How refugees saved Riace, the tiny Italian town that could

Written for - January 21st, 2019 - A few years ago I read about the story of a small town in Calabria which had developed an original way to survive the emigration of its citizens and the consequences of a threatening depopulation. Flanking the Ionian coast and its marvellous yet mistreated beaches on one side, and at the old historical villages built on the top of the hills on the other, I drove on a sunny day of summer all the way down the southern tip of Italy. In these torpid territories of the area called Locride, the time seems to have stop. Riace lies on a height overlooking the sea and I soon got disappointed when I realised there was no place open where I could finally tame my hunger. There was just a little bar, which was about to close, run by a Croatian woman who had fallen in love with a local man and had moved in together since a few years already. The conversation with her was noisy and colourful enough to grab the attention of the woman living upstairs, who proposed herself to cook a plate of pasta with tomato soup. The lunch was then accompanied by Teresa’s tales. Although originally from Riace, she was now living in Rome, where she taught she could give her children better professional opportunities. She was coming back every summer for the holidays, to meet friends and family and to enjoy the sea. While a old world of traditions and professions was about to be lost, there was nothing else to replace it. In just a few decades the population was halved. The busiest room of the town became the post office, where everyone goes to collect the pension. As its youngest energies migrated far away, Riace fell into such a deep sleep, that even the finding of two ancient Greek statues at its sea bottom didn’t wake it up. The two perfectly conserved pieces, named ‘the bronzes of Riace’, were soon taken to Reggio Calabria, so that the little old town did not even had to interrupt its snooze.
‘You’re a journalist, aren’t you?’ Teresa asked me after offering me a coffee. I smiled at her. I wondered how many she had seen in these last years. The history of Riace is likely to be written in the history books for another surprise, that came again from the sea. Twenty-six years after the bronzes, on the same shoreline, a boat filled with exhausted human beings reached the seaside district of the town: Riace marina. Most of them were Kurds escaping the surging violences at the Turkish-Iraq border. At their arrival they found people who helped and welcomed them with what they had, like a plate of pasta on a sunny day of summer. The abandoned houses were quickly fixed and reopened, allowing refugees to live in. ‘When I saw these mountains, I thought of Kurdistan, my home. The colours, the shapes, they were familiar’ tells me a few hours later a man in his forties, wearing glasses and smoking a cigarette, while taking a pause from his work. His name is Bahram. ‘I wanted to work and I did everything here: carpenter, bricklayer, blacksmith, driver. I can’t complain’. Bahram was in that boat in 1998 and while all of his fellow countrymen traveled elsewhere, he decided to stay, with a world of memories that makes him melancholic at times.
‘I found people who helped me, people conscious of where I was coming from and ready to struggle for justice” tells me Bahram, as we walked down the small alleys of the old town, encountering lively African children playing, beautiful painted murales and poetry, old people sitting down, smoking, talking with each others, waiting for the second bar to be opened. On the road leading to the office of ‘Città Futura’ (future city), the cooperative for the reception of refugees, we run into Domenico Lucano, the mayor. A former school teacher, Mimì, as everyone calls him in Riace, had been a long time activist before becoming the mayor of his hometown. ‘You’re a journalist, aren’t you?’ he said as well. Definitely he must have met too many of them. ‘I guess that’s because your reputation precedes you’ I answered. Lucano is a shy man who feels not at ease under the spotlight, even though his project has given him international notoriety. In a time where politicians uses migrants as scapegoat to divert the public attention away from their stagnating economies, Lucano has created instead ‘la città dell’accoglienza’ (the welcoming city). A place where locals and refugees can live together, learn from each others and be happy despite the adversities. ‘We dreamt of a town where people could live like they used to traditionally, free from the inhuman rules of capitalism and consumerism. A culture of hospitality that can always welcome any foreigner’ he tells me, while showing me the works done by artists around the town, the workshop that they had opened, the open theatre, the didactic farm. ‘Only twenty years ago there was nothing of all this’ he tells me. ‘Did you know that even Wim Wenders came here to make a short movie?’’
The experiment of Riace inspired a new approach towards migration, in oppositions with big camps with rotten facilities that humiliates people and are likely to create tensions with the local societies. By including and integrating migrants in small communities, offering them language lessons, professional trainings and legal support, their presence could be seen as a resource, instead of as a problem. That’s how Riace came to be seen as a model for many other depopulated towns, which adopted the same system to survive. The most striking example is the one of the tiny village of Camini, located just a few kilometres north of Riace, where the cooperative ‘Jungi Mundu’ has been able to reconstruct many of the abandoned houses, to start projects with international volunteers and to host refugees and asylum seekers in a friendly and familiar environment. These projects won the hearts and minds of European political activists, writers and photographers, artists and citizens of the world in general who fell in love with an utopia of this kind. No wonder that Riace soon became a political laboratory, despite the difficulties of operating in a region where organised crimes often infiltrate and buy off the institutions. 
The community of Riace started to have an increasing number of friends and allies, as every project that assumes a strong political meaning, but also the habitual enemies. In the last years the prefecture examined a few times the state of the project in Riace, critizing some accounting flaws in the third examination, which led to the opening of an investigation. From one day to another the ministry of interior cut the funds to the projects and the cooperatives supporting the migrant quickly accumulated remarkable debts. After a few months, with the funds still frozen by the government, the machine stopped functioning. Most of the workshops were closed. Some landlords started complaining and asking for the money of their rents. The refugees were given pocket money only every now and then, especially to the most necessary cases. Some of them ultimately started to show their frustrations. The pressure started to be too high and discontent polarised the town. Riace is a small town and everyone’s eyes is on you. The story of a ‘combined wedding’ celebrated by the mayor between a local man and a woman who had been refused refugee status came to be known. On October 2nd of this year, Domenico Lucano was put at house arrest with the accusation of ‘favouring illegal immigration’.
Riace woke up this time in a state shock. At Locri’s tribunal, Lucano declare to be ‘guilty of humanity’. A few days later, I returned to Riace when a big demonstration in support of the suspended mayor was taking place. People were chanting slogans such as ‘Free Mimmo’ and ‘You can’t arrest Riace’. Everyone at the demo was convinced that Lucano was another victim of the anti-refugees propaganda carried out by the populist coalition government, composed by the Ligue and the 5 Star Movement. The peaceful demonstrations was deeply emotional, with Domenico coming out of the window of his flat showing his left fist to a crowd singing the partisan song ‘Bella Ciao’. The morning after, Riace was once again empty, and depressed. Many citizens didn’t know what to think about. They all knew Lucano and his ways of thinking, which he considered sometimes more important than the laws, but nobody ever doubted his honesty. ‘How can I accept laws that dehumanize people?’ he tells me the morning after, when I went to his house and rang the bell. Initially he just wanted to tell me that he was too tired to talk with anyone. But as usual, in a few minutes, he was already opening up. ‘They want to destroy us’ he said. ‘They want to dig the dirt on me. It’s absurd. I spent my life chasing my ideals and they arrest me with this absurd charges!’. Domenico once again couldn’t stop talking, so he asked his daughter to prepare some coffee for us and continued. 
’I don’t want to blame this government, or the wave of racism taking up all over Europe. We must reflect on the system that we are living and how the human values are being lost in this consumerist and capitalist society’ he said before being interrupted by someone shouting ‘free Lucano’. Domenico closed his eyes and made an expression of sufferance, as if he was hit by something right at the heart. He kept silent for a while, until the man downstairs shouted ‘free Mimmo’ again. ‘He’s Aiva’ he whispered. ’This voice is pain of the black Africa. Aiva was shot by a stray bullet in Rosarno. I invited him to live with us. And now…what is he going to do?’ continued Domenico. That day Aiva told me that he considered Domenico as a father and that he would never leave until Lucano was there. But a few days letter, more bad news came to Riace from a letter of the ministry of the interior. The project had to close. The 74 refugees and asylum seekers currently hosted had just a few days to decide whether to leave, or to stay without the funds. For most of them, there was no choice but to accept, to continue to be able to provide for their families. Even Aiva changed his mind and decided to leave. In the meantime, Domenico Lucano has been freed, but he is now denied to come back to Riace, until the investigation develops. Away from his eyes, the utopia he created is being dismantled. However, some of the refugees did not even considered the idea of leaving, especially those who are mostly integrated in the life of the village. With them, and with all the friends that are supporting what has been done in Riace, this utopia will try to survive and blossom again.  As Lucano himself says: ‘we can’t resign ourselves and being indifferent towards a society where barbarity and dehumanization is prevaling.
The responsibily is on us, that we can feel every injustice committed towards any human being, in any part of the Earth, directly on our skin”.   

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