TIME Italy

How One Sicilian Village Learned to Love Migrants

An overhead view of the village of Sutera, Sicily, Italy, on July 23, 2007.
R. Carnovalini—De Agostini/Getty Images An overhead view of the village of Sutera, Sicily, Italy, on July 23, 2007.

The Sicilian village of Sutera, like many in rural Italy was dying. Its population fell from 5,000 in 1970 to 1,500 and there was little hope of revival. Its schools and businesses were closing and farmers struggled to tend its fields of pistacchio and olives.

This year, its population has surged by 200 after the local mayor agreed to take in some of the thousands of migrants that have made the dangerous journey from Africa to the Sicily.

“We have always been a hospitable town,” says the Mayor of Sutera, Giuseppe Grizzanti. “Our name comes from the ancient Greek word Soter which means ‘salvation’ because, thanks to our geographical location, Sutera was a perfect stronghold against invasions. Two thousand years later, our town has rediscovered its vocation for hospitality, giving shelter to these families fleeing war.”

Sutera has more to offer than hospitality. Hundreds of its homes were empty and and it even had work to offer. “Sutera was disappearing,” says Grizzanti. “Italians, bound for Germany or England, packed up and left their homes empty. The deaths of inhabitants greatly outnumbered births. Now, thanks to the refugees, we have a chance to revive the city.”

The local school was once attended by hundreds of children, but it was reduced to one class with six pupils. It has had an influx of new pupils providing work for teachers. Other businesses such as chemists, squares, butchers, grocers and bars have also benefitted. Each morning, the elders of Sutera sip espresso with their new neighbors. They chat casually, tell jokes and learn a few words of each other’s languages.

Here, every August, local associations organize the “festival of hospitality”, an event that attracts visitors from all over Sicily. The refugees cook typical dishes from their homeland, sing songs and perform traditional dances.

The situation in Sutera shows that a warm welcome can have an economic impact. The money to host immigrants comes from the European Union, which guarantees refugees a modest sum of money for food and other necessities and good accommodation.

This money allows Alex Ukunboru, 39, to live with his wife in a spacious apartment with kitchen, living room, bathroom, two bedrooms and a small balcony, overlooking a green countryside with olive groves. This house once belonged to one of the many inhabitants of Sutera who left for England in the 1980s to find work and without the arrival of asylum seekers it would likely remain vacant forever.

“I came to Sutera last October, from the state of Edo in Nigeria,” says Ukunboru. “In 2008, I moved to Libya where I worked as a waiter and driver in Benghazi. When the war broke out I found myself trapped in the city. As soon as we had the chance, my wife and I escaped aboard a boat and we arrived in Sicily last September.”

“Here I have found peace,” says Alex, who, in a few months, will become a father. “The people are friendly, the house is spacious, and we’d love to stay here. It would be nice if my son could grow up in Sutera.”

Like most of the refugees accommodated in Sutera, Alex is now looking for work in Sicily. Some of them have already found jobs. Jala, 30, a Pakistani woman, works as a waitress at one of the village restaurants, Civiletto, which serves a delicious local dish of broad beans with ravioli and porcini mushrooms. Mohammed, 34, a Syrian works with local farmers. Binta, 27, from Gambia, takes care of the elderly of Sutera, cleaning their houses and cooking their meals.

“This village is perfect for those of us looking for a bit of stability after years of running away,” Assoma says. “Some of my countrymen, throughout the rest of Europe, are still living in camps, or in tent cities in the cold and without any privacy. Here we feel like citizens, and we are treated with respect by all.”

Santina Lombardo, the coordinator of the E.U. project says that there are 40 families in Sutera at the moment. “Some have found work in other parts of Italy and take off once more. However, many want to stay and this always fills me with pride.”

Some Sutera residents treated the arrival of the first asylum seekers with suspicion. All over Sicily, crimes and assaults were attributed to migrants, sometimes falsely. “Not everyone took it well at first,” says Mario Maniscalco, 26, a university student who was born and lives in Sutera. “But we Italians were also refugees once. And not all of us who disembarked at Ellis Island, in the United States, were good people.

“After all, we exported the mafia to New York from Sicily. The trick is to recognize the suffering, to understand that these people don’t risk their lives at sea for a fun holiday, but because they definitely risk losing their lives if they remain in their own land.”

Last April, an estimated 700 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. That day hundreds of elderly and young people gathered in the main square in Sutera and chalked an outline of the continent of Africa, which was illuminated by candles. The locals of Sutera, natives and newcomers, prayed for the entire evening.

“In the square, that day, there were also people who did not want refugees in Sutera,” says Mario. “I saw them cry together with the immigrants. Because, in the end, you are at a crossroads. You must decide whether to close the doors or reach out to the refugees. Sutera went one step further and decided to embrace them.”

Other villages have imitated Sutera, finding that arrival of migrants provides an opportunity rather than a problem.

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