SANT’ALESSIO IN ASPROMONTE:
At the foot of the Aspromonte mountains in southern Italy, the silence of a once dying village is broken by the laughter of a small group of refugees.
Tiny Sant’Alessio has been welcoming families and vulnerable migrants there for three years as part of a project that not only provides humanitarian aid but brings with it invaluable economic and social benefits. Over the years, the village has shrunk to just 330 inhabitants, many of them elderly. The steep cobblestone streets are deserted and most of the windows are closed, as locals have left over the years for better job opportunities in Turin, Milan or as far away as Australia.
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In an attempt to reverse the trend, however, since 2014 the council has rented eight of these empty apartments to accommodate up to 35 migrants at a time as part of the national SPRAR network. [Protection System for Asylum Seekers and Refugees]. Everything is done to help newcomers get back on their feet, from Italian lessons to legal, medical and psychological assistance, vocational training and social activities such as gardening, cooking and dancing lessons. .
The village is currently home to an Iraqi Kurdish family, a Gambian couple with a baby and young people from Ghana, Nigeria, Mali and Senegal. There is a special project for the most vulnerable, including HIV-positive people, diabetics, victims of prostitution networks, a deaf-mute couple and a young woman whose infant son was shot dead in Libya and whose husband fears drowning.
“Our mission is both human and humanitarian, that’s the most important thing,” said Stefano Calabro, a 43-year-old policeman who has been mayor of Sant’Alessio since 2009. “But there is also an economic advantage important.”
The state allocates up to US $ 47 per day for each migrant, most of which goes to the organizers to cover the costs. The project created full or part-time jobs in Sant’Alessio for 16 people, including seven residents – from social workers to Italian teachers and cultural mediators.
And this prevented the closure of basic services in the village – a bar, a mini-market, a doctor’s office and a pharmacy.
With funds to spend on services, the council was able to open a small gym open to all residents and maintain a lush sports field overlooking the valley, where migrants regularly challenge the team at a drug rehabilitation center to neighbor drug addicts. After six months to a year here, some refugees have managed to find work in the area, others have moved elsewhere.
Ghanaian Salifu, 23, decided to stay and lives on odd jobs like helping with manual labor in the fields. Sant’Alessio might not offer bright light or career opportunities, but a cheerful Salifu says “we’re not going anywhere”.
After months in Sicily’s infamous and overcrowded Mineo camp, little things like quick doctor’s appointments seem like a luxury here.
Sitting in the sun and watching the world go by from his garden, Antonio Sacca, 89, who worked 54 years in a Turin factory before returning home, says he loves his new neighbors. “They behave well. They lead independent lives but often lend a helping hand,” he said.
Bar owner and widow Celestina Borrello, 73, whose son left years ago to find work in Belgium, says “the village was emptying, so if there is a bit of movement now , this is a good thing”. “We know what it means to leave our land,” she adds.
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The project was so successful that Coopisa, the association behind it, is opening others in four neighboring villages. And there is another advantage: those who join the SPRAR network and host a small number of refugees are guaranteed not to have to host an emergency reception center, like the one in the neighboring ski resort of Gambarie, where 120 migrants are massed a hotel.
With only 26,000 places available, the network is only a small part of the Italian reception system, which accommodates over 176,000 people. While most are housed in large groups, often angering or frustrating local communities, this dusty village is considered a quiet triumph.
“Sant’Alessio was our prototype,” said Luigi De Filippis, director of Coopisa, who underlines that it is possible for the project to cross Italy and beyond. “There are large areas affected by the same depopulation in northern Italy and elsewhere in Europe.”