This World Refugee Day, a massive 65.6 million people are displaced worldwide. That’s 20 new displaced people every minute. Many of the displaced undertake perilous journeys by land or sea in search of dignity, safety, and more stable lives.
Europe has been a main destination for many people fleeing war in Asia and Africa. The European response has been mixed. Thousands have greeted the newcomers with open arms and open homes, unfurling “Refugees Welcome” banners, and providing their time and expertise to help their new neighbors settle. Others, however, have actively opposed refugee resettlement, and various European populist movements have hooked onto anti-immigrant settlement in attempts to attract voters.
But in the face of darkness, a few Italian towns have shown an alternative path. Their stories are not of pure selflessness, but of showing how refugees and immigrants can revitalize dying towns.
Many Italian towns, particularly in the Calabria region, are on the verge of extinction. Populations and birthrates are rapidly dropping. To keep their historic towns alive and allow the aging residents to keep going, a few mayors and good samaritans have began training and resettling refugees.
On World Refugee Day, here are four places in Italy thriving thanks to refugees:
The mayor of the Calabrian town of Riace, Domenico Lucano, was named one of Fortune Magazine’s top 50 global leaders in 2016 for his work receiving refugees. Riace was practically a ghost town 15 years ago. Many of the residents had fled north or abroad in search of employment.
In 1998, Lucano noticed something. “There were people without a house here, and there were houses without people here,” he told the BBC. “It’s simple.”
The town offers housing and training to refugees. Around 450 immigrants live in the town hailing from around 20 different countries. And due to the longevity and success of Lucano’s plan, Riace is now a multicultural town with Italians (first and second generation) from an array of backgrounds.
“[He had] a long-term vision of rejuvenating his area and showed leadership to help his new residents feel welcome,” Manos Moschopoulos, of the Open Society Initiative for Europe, told the BBC. “Riace’s model offers migrants the ability to participate in their new society, free from the extreme economic and social pressures many have faced as they tried to earn enough to sustain themselves. Migrants are then able to focus on inclusion, learning the local language, interacting with locals and getting the skills they need to build a better future for themselves.”
Just one town over from Riace, Camini’s glory days were 50 years ago. The once populous town was depopulated by poverty and unemployment. And, unlike Riace, Camini’s revival was something of an accident.
“We never thought it would be like a resource for us,” Rosaria Zulzolo, the initiative’s leader, told Al-Jazeera. “We just wanted to receive people who were running away from war and offering them hospitality. And in this hospitality, we saw that shopkeepers were selling more goods, more work was being created.”
The town’s population was about 280 before refugees began resettling here. Now, Camini has accepted around 80 newcomers from the Middle East and Africa.
he capital city of the autonomous Sicilian region, Palermo is much larger than both Riace and Camini. Mayor Leoluca Orlando, who became famous for fighting the mafia and winning, has gained recent plaudits for welcoming rescued migrant ships in his city’s harbor.
Orlando has been one of the most prominent voices in support of aiding refugees.
“People have the right to move in search for a better life,” Orlando told the Guardian. “When your life is at stake because your country is at war, you are welcome. But when you’re dying because you have nothing to eat, you are left out in the cold. That makes no sense at all. Economic migrants are the most vulnerable because they don’t have the right to a residence permit.”
He said refugees are forced to put themselves in such harrowing situations because Europe’s support is lacking.
“People from Syria are supposed to have the right to live in Europe, but they are not given that right. They can’t travel by plane. We make them pay thousands of dollars to smugglers and risk their lives.”
Before the refugees began resettling Palermo, parts of the city’s historic quarters had sat empty. With rent so cheap, immigrants from Bangladesh and Africa moved in. As many Italians have left Palermo in search of higher paying jobs, immigrants have taken their place. In the last ten years, around 29,000 natives of Palermo have left the town. But the number of immigrants has nearly doubled to 30,000.
“Many parts of the historical center of Palermo had been empty for 30 years,” Juan Diego Catalano Ugdulena, a city councilman, told the Huffington Post. “The city had lost its identity. Now they are making it alive again.”
This small town in Italy’s “boot” once boasted a population of around 3,800 residents. That was the 1950s though, and today the population has eroded to around 1,000. When Italy began witnessing high numbers of refugees land on their shores, the local mayor saw an opportunity for growth.
“The presence of refugees can be an opportunity to repopulate the town,” Satriano Mayor Michele Drosi told Citiscope. “It can create a virtuous cycle.”
The town began helping refugees with temporary housing, job placement, and asylum applications. The program is still small, but has been praised as a model that other towns could use.
Carmine Battaglia, president of the local association of seniors, said many residents could relate to their new neighbors. “Who better than us, who left town because of poverty as young workers, to understand the pain of those people fleeing wars and persecutions?”