For two months, Italy has been embroiled in a conflict with the EU by refusing to allow migrant rescue ships in the Mediterranean to dock in its ports.
Between January 1st 2016 and the end of December 2017, more than 300,000 refugees and economic migrants arrived in Italy via the Mediterranean from North Africa, according to UNHCR data.
Nearly 20,000 more have arrived this year, stretching resources but also inflaming the political rhetoric which brought The League – a former, marginal and separatist right-wing party – to power for the first time in June this year.
The multicultural Palermo-based social enterprise Moltivolti is showing that migration can be a solution.
“There is a small fire into which people are blowing and exploiting people's anger,” Claudio Arestivo, one of the founders of Moltivolti, a social enterprise in the Sicilian capital, told The Local.
Moltivolti's 14 founders from eight countries decided in 2014 to set up a centre to unite NGOs and volunteer organisations in the Ballarò district – one of the most multicultural – of Palermo and paint a more compassionate view towards new arrivals. Four years on, the bar, co-working space and social outreach program is completely self-sustainable, with no institutional financial support, according to Arestivo.
“Our model is unique in Italy because of specific peculiarities,” Arestivo told The Local. Moltivolti runs a for-profit bar and restaurant, which in turn funds its not-for-profit co-working space, now the powerhouse and HQ of more than a dozen local socially-orientated organisations.
The management team come from many backgrounds – the founders are from Senegal, Zambia, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, France, Spain, Gambia and Italy – and this plurality of views defines the organisation.
The idea for Moltivolti came about during a trip to Senegal on a program some of the founders had already established called 'Through my Eyes.' That project was a simple but effective twist on responsible tourism: Italians booked a holiday to a migrant's home country, where they would be led by a returnee guide who had also spent time in Italy. “The guide knew the cultures of arrival and departure,” says Arestivo.
In 2014, the combined knowledge of those who knew about cultures of arrival and departure led to the founding of Moltivolti where 20 people, mainly refugees, now work.
The social enterprise's kitchen has five staff members from four countries: One is an Iraqi political refugee and former journalist who fled his country after writing about corruption in the Iraqi parliament.
The bar was slow to take off but now welcomes more than 200 clients on an average day, according to Arestivo. “Clients are supporting a political line,” Arestivo told The Local. Each drink downed helps support a socially-minded organisation in the co-working space next door, the basis behind the feel-good business model.
The bar at Moltivolti in Palermo, capital of the southern Italian island of Sicily. All photos: Moltivolti.
Moltivolti has gone from success to success. In 2017, the Dutch royal family visited the centre. In the same year, the mayor of Palermo gave Moltivolti a prestigious civil award for “our model that welcomes integration,” Arestivo told The Local. Moltivolti, which means 'many faces' in Italian, also supports other organisations' projects, like Arci Porco Rosso's 'Sans Papier' program which offers legal assistance to new arrivals in Sicily.
There has also been opposition to the project. After this year's elections, Moltivolti launched a tongue-in-cheek campaign offering voters a free beer if they would admit to regrets over voting for the Five Star Movement. “It led to many insults and even physical threats against me,” Arestivo told The Local.
Instead of closing down or panicking, Arestivo says he just engaged many of those threatening him.
“I asked them: Why are you angry? If you want we can meet and rather than a beer we can have a coffee. Then you discover what their concerns are: One has cancer, the other has three unemployed children, someone was left by their spouse,” recalls Arestivo.
He found that many of the threats only existed in the digital world and that when he engaged people, the anger and hate was easy to break down. “This world of haters is digital and far from reality,” says Arestivo.
Coming and going
In 2016, 10,000 young Sicilians left the island to study in the north of Italy or in Europe. In 2017, that number jumped to more than 50,000, according to figures from Italy's national institute of statistics ISTAT – cited by media portal Palermo Today.
The pattern of mass emigration is primarily due to Sicily having an unemployment rate of 40 per cent, one of the highest in Europe. The birth rate has also halved in the last two decades, according to ISTAT data, meaning small Sicilian towns continue to decrease in population.
Arestivo says he is the only one of four brothers who remained in Sicily amidst the economic crisis. Given that so many Sicilians depart, Arestivo says it is normal that others should arrive.
Regarding La Lega's rise in the south of the country, Arestivo's view might best be summed up by the words of the late American political thinker Gore Vidal in the 2005 documentary Why We Fight.
“We live in the United States of Amnesia. Nobody remembers anything before Monday morning. Everything is a blank,” Vidal said about America.
The League, once known as The Northern League, was founded as a separatist party that aimed to split the poorer regions of southern Italy from the richer, more industrialized northern ones. Their gaining of a recent foothold in the south is part of a specific strategy, argues Arestivo. Migration presented an opportunity for a facelift.
“When La Lega realized that they could become a national party and enter government they needed the south,” Arestivo told The Local. “So they shifted the focus to migrants who have no voice.”
On August 14th this year, Moltivolti launched a manifesto to tackle “the myth of an invasion” in Sicily and fight racism. Dozens of organisations have already signed up.
Besides calling for more freedom of movement and more social awareness campaigns, the manifesto aims to dismantle “myths about migration.”
“Let's dismantle this false narrative about an invasion that does not exist, let's debunk the myth – that certain policies of building walls lead to a decrease in arrivals because, let's face reality, they only serve to “clandestinize,” to make the migratory paths more dangerous. They only serve to strengthen that phantom of the enemy that is not in the migrant but is in an unfair social and economic system,” states the manifesto published in Repubblica.
“The data tells us loud and clear: There is no invasion, there is a mismanagement of migratory flows, poor management of the distribution of those who arrive, and increasing the level of political confrontation in Europe is doing nothing but putting Italy in a stalemate and “funnel” situation,” adds the manifesto.