• Italy's news in English
 
app_header_v3
How this tiny Italian town opened its homes to refugees
File photo: Refugees rescued from the Mediterranean disembark in Pozzallo, Sicily. Photo Giovanni Isolino/AFP

How this tiny Italian town opened its homes to refugees

Patrick Browne · 12 Feb 2016, 12:55

Published: 12 Feb 2016 12:55 GMT+01:00

Isolated, poor and with an elderly and dwindling population, Sutera might not seem such an attractive proposition for housing migrants. But it is one of many places in Italy in which local residents have thrown open their doors to some of the thousands of refugees who continue to land on the country's beaches.

In countries like Germany and Sweden, looking after refugees has mainly been the job of the state. Italy too has built scores of reception centres to handle the influx. But many Italians have given asylum seekers a much more personal welcome. Sutera's refugee programme is now being held up as proof that integration can work even in the least likely of places.

Mayor Giuseppe Grizzanti decided to open the town's doors to refugees after the tragic Lampedusa shipwreck in October 2013, in which 366 migrants died. 

Today, Sutera is home to 34 refugees from the Middle East and Africa, including a number of children, all of whom live with local families.

READ ALSO: All alone but full of hope: Italy's migrant children

Grizzanti compares their experience to that of Italians arriving on New York's Ellis Island more than a century ago – some of whom came from Sutera.

“Historically, Sutera – and indeed Sicily – has been an island of emigration,” Grizzanti told The Local.

“But the refugee crisis offered us a change to rejuvenate our town by becoming a centre of immigration.”

Unlike in other Italian towns and cities where migrants are placed in vacant buildings on the edge of town and left to fend for themselves, in Sutera each refugee is entrusted to a local family charged with helping them to integrate.

The policy has three strict rules: no alcohol at home, total respect for privacy and cleanliness and perhaps, most importantly of all, compulsory Italian lessons.

The lessons are organized at Sutera's two schools each week. Adults and children get separate lessons.

Lessons are taught by volunteers like Mario Tona, a retired teacher using his free time and expertise to make sure that refugees get off to the best possible start in Italy.

Sutera is one of many places in Italy - most of them on the poor south - where locals have been conspicuously generous to refugees. In the mining town of Carbonia in Sardinia, locals dipped into their pockets to buy migrants phone cards and cigarettes.

In Satriano in Calabria, the local mayor has renovated derelict homes in the hope of persuading some of the refugees to stay.

Read more: Italian town looks to refugees for revival

But can the migrants eventually help repopulate Sutera?

“Not at all,” says Grizzanti. “I don't think we will be taking any more because we will become stretched. Although we have exported the programme to the neighbouring town Milena – which has just accepted 25.

"The economic reality of life in the town means that most of the refugees will only ever find a short-term home here."

“It takes around two years for their asylum claims to be processed,” he added.

“After that I expect they will move to a city like Milan or Turin to find work like most of our young people have been forced to do. But this project is not about Sutera – it's a humanitarian project.”

Yet the town is still reaping benefits. Hosting the migrants means a windfall of €260,000 a year  – money which has helped boost the local economy. Six local people are employed full-time in running the hospitality project and looking after the refugees' needs.

One such woman is 28-year-old Mariella Cirami.

“I have a new window on the world each day,” she told La Stampa, while underscoring how the project had changed the atmosphere in the city.

“The few children in the town are now playing in the streets with the refugees.”

Last August, the town even celebrated a “festival of hospitality” at which its melting-pot nature was on full display as refugees shared traditional food, music and dances with the rest of village.

Story continues below…

But despite the hugely positive nature of the experience so far, Grizzanti admits that many of the residents had strong reservations about the project before it began.

“Initially it unsettled many people especially some of the older residents,” he said. But tensions soon melted away.

In testament to the level of integration reached, Chris Richy, a recent arrival from Nigeria, played a wise man in the town's nativity – a locally famous event that attracts 15,000 visitors each Christmas.

“Here people are good, there's no racism. When I find work as an electrician I want to pay them back for everything they've done,” Richy told La Stampa.

“The only problem here is that it's isolated.”

The nearest city of Caltanisetta is an hour and a half bus ride away, over parched and winding mountain roads lined with fruiting cactus trees.

Before the project, Sutera was famous for being home to a €1.3 million 'white elephant' - a lift to nowhere, that never even opened.

Now it is making news for its exceptional humanitarian efforts during the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War.

 

For more news from Italy, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

Patrick Browne (patrick.browne@thelocal.com)

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Gay civil unions finally become a reality in Italy
Italy became the last major country in Europe to recognize same-sex civil unions in May. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

Italy's first civil union has been performed and will be registered in 10 days' time.

Mussolini's region votes to criminalize fascist souvenirs
Souvenirs plastered with the face of fascist dicator Benito Mussolini. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

The sale of trinkets and souvenirs bearing the image of Benito Mussolini has been outlawed in the region of Italy where the fascist dictator was born and raised.

New rescue plan sends shares Italy's oldest bank soaring
The ancient headquarters of Monte dei Paschi di Siena. Photo:Carlo Hermann/AFP

Shares in Monte Paschi di Siena (BMPS) soared on the Milan stock exchange on Friday, boosted by a possible new lifeline tabled by a veteran Italian banker and Swiss giant UBS.

Italy has expelled 35 Islamist terrorists in 2016: Alfano
Italy's Interiror Minister, Angelino Alfano. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

Italy's Interior Minister Angelino Alfano on Thursday told Parliament that 35 Islamists had been expelled from the country so far in 2016.

Venice Film Festival
Hollywood dominates Venice film fest line-up
The Golden Lion is the top price at Venice's annual film festival. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

Just three Italian films are in the running for the Golden Lion.

Italy energy giant boosts 2016 profit forecast
Energy giant Enel revised its 2016 profit estimates upwards on Thursday. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

Italian energy giant Enel on Thursday revised upwards its profit forecast for 2016 after first-half net profit remained stable despite a sharp fall in revenue.

Stress tests to show extent of problems at Italy's oldest bank
The ancient headquarters of Monte dei Paschi di Siena. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace

Stress test results for Europe's top banks come out Friday and all eyes will be on Italy's embattled Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena (BMPS) - the world's oldest bank.

Video
Tourists blame Google for drive in car-free Venice
Cars are not allowed to enter Venice. Photo: Screengrab/La Nuova Venezia

“Google Maps sent us this way.”

Italy launches hard-hitting campaign to put off migrants
Migrants arriving in Reggio Calabria, in southern Italy. Photo: Giovanni Isolino/AFP

People thinking about making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean are being encouraged to "make an informed decision" by a shocking Italian campaign.

Filthy Rome's rubbish problem 'fixed within a month'
Rome's new council say the city will be clean 'by August 20th'. Photo:Andreas Solaro/AFP

The heaps of rubbish on Rome's streets will be consigned to the dustbin of history next month. That's the plan, at least.

Sponsored Article
Avoid hidden fees when sending money overseas
Travel
Five crowd-free alternatives to Italy's tourist hotspots
Sponsored Article
Why Swiss hospitality graduates are in demand
National
Italian hotspots struggling with 'too many tourists'
Culture
Meet the Italian chef behind the world's best restaurant
Travel
Escape the heat at one of these beautiful Italian lakes
Sponsored Article
Why expats choose international health insurance
Politics
Why the UK is now officially crazier than Italy
Culture
How you can stay cool like an ancient Roman
Lifestyle
Food for thought: fight on to save Med diet from extinction
Sponsored Article
Why you should attend an international job fair
National
From asylum seeker in Italy to organic yoghurt entrepreneur
Sponsored Article
Why Swiss hospitality graduates are in demand
National
Fifteen maps that tell the story of Italy
National
Why Italy might be the next big threat to the EU's future
Sponsored Article
Five things Americans should know about voting abroad
Politics
Post Brexit, less than a third of Italians want to leave EU
Politics
The bright side of Brexit: the 'good news' for Brits in Italy
Culture
Eight wonderful things to do in Italy in July
Sponsored Article
Avoid hidden fees when sending money overseas
Travel
Six of the best places to visit within easy reach of Rome
British business owners in Italy feel Brexit jitters
National
How to get Italian citizenship (or at least stay forever)
Sponsored Article
Why expats choose international health insurance
Politics
Where does Britain's exit from the EU leave Italy?
Sponsored Article
Why you should attend an international job fair
Politics
Has the time come for Italy’s Five Star Movement to shine?
Society
Why Italy must change after young woman’s brutal murder
Politics
Is Italy's Five Star up to the challenge of running Rome?
Culture
Six of the most bizarre Italian foods everyone should try
2,577
jobs available