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The Guardian | 19.03.2018

With an ageing, fast-shrinking population, Sutera saw Italy’s migrant influx as an opportunity

When the phone call came asking the Sicilian townspeople if they had any room in their graveyards, the answer was a reluctant no.

A boat full of migrants had sunk in the Mediterranean. Almost 400 people were dead and they had to be buried somewhere. But the Sicilian town of Sutera, almost entirely populated by older people, had long since filled up its cemeteries.

Yet although there was no room for the dead, there was plenty of room for the living. All but a few hundred people had moved out of the town to find work in bigger cities, leaving behind empty houses. Now there was a chance to repopulate.

And so, since 2014, Sutera has augmented its fast-dwindling population with dozens of asylum seekers. The school has been reborn; the butcher and grocer are happy with the growth in turnover; the birthrate has rocketed.

“In the 1970s, Sutera had more than 5,000 inhabitants,” the mayor of the town, Giuseppe Grizzanti, tells the Guardian. “By the 1980s we were 4,000, and 3,000 in the 90s. Every year Sutera lost 300 citizens, due to unemployment. The houses emptied, the shops closed and [we] risked becoming a ghost town.”

Sutera comes from the ancient Greek soter, meaning “salvation”. Tucked into the slopes of a remote mountain, it made an ideal refuge during times of war. Now that ancient purpose is being revived.

To Italy’s surging anti-immigrant right, the community represents a 21st-century catastrophe: the displacement of Italians by foreigners. But to local people, it represents an older Sicilian story: of migration and flight from war, and the commercial opportunities those movements bring.

It was one of the Mediterranean’s deadliest migrant tragedies that created the opportunity. On 3 October 2013, a few miles off the Italian island of Lampedusa, 368 people died when a fire broke out in the boat as it neared the shore. Rome asked the nearby municipalities to bury the victims in their cemeteries. Sutera was unable to help, but it had another idea.

“I thought that if we could not host the dead, at least we could do something for the living,” says Grizzanti, who in 2014 agreed to let the Italian state settle asylum seekers in his community’s vacant homes. Sutera joined a resettlement programme that funds towns to host a certain number of people.

Deborah, 26, a Nigerian victim of trafficking, is one of 50 asylum seekers currently living in the town. She has been housed in a modest first-floor apartment in a quaint area of small chalk houses. “I could not believe my eyes,” she says. “In my country I did not even have a bed. Here we have heating and medical care.”

Deborah spent six months in Libya, where she was raped by traffickers. Her daughter Sophia, born in Sutera, is now a year old. Before the arrival of the refugees, the church of Sant’Agata hosted far more funerals than baptisms, but that imbalance is starting to correct itself: in 2016, seven children were born in Sutera, six of them to asylum-seeking families.

As recently as 2012, authorities were considering shutting the local school, a massive complex of more than 1,000 sq metres whose entire student body numbered 10. It is thanks to children from Ethiopia, Pakistan and Nigeria that the school’s pupil numbers are now sufficient for its survival. The refugees are also helping to support the businesses of the butcher, grocer and baker.

Sutera has become a symbol of integration, with its model emulated by other Sicilian municipalities at risk of disappearing. The neighbouring towns of Mazzarino and Milena have followed suit, settling their own asylum seekers.

Nunzio Vitellaro, the coordinator of the association that helps choose applicants to the programme, says: “Sutera shows how the integration process not only has an ethical purpose, but is also an opportunity for work for many young people who, without this project, would have left the island.”

To supporters of the far right, the town is a naive project, financed by the EU, for the “replacement of the white race”. But to the townspeople – including the emigrants whose homes have been given to the new arrivals – it shows what Italy’s ailing countryside most needs: new life.

Gaetano Nicastro, the son of Sicilian emigrants, sees a neat symmetry in the programme: “Here we have been dealing with integration for 2,000 years, and if then Sutera was the ‘salvation’ for many foreigners, well, guess what? Today, the true salvation of Sutera is the refugees.”

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