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An Italian town opened its doors to migrants, making its mayor a hero. A wave of right-wing populism pushed him into exile
Giving shelter to refugees turned Riace into a beacon of tolerance and helped it ward off economic decline. But Italy's new government brought the experiment to an end, leaving residents fearful of what will happen next

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Monday, December 10, 2018 – Page A8

RIACE, ITALY -- Before electricity arrived in 1949 in the southern Italian hillside town of Riace, which overlooks the Ionian Sea, the homes were lit with candles, producing a warm, welcoming glow as families ate dinner and children went to bed.

The advent of incandescent lights brought the promise of modernization, but instead Riace would fade to black over the following decades as most of its residents, weary of the postwar poverty that deprived them of jobs and left many of them hungry, immigrated to Northern Europe, Canada, the United States and Argentina. Riace's population, once about 3,000, would fall to several hundred, most of them pensioners saddened to see the town's squares and steep, twisty streets drained of life.

"We saw the lights go out as the city was abandoned," said Domenico Lucano, the chemistry teacher and human-rights activist who would become Riace's mayor in 2004. "We wanted to see the lights go on again."

Mr. Lucano and Riace's other stalwarts would get their wish - even if it was born of disaster. In 1998, a boat overladen with about 200 migrants, most of them Kurds, washed up on the beach.

They were taken to an empty convent, then to Riace, where they were invited to move into the empty, crumbling homes that by then had no electricity.

They were given candles, and Riace once again glowed at night.

The Kurds and later the Syrians, Palestinians, Iraqis, Eritreans, Sudanese, Nigerians, Somalis and Ghanaians would bring the town back to life. The community and Mr. Lucano, known as "Mimmo," were celebrated across Europe.

Riace became a model experiment in migrant integration and tolerance.

But the mayor's magical experiment depended on state funding and a government that was tolerant of migrants, both of which disappeared in the past year - along with Mr. Lucano. He was arrested on Oct. 2, charged with aiding illegal migration and banned from his hometown. At the same time, the migrants were told to leave. The death of the program is rattling Riace and other Italian and European towns, such as Sutera in Sicily, where migrants were once welcomed.

Riace represents the truly dark side of the right-wing, xenophobic brand of populism that is spreading across Europe. In Italy, its face is Matteo Salvini, the Deputy Prime Minister, Interior Minister and Leader of the League party, which forms half of the coalition government. In Germany, the fiercely anti-migrant Alternative for Germany party has emerged as the Official Opposition in parliament. In France, Marine Le Pen, the anti-migrant Leader of the National Rally party, made it to the second round of the presidential election in 2017.

Mr. Lucano has found refuge with friends in Caulonia Marina, a seaside town about 20 minutes from Riace, but he is not happy.

He's tired of reporters phoning him constantly from all over the world, of not being able to see his hometown, of not being able to say goodbye to the migrants who had brought Riace back to life. He knows his hillside experiment in integration and tolerance, his little bulwark against discrimination and racism, is finished.

"Riace will go back to what it was - a ghost town," he said.

His 92-year-old father, Roberto, one of Riace's oldest residents, blames Mr. Salvini for the town's crisis. It was Mr. Salvini who stopped the migrant-rescue ships from docking at Italian ports and used Twitter to celebrate his son's ouster. "It's because of Salvini," he said. "He's a racist man who does not like blacks. [Mimmo's banishment] is political. It was done by Salvini to get votes."

In truth, Mr. Lucano's problems started before the populists - Mr. Salvini's League party and the Five Star Movement (M5S) - formed a coalition government in the spring. But his woes have certainly intensified since then, as Mr. Salvini launched his anti-migrant crusade, which has won the hearts of far-right European politicians such as Ms. Le Pen and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Shortly after the government was formed, Mr. Salvini took direct aim at Mr. Lucano. He said he was worth "zero" and pledged to eliminate funds for migrant reception and integration services.

"Let's see what all the other dogooders who want to fill Italy with immigrants will say now," he said on Twitter.

Last month, shortly after Mr.

Lucano's arrest, Mr. Salvini gave the order to move hundreds of refugees out of Riace, effectively shutting down the project. He cited funding "irregularities" for his decision, but no one in Riace believes he was motivated by anything but a desire to cater to his apparently anti-migrant base as Italy and other European Union countries prepare for May's EU parliamentary elections.

Coming down hard on migrants, and those who support them, seems to have done no harm to the League and Mr. Salvini, who has emerged as the public face of the government even though he is not prime minister.

His party won just less than 18 per cent of the vote in the 2018 election; it is now polling at almost double that level. If another election were held soon - which is possible, given the tension between the two coalition partners - there is little doubt the League would come out on top and install Mr. Salvini as prime minister.

That scenario has left migrants across the country fearful, all the more so since Italy's northern borders are effectively closed, leaving perhaps 600,000 of them - their exact number is unknown - bottled up in a country whose government is withdrawing support for them.

Riace seemed at peace on a warm, sunny day in mid-November. Cane in hand, Roberto Lucano, the mayor's father, was enjoying a coffee at the bar near the top of the town, overlooking a play area where a few children were running around. All smiles, 31-yearold Stella Awini, a Ghanaian woman who married a local man, came up to Roberto and gave him a warm hug and a kiss. "I call him my father," she said, as Roberto beamed.

Not far away, Malang Juwara, 34, from Gambia, was sweeping the streets with a straw broom. He said he missed Mr. Lucano, who by then had not set foot in Riace for more than a month.

"Riace has lost a very, very good man," he said. "He was very down to earth. He would invite you to his house to show you that he didn't have luxury, that he lived like everyone else."

A bit farther down the hill, a dozen teenage boys and young men, each wearing proper athletic gear, were playing a game of pickup soccer on a small pitch next to a school that did not reopen in September as Riace's migrants were pushed out. One of the players, Souavé Haroung, a tall, skinny kid from Guinea who arrived in Italy a year and a half ago, plays soccer almost every day.

"I don't have family," he said, before pointing to the other boys.

"They are my family."

But all was not well in Riace that day. Still farther down the hill, in the heart of the decaying old town, a woman was yelling, clearly agitated. She was in a small square decorated with brightly coloured art made by migrants, that has been dubbed the "Villaggio Globale" - Global Village. The woman was surrounded by three officers from the Carabinieri (one of Italy's military police forces, responsible mainly for domestic matters) and a representative from SPRAR, the Italian acronym for the Protection System for Asylum Seekers and Refugees, a state program that is partly sponsored by the EU. It funds the integration of migrants into everyday Italian life, giving them access to basic housing, education and social services and paying them a small monthly stipend.

The woman, Anna Sass, was pregnant with her third child and had no partner. A few days earlier, the 32-year-old from Nigeria and her two young boys had been sent to the infamous Cara di Mineo camp in Sicily, a former U.S. military base that houses some 4,000 asylum seekers in overcrowded conditions. As evidence, she showed the Carabinieri a phone video of her and her kids piled into an impossibly cramped room with another family.

Virtually screaming, she said: "I told them I did not want to go to this place. It was no good. We're all in one room. ... Too crowded.

... I will not go back. I want my [SPRAR] money and want my house back [in Riace]!"

Ms. Sass had lived in Riace for three years before being forced out. The Carabinieri and the SPRAR official were calm and sympathetic. They told her she could not stay because the Riace integration program was finished and she should return to Cara di Mineo, where she would remain part of the migrant reception system. If she refused, she would get one last SPRAR payment, then lose state support, in effect becoming a "clandestina" - a clandestine migrant.

She went quiet for a few moments while she weighed her options. She signed a document and headed to the Riace post office for her payment. At the moment the cash was handed to her, she was on her own and had no idea where she would end up.

Riace was known for one thing before Mr. Lucano became mayor 14 years ago: the Riace Bronzes, the superb, full-sized statues of Greek warriors, cast about 450 BC, that were found by a diver just off the coast in 1972. But their discovery did nothing for the local economy; the statues were put on display in Reggio Calabria, the region's capital, about 125 kilometres away.

It was Mr. Lucano who would put Riace back on the map - not just locally but internationally.

Once he was in the mayor's office, he declared Riace an open town for migrants. Over the years, 6,000 or more arrived by his estimation. Most of them eventually went elsewhere in Italy and Europe, wherever they could find work, but many stayed for months, even years, supported by the SPRAR funds, the UNHCR (the United Nations refugee agency) and community efforts to provide them with the basic necessities of life. At any one time, there were several hundred migrants in Riace.

"The landings changed everything for me," Mr. Lucano, 60, said. "The sea was like a highway.

It brought life to Riace. We were a land destined by history to welcome anyone who had a dream for their lives."

Most of the migrants did not find meaningful work, but some managed to earn a few euros and build a community in the process. The men who stayed worked in the nearby fields, swept the streets and learned the basics of masonry and carpentry so they could repair buildings - including the ones Mr. Lucano had housed them in - and build roofs, terraces and animal enclosures. They used donkeys to cart garbage from the narrow streets. Some of the women and men made African and Middle Eastern crafts and artworks that could be sold to visitors - kites, embroidery, carpets, glass, wooden carvings.

Others took care of the town's elderly or gave them haircuts. An art shop and a nursery opened.

Mr. Lucano printed a local currency, featuring the images of Martin Luther King and Che Guevara. Migrants could earn the money and spend it in a local supermarket.

Media reports say that, at Riace's peak, the influx of people created some 80 jobs for migrants and locals, with another dozen or so working at the nursery.

Riace's few merchants were thrilled. "The migrants were great for this town," said Mirella Cojouaru, the owner of a small bar and sandwich shop. "They bought things and they cleaned the streets."

The world took notice. Two years ago, Fortune magazine named Mr. Lucano one of the world's 50 greatest leaders. In 2010, he placed third in the World Mayor Prize. German director Wim Wenders (Buena Vista Social Club) made a 30-minute film about Riace called Il Volo (The Flight). The mayors of Barcelona, Milan and Naples visited the town.

But not everyone was happy.

Mr. Lucano's denunciation of the local Mafia, known as the 'Ndrangheta, made him a target.

They burned his car, poisoned his dogs and once fired an intimidation shot at him through the window of a restaurant.

Then, last year, well before the election that put Mr. Salvini and his anti-migrant colleagues in power, came the investigations.

Public prosecutors are examining whether he broke public procurement and migration laws, including possibly having arranged a fictitious marriage between an African woman and an Italian man.

He has denied all the charges. Last month, he was released from house arrest, but the court banished him from Riace. No one in town believes he stole money from the SPRAR program.

Today, he cannot even go to Riace to see his aging father. He lives off the generosity of his friends. He is in despair over what has become of his town - and what has become of Italy's migration policy. "To Salvini, migration represented an invasion, a crisis," he said. "Riace was not that. It was tranquility, a message of humanity to the world."

Associated Graphic


A policeman leads away a child during the transfer of a family in Riace. Some migrants are being told to go to Sicily's infamous Cara di Mineo camp or risk losing their state support.

The sun sets on Riace, a town in Italy's Calabria region that became known as a haven for migrants - until the country's populist government effectively ordered the project to be shut down.

Since 2004, an estimated 6,000 migrants have arrived in Riace; most of them eventually went elsewhere in Italy and Europe, but many stayed for months or even years.

The migrants who stayed in Riace worked in the nearby fields, swept the streets and learned the basics of masonry and carpentry so they could repair buildings. Others took care of the town's elderly or offered them haircuts. An art shop and a nursery also opened.

Domenico Lucano sits in a bar near a friend's house in Caulonia Marina, where he lives after being banned from Riace, his hometown. 'The landings changed everything for me,' he says. 'The sea was like a highway. It brought life to Riace.'

Huh? How did I get here?
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