Refugees bring dying Italy village back to life

By Fanny Carrier — In the foothills of the Aspromonte mountains in southern Italy, the silence of a once-dying village is broken by the laughter of a small group of refugees. Tiny Sant’Alessio has been welcoming families and migrants here for three years in a project which not only provides humanitarian assistance but brings with it invaluable economic and social benefits. Over the years the village has dwindled to only 330 inhabitants, many of them elderly. The steep cobbled streets are deserted and most windows are shuttered, residents having left over the years for better work opportunities in Turin, Milan or as far away as Australia.
In an attempt to reverse the trend, however, since 2014 the council has been renting eight of these empty flats to house up to 35 migrants at a time as part of the national SPRAR network (Protection System for Asylum Seekers and Refugees).
Everything is done to help the newcomers get back on their feet, from Italian lessons to legal, medical and psychological assistance, vocational training and social activities such as gardening, cooking and dancing classes.
The village is currently home to an Iraqi Kurdish family, a Gambian couple with a baby and young people from Ghana, Nigeria, Mali and Senegal.
There is a special project for the most vulnerable, including HIV-positive people, diabetics, victims of prostitution networks, a deaf and dumb couple, and a young woman whose toddler son was shot dead in Libya and husband is feared drowned.
“Our mission is both humane and humanitarian, that’s the most important thing,” said Stefano Calabro, a 43-year-old police officer who has been mayor of Sant’Alessio since 2009.
“But there is a significant economic benefit too.”
The state allocates up to 45 euros a day for each migrant, most of which goes to the organisers to cover costs.
With funds to spend on services, the council has been able to open a small gym open to all residents and upkeep a lush sports field overlooking the valley.
After six months to a year here, some of the refugees managed to find work in the region, others headed elsewhere.
Ghanaian Salifu, 23, decided to stay on and has been living off odd jobs like helping with manual work in the fields.
Bar owner and widow Celestina Borrello, 73, whose son left years ago to find work in Belgium, says “the village was emptying, so if there’s a little movement now, it’s a good thing”.
“We know what it means to leave our land,” she adds. — AFP

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