European Union

Italian Government Against Solidarity: The Story of the Mayor That Saved Riace by Welcoming Refugees

The mayor of Riace Mimmo Lucano has become a global symbol of solidarity for his unique way of governing (and saving) a city by welcoming refugees. Today he has been arrested by the Public Prosecutor Office of Locri. His crime: protecting migrants and promoting an innovative integration model for the city.

Text by Francesco M. Bassano
Photos by Giacomo Sini


Today the mayor of Riace Mimmo Lucano has been arrested by the Public Prosecutor Office of Locri. He is accused of facilitating illegal immigration and illegal activities in the direct award of the waste collection services. The Italian city of Riace had become a global symbol of solidarity for its innovative way of governing the city by welcoming migrants. Today, following the arrest, the accusations are: facilitating “illegal immigration” and “fraudulent direct award of the waste management services”. The mayor and his partner, Tesfahun Lemlem, who has been issued a ban on residence, are accused of forcing procedures to allow some women to remain in Italy through marriages of convenience. An assembly is planned in Reggio Calabria to decide on ways and forms of protest and mobilizations in support of Mimmo Lucano.

In a light of the recent events, this is the story about a small town that was saved from extinction by opening its doors and welcome refugees.

A view of Riace. The village is one of the oldest and probably most famous sample of revitalising areas thanks to the welcoming and active reception of migrants. Some people come back from north thanks to a flourish and strength collaboration with immigrants, opening new shops with traditional art craft objects, bed and breakfast, workshops and presenting art exhibitions.

A colourful murals in the centre of Riace recalls the millennia of migrations that have affected this small town in Calabria, in the deep south of Italy, which was part of the VIII century a.c. Magna Grecia. A very representative place of the whole of Italy and of its history, as centre of the Mediterranean, land of arrivals and departures of different people. The same ancient Greeks considered Italy only as the most extreme part of the peninsula, but at the expense of this linguistic origin, today this desolate area overlooking the Ionian Sea, rich in culture and bucolic landscapes, is the victim of depopulation, an organized speculation on the coast and excessive power of the ‘ndrangheta, the local criminal organisation.

Only by walking through the intertwining lanes of these semi-abandoned agglomerations leaning against the mountains, built to escape from malaria and pirate raids on the coasts, we realise that the mentality is different from that which in the last year brought to power Matteo Salvini’s Lega Political Party in Italy. A far-right party, which has built its own consensus exclusively on the fear of immigration and illegal landings. The first landings here took place in 1998, when on the beach of Riace Marina, the same site where the famous bronze statues were found, a boat with a hundred people of Kurdish ethnicity ran aground. Since then, other migrants of different nationalities have come and gone, from Central Africa and the Middle East above all, so that many of them have chosen to remain and become official residents, transforming into an inseparable and well integrated part of the area. In 1999 Domenico (Mimmo) Lucano, a former elementary teacher and the current mayor, founded the “Città Futura” association in Riace, which gives life to a “widespread” reception project with the aim of involving refugees in a rural community that would otherwise be destined to disappear.

A man pass by one of the most beautiful and meaningful murales of the village. Below the murales reads “Where the clouds are going?”.

The associations present in the village along with the current Council have cleaned and refurbished streets and houses in ruins, created workshops that revive forgotten crafts and kept kindergartens and schools alive. In addition, they’ve initiated new educational farms, vegetable gardens and olive presses, bringing the village back to life, giving work and new opportunities to both locals and migrants. An example that has become virtuous throughout Europe, so much it has brought to this unknown place, visitors, scholars, artists and personalities of the cultural world.

However, Riace’s experience risks being dismantled, due to presumed critical issues in the official reporting of expenses. Since two years the Ministry of the Interior has blocked the European funds for the maintenance of the Sprar project  – System of protection for asylum seekers and refugees -, and in 2018 the town was not included among the beneficiary of the same. Added to this was the personal and political hostility of the new vice premier Matteo Salvini, who has repeatedly attacked Mayor Lucano, so much that many citizens suspect there is a explicit intention to harm the “Riace model” .

The train station of Riace. Its walls are filled with a murales with two faces: one is the famous bronze found in the sea within the area and the other is the Internal Affairs’ Minister, Salvini. Under the bronze’s portrait there is written “fished out from the sea of Riace”, indeed below the portrait of Salvini is read “rescued from a sea of bullshit” which has been censored by unknown people.

With the payments behind, the municipality declared financial instability, accumulating a huge debt of 2 million euros with the staff hired by the associations and with the suppliers; beyond that, there is the danger of putting the 165 asylum seekers on the street, at least 50 children largely born in the municipality, about 80 operators, and the closure of many commercial activities. In protest, the Riace’s villagers together with the municipal administration have promoted a hunger strike and the suspension of the activities of all the laboratories and shops that previously produced embroidery, ceramics, kites and glass crafts.

In the central square where assemblies and meetings are held, open to the public, it is not rare to meet the mayor Domenico Lucano – who has been arrested on October 2nd by the authorities on charges of aiding illegal immigration – sitting on the steps of the famous Taverna Donna Rosa: “They are destroying the country, we risk closing everything, including kindergartens. We could also continue without European funds as an independent project that sustains itself, but two years have been too long and we have accumulated so many debts “.

Young people from Riace walk towards the central streets of the village. Photo by Giacomo Sini

The Major’s words echo throughout the village; the same sense of anxiety and terror is felt by many inhabitants of the village, from the last one come to express solidarity to the owners of the shops, that very often have been exposing signs in their windows’ stores  that read “I also support Riace”. Mimma, a woman of about 50 years who runs a grocery store, repeats that “the blocking of funding, is equal to going through mourning” and adds that “the migrants have taught us to live.

Mimma, a Riace’s woman of about 50 years who runs a grocery store in Riace. She is one of the strongest supporter of the Model and everyday displays a banner outside of her shop where is read “I also support Riace”.

When new migrants arrive they immediately feel at home, and it is as if they have always lived here with us”. It is the Prefectures that through the Ministry of the Interior allocate the asylum seekers in the various municipalities, and Riace has often distinguished itself for the request to voluntarily host the people disembarked with bargained boats on the coasts of Sicily, after months of crossings in the desert and permanence in the prison camps of Libya, especially those most in need. As in the case of Mohamed, a 64-year old man of Palestinian origin who fled after the fall of Saddam Hussein with a proven disability. In the village he is a well-known face and like other migrants he has at his disposal an independent house and a bonus of 260 euros per month that he can no longer receive.

Some of the migrants in hunger strike who are living in Riace village, on the stairs of “Taverna Donna Rosa”, which before the funds were blocked and the protest started used to be a restaurant where migrants and locals worked.

Bayram, a 65-year-old Kurd, arrived in Calabria from Turkey with the first landing in 1998 and since then he has fallen in love with these places that are so reminiscent of the other shores of the Ionian Sea, and after doing various work activities he settled in the small village. Over the years he has helped to put back the terraces plots of the Sara Park – dedicated to a water carrier who lived in the middle of the last century – covered with vines, olive trees, hives for honey and citrus groves. At the moment Bayram, besides working as a carpenter,  is also a driver who brings elderly or migrants to hospitals or shopping. Antonio, a 29-year-old boy from Riace, was one of his aides in woodworking, he too is nervous, like the other protesters, who hope that the funds will be released and that he will be able to go back to work “who hinders this model should see what Riace was like twenty years ago, when there was absolutely nothing and the only event was the festivity dedicated to the patron saint, when young people were forced to emigrate, which I probably will have to do next year “.

Domenico Lucano, a former elementary teacher and the current mayor of Riace. He is the founder of the “Città Futura . Future City” association in Riace. With it they give birth to a “widespread” reception project with the aim of involving refugees in a rural community that would be destined to disappear due to the high emigrations of local to the north. They have cleaned and refurbished streets and houses in ruins, created workshops that revive forgotten crafts, open shops, libraries and bars, kept kindergartens and schools alive, as well as initiated educational farms, vegetable gardens and olive presses, making the village reborn, giving work and new opportunities to both locals and migrants. The major was listed as one of the 50 most influential people in world by Fortune Magazine on 2017.

In 2019 the second term as a major of Domenico Lucano will expire and he will not be able to stand again in local elections. The Lega political party is also trying to settle in this municipality, as in the rest of the South, despite being born as a secessionist movement in Northern Italy that often identified in hostility towards the southerners who migrated to the industrialised north due to lack of work.  “In the past we were the ones who left for the cities of the North or Australia, now there are new people coming, the new migrants” recalls Raffaele, a local farmer who sells fruit every afternoon in his plot of land, and takes care of some donkeys in the village. The effect of this exodus is clearly visible in the numerous vacant and dilapidated houses of the higher part of Riace, or in those unfinished and often abusive, built disorderly on the coast, the reason why this phenomenon has been given the name of “architecture of the unfinished”.

Some migrants and locals gather for a talk in front of the “Taverna Donna Rosa”, main centre for the protest against the central Government and the Prefecture which decided for a complete stoppage of the fundings to the “Riace Model”.

“Those buildings were pulled up most of the time by those who have migrated to other places, in the illusion of leaving them to future generations, or by people who hoped to return sooner or later, when new job prospects had opened up” says Rina, a video director and Calabrian anthropologist, but also Roman by adoption. “With the departure of the youngest, generations have been lacking that could fight organized crime and the related political-entrepreneurial class”. Especially at the beginning of the activity of Lucano, also the associations involved in the reception of migrants received intimidation from the local ‘Ndrangheta, such as letters containing threats or bullets fired at windows of some shops where the holes are still visible. Right in front of one of these, Mario (he doesn’t reveal his real name), a 34-year-old Mandingo boy, cleans the street with a straw broom, along with Damiano, another worker hired by the municipality.

A 34-year-old Mandingo boy, cleans the street with a straw broom, along with Damiano, another worker hired by the municipality. He has studied Agriculture at the University of the Gambia and since two years is in Riace.

Mario has studied Agriculture at the University of Gambia and since two years is in Riace. As well as praising the hospitality of the Calabrians, he tells of how the door to door collection of waste was carried out with the help of donkeys up to some months ago, “we only have one for now but others will have to come and hopefully this service will be offered again “.

A woman hosted in Riace walk in one of the central square of the village, where people gather every day in order to discuss the situation of the “Riace Model”, waiting for receiving news about the block of the European funds from the prefecture of Reggio Calabria, Calabria.

In Camini, another medieval village 3 kilometres from Riace, a widespread migrants’ reception system, similar to that of the neighbouring municipality, has been created, which, unlike the latter, continues to receive Sprar funding. To the 250 inhabitants 120 asylum seekers must be added, mostly Syrians, who are followed for six months during an integration process managed by the Jungi Mundi Association of Rosario Zurzolo, active since 2014. The project is open to both locals and migrants, and is articulated in workshops and workrooms scattered throughout the village. Also here the primary school has been renovated to accommodate refugees but also local children.

“When the Project ends, many guys would like to stay, unfortunately this is not always possible, because the restored houses are still too few”  Katia explains, an operator from Verona who decided to move to this small village. Vanessa, a recent graduate in law, who in addition to the bureaucratic procedures for asylum applications to be submitted to the prefectures deals with the literacy of minors, says instead that some refugees are reluctant to learn Italian, because in addition to the difficulty of language there is the fact that they want to return to Syria as soon as possible, when the war will hopefully be over. This is not the intention of Omar, a 30-year-old boy from the Ivory Coast, who, together with the mason and carpenter Pino, has learned to restore the old stone houses of the village with a chisel.

Nicola, an inhabitant of Camini who works in the little bar of the village managed by the association Jungi Mundi. Here the workers of the association works on turn every day.

Among these forgotten places it seems that a new humanity is being built, so far from the propaganda that spreads on TV and on social networks where immigration is narrated only as a source of conflict. However, their future remains uncertain, considering the current political climate and the bureaucratic problems that have overwhelmed the welcoming model that has been realized in Riace. However, probably the children of “foreign” origin who chase each other in the soccer field shouting words in Calabrian dialect do not know this, nor do their Calabrian peers whose never-ending afternoons in the past were paced only by the tolling of the bells, and who have finally found someone else to play football with.

A young migrant living in the village with his family, stands as a goalkeeper of his team during a match.

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Support Mimmo Lucano on social media with hashtags #iostoconRiace#FreeMimmoLucano#iostoconmimmolucano or join the protest in Riace on 6th October.

Few days ago Mimmo Lucano addressed the audience of the European Alternatives Congress “What comes after the nation-state” with this message:

 

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European Alternatives
European Alternatives is a non-profit, non-state organisation working with the conviction that a transnational renovation of our political imaginations, institutions and actions needs to take place to adequately understand and address the crises Europe is facing.