In Italy, Training War Refugees To Preserve Antiquities

The rubble of Palmyra after Syrian regime forces took the site back from ISIS
The rubble of Palmyra after Syrian regime forces took the site back from ISIS
Fabrizio Assandri

TURIN â€" Refugees have come to Italy from all across war-torn Iraq and Syria, from the monasteries of Mosul to the Assyrian villages of the Khabur valley and the Christian churches of the Nineveh plains. Among the millions now languishing in refugee camps are people from all walks of life, including government bureaucrats, university professors, archaeologists, and museum curators who saw artworks and monuments destroyed in war.

With that in mind, the Italian government is introducing a program that allows a small number of asylum seekers to take advanced courses on protecting cultural heritage sites from attack, weather damage and antiquities smuggling. The hope is that refugees will later be able to return to their home countries and help rebuild damaged cultural sites.

Launched by Project X-Team, a collaborative effort between the Polytechnic University of Turin and several universities and institutes in Turin and Venice, the program seeks to build an "educational corridor" for asylum seekers in Italy.

The program is just one of many such projects the government has launched to help educate refugees. To date, Italy is the only country to follow through on a European Parliament proposal that universities in member states provide online courses so that refugees can continue their studies if they return to their home countries. "This makes us proud," says Italy's Education Minister Stefania Giannini, .

The pilot project will begin in September with 50 students from war-torn countries. The students will primarily be Syrian refugees in Italy, as well as some at camps in Jordan and Lebanon. The intensive courses on artistic and cultural heritage will last eight months and be held first in the northwestern Italian region of Piedmont and later in a monastery in Veneto, in the northeast.

Under siege

The destructive reach of the Islamic State (ISIS) goes far beyond the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. "There’s a cultural genocide going on in the Middle East designed to destroy works of art," says one of the program organizers.

Marco Gilli, rector of the Polytechnic University of Turin, says the courses will focus on interdisciplinary themes, from architecture to information technology and materials science. There will also be classes on cartography, museum archiving and drone surveillance techniques. Business incubators are involved in the program as well, helping to create jobs and give refugees the prospect of a safe return home.

The 1.5 million euro project still faces a few hurdles, including bureaucratic issues over how to verify applicants' education levels. The Polytechnic University of Turin accepts refugees that can’t provide proof of a school diploma, on the condition that the university receives a guarantee from their home country or the Italian Education Ministry before they graduate.

Romano Borchiellini, one of the professors at the school, says the program is a bridge to the post-war future. "The armed forces must defend historical sites," he says. "But the experts we're training will supervise and rebuild them."

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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