From Arrival to Renewal


Migration is Uplifting Downtrodden Communities
Written by
Riace (Francesco Pistilli for Open Society Foundations)

Italy may be home to some of the oldest civilizations in the world, but its endurance over millenia of cultural evolution have also pushed it the cusp of Europe's future. This nation suspended between the Old World and the New, has become the point of arrival for migrants from the Global South to the North. And while Italy's migrant influx has been presented as a massive crisis, as the government struggles to accommodate tens of thousands of new arrivals from the edge of Africa, the country has become a natural experiment in the durability and elasticity one of the most cosmopolitan and ancient societies in the world. Deeper in the countryside, small pockets of hope are cropping up in the quiet hillside towns, and the rustic landscapes strewn with Medieval ruins are starting to echo with new voices.

Although Italy has over the past few decades switched dramatically from being a net exporter of immigrants to a host country, many old villages are rapidly depopulating, as young people stream out to pursue jobs and urban lifestyles. But the abandoned neighborhoods are now filling with newcomers from across the sea--reversing decades of European colonization by starting their lives afresh in some very ancient soil. The medieval enclave of Camini, population 280, has voluntarily resettled about 80 refugees and migrants. It's in part a response to emergency humanitarian needs at the border. But it's also a monumental effort to rebuild a local culture by diversifying and embracing inclusive change--not always an easy transition for a town that saw its first wave of settlers around 900 years ago. Or maybe it is. After all, Italy has always been something of a crossroads of the world. National Geographic profiled the town's transformation and found that fear and anxiety of the Other can be overcome by abiding faith in what we all have in common--even it's just something as simple as wanting a neighbor welcome you into their home.

The cobblestoned village of Riace was hemmoraghing many of its young people. But since the 1990s, a new wave of Middle Eastern and African migrants have breathed new life into the local cultural landsscape. Along with rebuilding the economy by taking on old artisan trades like pottery making, the hundreds of immigrants, hailing from 20 countries, are simultaneously infusing the graying town with Nigerian potlucks, international football matches, young families eager to start afresh in Europe.

Mayor Domenico Lucano, who first launched the program nearly twenty years ago, told the BBC he just goes with what works: "I do nothing more than what I think is right for our little community...The multiculturalism, the variety of skills and personal stories which people have brought to Riace have revolutionised what was becoming a ghost town. There were people without a house here, and there were houses without people here. It's simple."

A potter's workshop in Riace (Francesco Pistilli)

Places like Riace and Camini might be seen as an exception to the rule--anti-immigrant tensions are on the rise across the country, as people fear migrants posing a burden on social services, and the government suffers from gaps in European Union humanitarian assistance. But the social crisis they face is a common one across the continent--aging towns ossifying in a fast-changing economy and growing older and emptier. The solution lies at the frontiers of a common crisis unfolding across the Global South--the plight of desperate young people migrating overseas, desperately seeking peace, work and a stable future. What's unique about these Italian towns is that people are meeting each other half-way, with both the new settlers and the aging hosts leaning on each other to recover a sense of home.

In the US, the same story is happening in unlikely places. Rustbelt towns like Utica, New York have sparked much-needed economic resurrection as they have welcomed refugee households. And in Detroit, the Black Bottom neighborhood of this downtrodden city has moved toward recovery and integration, by reconstructing a Muslim American diaspora community. The Dream of Detroit innitiative weaves together multiple communities to invest in new homes, businesses and civil society organizations. The idea began as the brain child of local Pakistani American doctor Waseem Ullah, but by seeding green shoots in an area others have written off as a blight, the project has spawned a network of both native-born black Muslims and new Muslim immigrants seeking to reclaim the city.

Integration isn't easy in every community grappling with new immigration, but we often perceive social barriers between "native" and "foreign" as far more concrete than they actually are. Even when facing what looks like an impenetrable wall, it doesn't take long to find an open door.

--July 19, 2017

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