Riace: from “ghost” to “host” town

//The sign reads: “Riace: the village of hospitality”

Riace, the Italian village famous for the bronze Greek statues found in the sea, is also home to others “who come from the sea”: hundreds of immigrants who keep the village alive.

Immigrants, who are usually protagonists of tragic stories, are seen as an asset in this little village in the southern region of Calabria. Riace, with its unique integration scheme constitutes an example of turning migration into a positive phenomenon, enhancing the society.

The success story of Riace starts thousands of miles away, with the Turkish-Kurdish conflict of the 1990s. When almost 200 Kurdish refugees disembarked in Riace in 1998, they were welcome by the “Citta’ Futura” (City of the Future) association. The village was full of abandoned houses as most local people escaped because of lack of jobs and opportunities. The Citta Futura association helped the refugees take shelter in empty houses in exchange for small restoration works.

Among the founders of the association was Domenico Lucano, the current mayor of Riace. Lucano worked hard to both save Riace from becoming a ghost town, and help the immigrants start a decent new life.

The ancient traditions of the village that risked being forgotten as the locals left the region were revitalized thanks to the immigrants working in the ceramics, chocolate, embroidery, carpentry workshops and weaving mills. These jobs, as well as helping the immigrants make a living, also provided Riace a new lease of life.

//A wall from Riace

Today the immigrants make up almost 20 percent of the Riace’s population of 1700 people.

The village school, that was closed in 2000 as there were not enough students, is now flourishing thanks to immigrants’ children. At the nursery there are children of 8 nationalities.

One of the first immigrants to arrive in Riace was Kurdish Bahram Acar. Fleeing the Turkish-Kurdish conflict in the 1990s, he set foot in Riace in 1998 and started working as a builder. Still living in the village as an Italian citizen he helps the newcomers, he tells the British newspaper the Observer. "It all started with me. I was helped, and now I am helping" he says.

Locals, who in the past went as far away as New Zealand, Argentina and the US as well as north of Italy in search for jobs, are not running away from the village anymore. The economic vitality created by the migrant scheme also helped them to thrive. Thanks to the financial support from government and the EU for the immigrants, the locals also have more job opportunities.

Mayor Domenico Lucano claims that his migration scheme is almost four times cheaper than the cost of keeping the immigrants in detention centers.

//“Che” banknotesHigh numbers of immigrants and late arrival of grants given to asylum seekers pushed Riace to print its own banknotes, with the faces of Che Guevera, Gandhi and Martin Luther King on them. The mayor Lucano says the benefits for the asylum seekers arrive 6-7 months late, so they decided to print their own money to keep the daily life active. The asylum seekers use the fake banknotes to make shopping, and the shop owners exchange them with “real money” when the government sends it to the local council.

//Mayor Domenico Lucano and Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge in Riace.Domenico Lucano, the mayor, was awarded third place in “World Mayor 2010 list for what he did for the immigrants and his village.

And the story of Riace was made into a short movie by German director Wim Wenders in 2012. “Il Volo” (The Flight), documents how Riace has turned immigration into a resource instead of seeing it as a threat.

However the success of mayor Lucano and his migrant scheme didn’t make everyone happy. Notorious Calabrian mafia ‘Ndrangheta, scared that it may lose its grip on the region tried to intimidate the mayor. Mafia men opened fire to a restaurant where the mayor was eating and poisoned his dogs.

Bu still Lucano says he won’t be intimidated. At almost every interview he gives, he says: “The poorest of the poor would save Riace, and in return, Riace would save them”.

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