeper, describes her friendship with an immigrant who has since left Sutera. “Bridget and I are very close, she called me yesterday from Padua (in northern Italy) and told me she’ll come back to surprise me one day,” she says. “We worked together in the shop and she helped me sew. When you look these people in the eye, you really empathize with them.”

Photo: La Stampa

Families remain in Sutera until they get a response to their asylum applications, which usually takes around two years. During their time waiting, families are required to take Italian lessons, are forbidden to drink alcohol at home, must keep their apartments tidy and can only use washing machines in the evening to save money.

Six workers from the local “Sunflower” cooperative take care of the families and organize their stays. Mariella Cirami, a 28-year old local volunteer, is passionate about her job. “I’m very lucky, every day we meet people from around the world,” she says. “I’m thankful for this opportunity and for what we are doing here. There aren't many children in Sutera, but now they can play with the children of migrants, and a new child will be born next month.”

Locals are also keenly aware of the economic benefits of accepting the immigrants. Every year the town’s council receives 263,000 euros to welcome the arrivals, and these funds finance new government jobs, rent out previously empty apartments, and provide incentives for more jobs in the commercial sector. Mainly, though, residents are happy that new life has returned to this sleepy town after years of people leaving. “We’re simply doing what others elsewhere have done for us,” says Tona, the teacher.

Sutera had once been famous for a more bizarre reason. The town was building a massive elevator connecting it to a hilltop monastery, financed by 1.3 million euros from European Union regional funds. It was completed in 2009 and locals hoped it would bring much-needed tourism. But it still has never opened, even though recent reports say that it may be tested in coming weeks.

Maybe â€" aided by a shiny new lift and industrious newcomers â€" this tiny Sicilian village in the middle of nowhere can become a glimmer of hope for the future.

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Why Chinese Cities Waste Millions On Vanity Building Projects

The so-called "White Elephants," or massive building projects that go unused, keep going up across China as local officials mix vanity and a misdirected attempt to attract business and tourists. A perfect example the 58-meter, $230 million statue of Guan Yu, a beloved military figure from the Third Century, that nobody seems interested in visiting.

Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China

Chen Zhe

BEIJING — The Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development recently ordered the relocation of a giant statue in Jingzhou, in the central province of Hubei. The 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue depicts Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the Eastern Han Dynasty in the Third century A.D.

The government said it ordered the removal because the towering presence "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city," and is "vain and wasteful." The relocation project wound up costing the taxpayers approximately ¥300 million ($46 million).

Huge monuments as "intellectual property" for a city

In recent years local authorities in China have often raced to create what is euphemistically dubbed IP (intellectual property), in the form of a signature building in their city. But by now, we have often seen negative consequences of such projects, which evolved from luxurious government offices to skyscrapers for businesses and residences. And now, it is the construction of cultural landmarks. Some of these "white elephant" projects, even if they reach the scale of the Guan Yu statue, or do not necessarily violate any regulations, are a real problem for society.

It doesn't take much to be able to differentiate between a project constructed to score political points and a project destined for the people's benefit. You can see right away when construction projects neglect the physical conditions of their location. The over the top government buildings, which for numerous years mushroomed in many corners of China, even in the poorest regional cities, are the most obvious examples.

Homebuyers looking at models of apartment buildings in Shanghai, China — Photo: Imaginechina/ZUMA

Guan Yu transformed into White Elephant

A project truly catering to people's benefit would address their most urgent needs and would be systematically conceived of and designed to play a practical role. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of true creativity, too many cities' expression of their rich cultural heritage is reduced to just building peculiar cultural landmarks. The statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou is a perfect example.

Long ago Jinzhou was a strategic hub linking the North and the South of China. But its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reform a generation ago.

This is why the city's policymakers came up with the idea of using the place's most popular and glorified personality, Guan Yu (who some refer to as Guan Gong). He is portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior. With the aim of luring tourists, the city leaders decided to use him to create the city's core attraction, their own IP.

Opened in June 2016, the park hosting the statue comprises a surface of 228 acres. In total it cost ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) to build; the statue alone was ¥173 million ($27 million). Alas, since the park opened its doors more than four years ago, the revenue to date is a mere ¥13 million ($2 million). This was definitely not a cost-effective investment and obviously functions neither as a city icon nor a cultural tourism brand as the city authorities had hoped.

China's blind pursuit of skyscrapers

Some may point out the many landmarks hyped on social media precisely because they are peculiar, big or even ugly. However, this kind of attention will not last and is definitely not a responsible or sustainable concept. There is surely no lack of local politicians who will contend for attention by coming up with huge, strange constructions. For those who can't find a representative figure, why not build a 40-meter tall potato in Dingxi, Gansu Province, a 50-meter peony in Luoyang, Shanxi Province, and maybe a 60-meter green onion in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province?

It is to stop this blind pursuit of skyscrapers and useless buildings that, early this month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new regulation to avoid local authorities' deviation from people's real necessities, ridiculous wasted costs and over-consumption of energy.

I hope those responsible for the creation of a city's attractiveness will not simply go for visual impact, but instead create something that inspires people's intelligence, sustains admiration and keeps them coming back for more.

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