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How Migrants Helped to Rejuvenate a Struggling Town

A few years ago, the Sicilian town of Sutera found a renewed sense of purpose after it started welcoming migrant families. Now, Italy's anti-immigration policies are threatening this new balance.

by Cosimo Bizzarri; photos by Matteo de Mayda / Contrasto
08 April 2019, 7:45am

All photos: Matteo de Mayda / Contrasto

It's late afternoon in the piazza of the small Sicilian town of Sutera. Outside the pharmacy, people have gathered to have a drink and discuss the news of the day. The scene is fairly impressive, considering it's winter, and up until five years ago Sutera was just another ghost town in one of Italy's most abandoned regions. With a population of just 1,500, most young people had moved away to study or find a job, with only the older generations staying behind to hold a rather hopeless fort. But in the last few years, the town has been renewed with a sense of purpose and meaning after opening its doors to outsiders.

Giuseppe Grizzanti is the man who started the local revolution. In October of 2013, a few months after being elected mayor of Sutera, the 64-year-old received a fairly unusual request. He was asked to find room in the town's cemetery for the bodies of many of the 368 migrants who had died a few nautical miles off the coast of Lampedusa after a boat carrying 500 Eritreans caught fire.

"We didn't have space for the remains, which made me feel uneasy," Grizzanti recalls. "Then something clicked in my mind: if we couldn't house the dead, why couldn't we welcome the living instead?"

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Giuseppe Grizzanti

Grizzanti signed the town up for SPRAR, a government-funded programme that supports cities and towns in welcoming and integrating refugees and asylum seekers into their communities, for a limited amount of time – usually between six months to a year. Across Italy, around 1,800 city councils have partnered with the agency, to varying levels of success. Towns and cities are allowed to focus their efforts on where they believe they can do the most good. Some councils, for example, have chosen to support unaccompanied minors, or migrants with mental health problems. Sutera decided to host entire families.

Soon after Grizzanti made his commitment, the first 15 migrants arrived. Each new family was matched to a local one for support. From there, it didn't take long to see a change in the town's demographics, and in the way the community embraced this new identity. For example, Sutera's nonnas quickly started pitching in to help babysit newborns coming from Senegal or Pakistan as their parents looked for work.

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Left: Demba with his young daughter in their flat. Right: Demba's eight-year-old son in his bedroom.

Today, there are around 30 migrants in Sutera, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, plus 15 hosted in a neighbouring town. Among them is 37-year-old Demba Kruballi. After leaving Gambia, where he worked for the government, he lived in Senegal and Libya, before making the crossing on an overcrowded boat in 2014.

Once in Italy, Demba lived in two camps where migrants are processed and kept while an Italian court evaluates their asylum applications. Once his application was approved, he applied for his wife and three kids to come and join him in Italy, and eventually moved with them to Sutera.

As part of Sutera's hospitality programme, migrants are given their own flats – a place they can call home, instead of having to spend their days in communal camps being told when they can eat and sleep. Demba's family lives in a two-bedroom apartment right in the centre of town. It has a kitchen, living room and a studio covered in batteries, glues and blowtorches.

"In Sutera, I'm the go-to guy for fixing electronic devices – phones, decoders, TVs, radios," Demba tells me, before explaining how he learned his craft back in Gambia. He normally just walks down to the piazza to find customers, and his price depends on the client. "I just ask how much a person can afford," he says. "Some give me €15, others €20 or €30. It's up to them."

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Demba in his workshop, where he fixes phones and other electronic devices.

Demba feels comfortable in Sutera. He gets along with the locals, and through the programme he's had access to Italian and IT lessons, as well as specific job training courses. And just like with every other migrant in the programme, he can receive free legal assistance as well as therapy. His kids go to the local school and now speak Italian in a marked Sicilian accent.

Demba and his family's time in SPRAR will be over soon, and they'll need to find new accommodation and support themselves. Since there are only so many people in Sutera who have phones for him to fix, Demba – who doesn't have a car to drive to neighbouring towns for work – will have to find a way of supplementing his income. The solution may come from moving to a bigger city and establishing a business there.

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Nunzio Vitellaro.

"The chord has to be cut eventually," says Nunzio Vitellaro, who runs Sutera's migrant programme. "The goal of the project is to create pathways that will allow the migrants to have real opportunities once they are out."

Some migrants have chosen to stay in Sutera, such as the Syrian boy currently working with Vitellaro and the programme as a cultural mediator. Some have suggested encouraging the migrants to stay in the town and help fix Sutera's longstanding problems, such as filling local schools which otherwise would be at risk of closing down – but the numbers aren't really there for that either. "We're talking about over a thousand locals against 40 migrants," Vitellaro explains.

Still, the town is benefiting from the programme in other ways. "A welcoming society is one that grows culturally," says Vitellaro. "Today, Sutera is a microcosm in which many languages are spoken. Locals have learned how to engage with other cultures."

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Demba's son and classmates at the local school.

Every Christmas, for example, the town sets up a living nativity scene in the Rabato, the old Arabic neighbourhood. Traditionally, the locals have played all of the main characters surrounding the newborn Jesus. Since the hospitality programme was set up, the organisers have managed to create an increasingly more diverse cast – this year, a Syrian baby occupied the cradle and a Nigerian man played Saint Caspar, one of the three kings.

Meanwhile, the end of 2018 brought a challenge to the programme. The Italian senate approved the Decreto Sicurezza (Security Measure) – a law signed by Italy's far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, that severely restricts asylum applications. Among the measures introduced by the law is the abolition of the humanitarian protection that allowed foreign individuals whose human rights were at risk in their home country to stay in Italy for up to two years. By abolishing humanitarian protection, many won't be able to become part of the SPRAR programme and will be forced to live under the radar.


WATCH: Here's what the European Union did to stop migrants from coming.


"Anywhere there are pockets of resistance, we will be among them," says Vitellaro. "We'll keep working with anyone who has obtained refugee status. But what will happen to the others?"

Many experts believe that the new law will simply cause many migrants to go underground. Instead of being open, productive members of society, undocumented immigrants without a place to live and a legal means of getting work could be swept up by a criminal organisation. Researcher Matteo Villa estimates that, due to the law, there could be an additional 60,000 new undocumented migrants living in Italy by 2020, almost doubling the current number to 130,000.

For now, the mayor of Sutera and his local government have supported a petition calling on Salvini to change the law. Until then, even though Grizzanti says that he doesn't want to break the law, he believes it would be inhumane for his town to shut the door on any migrants in need.

But that might be easier said than done. In October of last year, the interior ministry arrested the mayor of the southern Italian town of Riace, Domenico Lucano, who ran a similar migrant programme. He was subsequently banned from entering the town over accusations that he knowingly violated immigration laws, committed fraud and arranged fake marriages.

Prior to Lucano's arrest, Riace had been celebrated as the perfect example of successful integration and repopulation, with around a quarter of its 1,800-strong population made up of foreigners. Lucano has since been cleared of the charges of fraud and arranging marriages, but he's still facing others, and the ban still holds. Now, without the government's funding, Riace is struggling to keep its migrant programme alive. And the question remains: what's going to happen to other towns with their own programmes, and to other mayors trying to help migrants in need?

Still, the people of Sutera are determined to push ahead. The name of this Sicilian town actually comes from the ancient Greek word "soter", which means "saviour". According to local folklore, the needy have been coming to this area, perched under a monolithic rock, throughout history to take shelter from wars and invasions. As xenophobia continues to spread throughout Italy and the rest of Europe, towns like Sutera may be needed more than ever.

Keep an eye out for our upcoming documentary on how Italy's anti-immigration politics, and the decision to remove humanitarian protection, affect the tens of thousands of people who crossed the deadly mediterranean to reach its shores.