On a sunny day in March, two Ukrainian women, their three children, a few backpacks and one cabin-sized rolling suitcase containing all their worldly possessions pulled up to a bus stop at Lamezia Terme train station in southern Italy.
The arrivals had flown from Warsaw to Catania in eastern Sicily, boarded a Flixbus, taken a ferry to the mainland (the children had been excited to see a bus drive onto a boat), and continued on towards their destination. Now, their odyssey had brought them here, to this small city on the southern toe of Italy’s boot.
As they stepped off the coach, the women looked exhausted, the children dazed, says Barbara Aiello, Italy’s only woman rabbi and one of the leaders of the effort to bring the families over.
“They were so fragile. Like, ‘Where am I? Who are you? How come nobody speaks my language? Where are my friends? Where’s my father?’ It was really stark,” says Aiello.
She recalled having seen similar expressions on the faces of hurricane and flood victims in a previous career in disaster relief. “It was the same thing,” she says, “like, ‘What just happened to me?'”
Several weeks earlier, when Russia first invaded Ukraine, Aiello and her team had sent messages to relief organisations throughout Warsaw and Krakow asking whether they knew of any refugees who wanted to come and stay in their Calabrian hilltop town of Serrastretta, a 40 minute drive from Lamezia Terme – but at first no one was interested.
“Our contacts told us that many people wanted to remain in Poland nearby the Ukrainian border, because they felt that the war would be over in just a few days,” says Aiello.
“It was around the 15th of March that the organisations were calling us back, telling us that there were people who wanted to leave.”
The project’s organisers – a group of seven women, including an airport manager, a lawyer, two teachers, and a master woodworker – got to work.
They fundraised, bought plane and coach tickets, arranged Covid tests and accommodation, and secured residency permits. In the end, they arranged for five Ukrainian women and nine children to come to Serrastretta, arriving in groups a couple of weeks apart. The organisers called the project ‘In Esther’s Name’ “from the book of the Bible for both Christians and Jews, of which we are a mix,” says Aiello, drawing inspiration from the idea that “one of the themes of the book of Esther is that one person can make a difference.”
Just over a month on, the team says the children’s emotional state has visibly improved.
“Already from the first day to now you can see that they’re more calm, more serene – though they’re still missing their fathers,” says Gessica Scalise, a project member who’s been teaching the children Italian three times a week.
“But now when they see us, they definitely have lighter expressions; the mothers too.”
For the initiative’s organisers, however, offering sanctuary to families fleeing war is only one half of the equation.
Serrastretta – like many hundreds of other towns in southern Italy – is rapidly losing its inhabitants to old age and a lack of job prospects.
In inviting Ukrainian refugees to the town, Aiello hopes to kickstart the process of Serrastretta’s repopulation. She’s unabashed about the fact that her team actively sought out families they thought stood the best chance of helping them achieve this aim.
“We told the aid agencies that we wanted to bring only families, mothers that had children ranging in age from five to eleven, so that they would be in elementary school and middle school here,” says Aiello.
She positions the idea as a corrective to the “propaganda” that marketing dilapidated, municipal-owned homes to foreign buyers for one euro a piece (usually with the requirement to spend a hefty minimum sum on property renovation) will solve southern Italy’s population crisis.
What’s needed, the project’s leaders insist, “is not someone who’s retired who wants to renovate an older property to come for Ferragosto, but to grow the town with young families.”
Serrastretta isn’t the only underpopulated Italian hamlet to have been struck with the same idea.
The mayor of Pollica in Campania has reportedly signed a “declaration of intent” to provide an integration and job training programme for up to 30 displaced Ukrainians. Mussomeli and Salemi in Sicily, which have previously participated in one euro home schemes, say they’re partnering with an Italian property development company to offer free homes to Ukrainian families.
San Mango d’Aquino in Calabria is ahead of the curve; it’s already taken in 20 Ukrainians, 15 of them children, housing them in empty homes owned by the town council. It says it currently has space for 25 more.
“Depopulation is a big issue here, so with these mothers and children, we’re revitalising the town,” says vice mayor Francesco Trunzo.
“In San Mango d’Aquino, we want to create a borgo dell’accoglienza [a ‘welcome’ or ‘host’ town] – because we’re five minutes from the sea, five minutes from the mountains, on a beautiful hill – it’s a very desirable town, with access to all the services they could want.”
As part of its short-term retention strategy, the town has offered €2,500 to each household that agrees to stay past the summer.
“We’ve received funds for depopulation, €124,000, and decided to allocate these to those who remain in San Mango for at least six months,” says Trunzo. “It’s a little bit of assistance, to help them integrate, to rent a house, to bring their family members over here, to find a job.”
Although Italy’s government has committed to spending €500 million to support the country’s Ukrainian refugees, at this stage both the Serrastretta team and San Mango d’Aquino say they’ve received no national funding for their projects, instead relying on private donations.
To date, Aiello says ‘In Esther’s Name’ has raised close to $44,000. While the vast majority of that money has come from outside sources, both projects say local residents have enthusiastically participated in collection drives, eager to welcome the people who represent the possibility of salvation for their villages.
These initiatives might just be getting off the ground, but the concept of recruiting foreigners to save disappearing Italian hill towns isn’t a new one.
The town of Riace, on the southern coast of Calabria, began formally hosting refugees with government funding in the early 2000’s, developing a system whereby foreign residents worked in local cooperatives and money was fed back into the town’s economy through a local ‘currency’ voucher scheme.
By the 2010s, the “Riace model” was internationally acclaimed, the town’s mayor Domenico (‘Mimmo’) Lucano named one of the world’s greatest leaders in 2016 by Fortune Magazine.
That all came to an end in 2018, when authorities charged Lucano with abetting illegal immigration and failing to properly tender a garbage collection contract. The government pulled all immigration funding to the town, effectively dismantling the system, and in late 2021, Lucano was sentenced to 13 years and two months in prison.
Many Italians, however, see Riace as a casualty of the authorities’ desire to pander to nationalists amid a rising tide of xenophobia rather than a failed integration project, and Lucano as a scapegoat (Lucano is appealing his conviction, and recently offered empty homes controlled by his non-profit ‘Riace Città Futuro’ to Ukrainian refugees).
“Riace had a very symbolic function in this public PR war,” says Ester Driel, a lecturer at Utrecht University who focused on Riace for her doctoral research. “It began to symbolise an ideal and got a lot of media attention for it, with a strong narrative that immigration is successful.”
“Of course, at the same time you had a national political trend where you had these parties that basically based their popularity and their votes on saying how dangerous migrants are.”
Driel says that at the time of its closure, Riace wasn’t the only Calabrian town operating under the ‘Riace Model’ – just the most high-profile one. To her knowledge, a number of less well-known refugee-hosting villages around Riace are still functioning on much the same basis as before.
The model has broadly proven successful, Driel says, adding that it makes a significant difference if the national political will is aligned with what’s going on on the ground level – which is where towns hosting Ukrainian refugees are likely to have a substantial advantage.
One of the most important factors in such a project’s success, Driel found over the course of her research, is whether the town is merely housing refugees or making a concerted effort to facilitate their integration.
“Initiatives that considered the hosting of refugees as just a refugee project where we give them a house somewhere, they weren’t very successful,” she says. “But towns that offered working opportunities, internship opportunities, opportunities for people to get to know each other and actually work on projects together, those projects were much more successful.”
Driel also notes that the scheme tends to work best with specific demographics.
Young adults she spoke to, for example, would often complain that they were bored and wanted to do things that weren’t possible in a small town like Riace.
By contrast, “families with young children and the elderly were mostly very content, because after a very stressful journey from, for example, Somalia and Libya by boat, they were happy to be in a small town where it was peaceful, where their kids could go to school, and the elderly liked a peaceful life.”
Driel adds that although the limited career opportunities in these small towns remains an issue, increased post-pandemic remote working options are drawing young professionals back (she herself knows several young Italians from Riace who returned home during the pandemic and have stayed on) – meaning if they can recruit enough young people, there’s a chance that some of them might stay.
If such initiatives have proven successful in the past, people might reasonably question why some towns are only becoming interested in implementing these kinds of schemes now, for Ukrainians, given that in recent years Italy has not had a shortage of people seeking refuge.
Aiello is characteristically candid in her response: “Our need is to grow the population of our town, and the way that it will grow is not with young adult migrant men and not with retirees. Those people need to be served, of course, but they will not grow a dying village: what will grow a dying village is couples with young children.”
She says that the Serrastretta team had initially been planning to bring over families from Venezuela when Covid hit, scuppering their preparations, but that those families remain on their “waiting list” – and adds that the town would be open to taking in people from any part of the world as long as they fell in the right age bracket.
Trunzo, for his part, says San Mango d’Aquino would “absolutely” be open to welcoming refugees from other continents, “if there were other emergencies, other wars, other similarly dramatic situations.”
There’s also the question of whether the Ukrainian families will even want to stay.
The war is new and rapidly developing, and at this stage many of the country’s refugees are likely hoping they’ll be able to return home at some point.
“It’s a very fluid situation for which it’s impossible to predict the outcome,” says Valeria Carlini, a spokesperson for the Italian Refugee Council. “But compared to other refugee flows, we’re definitely encountering people who frequently and very emphatically assert their desire to remain firmly connected to their homeland.”
Aiello says her team recently broached the subject of the future at a meeting with the mothers in Serrastretta.
“We said, ‘We don’t know what’s going to happen day-to-day in Ukraine, but are you thinking you might like to live here?’ And all five of them said yes. Now will that happen? We don’t know, and we will not put pressure on them.”
She points out that the mayor of Kyiv recently warned citizens against trying to return, and says that at least one of the families’ homes has been razed to the ground, making their imminent departure seem increasingly unlikely. But she’s aware it’s still a possibility.
“Someone asked me, ‘Do you want us to live here?’” she says. “And I said, “of course we do! But it is entirely up to you and what’s best for your family. We will help you do want you want: we will bring your husbands here, and if you want to leave, we will help you with transportation to go wherever you want to go.'”
While everyone waits to see what the future holds, the days roll on. The children in Serrastretta and San Mango d’Aquino are enthusiastically learning Italian, and recently started school.
Scalise, the teacher, says they held a workshop for the Ukrainian children and their peers to get to know one another better, and that the two groups happily babbled away in a pidgin of Italian, English, and hand gestures.
Both towns insist that if their guests leave, all their efforts will still have been worth it.
“If in two years or two months they want to go back, we will gladly accompany them to their homes,” says Trunzo.
He says that when he went to Ukraine to offer help when the war first broke out, the hotel his team had booked refused to take any payment, and greeted them with hugs. “So for us, just to welcome them at this time, to give them a bit of happiness, a bit of hope, a bit of help, repays itself.”
The fact remains that if the families do leave, the towns will be back to square one, and they’ll need to start their search from scratch.
If this happens, the team behind the Serrastretta project is determined not to give up without a fight.
“These little towns are going to die if we don’t do something,” says Aiello. “And it’s not going to happen with a house for one euro. I’m convinced.”