In an ancient palazzo in the toe of Italy, the mayor banged his fist on the table as he set about organizing a candlelit vigil for the hundreds of migrants who drowned this month trying to reach the island of Lampedusa.
“We need to show it that it has touched us all,” Domenico Lucano said. “But we mustn’t just weep — that is not enough.”
As mayor of Riace, a small village in Calabria, Lucano has spent a decade trying to do something real to help the asylum seekers who risk their lives on rickety boats.
The resettlement program he has set up is one the EU would do well to study as it wakes up to the waves of refugees pouring into Europe from Eritrea, Somalia, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Lucano, a hyperactive former schoolteacher who looks younger than his 54 years, walked out on to the balcony of the palazzo perched over the winding alleys of Riace that he has turned into a “welcome center” for immigrants, offering Italian classes to kids, setting up parents with jobs and handing out tokens that can be exchanged for food in local shops.
Lucano sprang into action in 1998 when 200 Kurds fleeing the savage Turkish-Kurdish conflict landed on a beach near Riace. Instead of watching them get packed off to one of Italy’s grim holding centers, he offered them houses in the village that had been abandoned as the local population dwindled.
“My parents always taught me to welcome strangers,” he said.
As more migrants followed, the local school was saved from closure as their children enrolled. This term, the nursery school boasts eight nationalities.
Lucano describes the Italians who work with him in the center as “potential emigrants who didn’t leave,” thanks to the migrant scheme.
The center is a mix of races. As he spoke a gray-bearded Egyptian Coptic priest wandered in, handing out homemade bread before heading out to hold Orthodox mass for Christian Africans in the local church.
Working with the team as an interpreter is Ethiopian Lemlem Tesfahun, 31, who recalled how Lucano drove her to Riace a decade ago from an immigrant holding center in Calabria.
Today, local funding has spurred the opening of artisan workshops where migrants can earn a wage learning trades that were dying out locally.
At the glassmaker just past the ceramics workshop, an Afghan woman who fled the Taliban is concentrating on a glass mosaic, while across the street at the embroidery shop, Nigerian Tayo Amoo, 34, is learning the tricks of the trade from a Riace woman who originally learned her skills from local nuns.
Formerly a journalist in Nigeria, Amoo says she was briefly jailed at home following accusations of insulting Islam, and fled to Italy in 2010.
Now, a year after being granted asylum, she is making a go of needlework, as her 15-month-old daughter plays at her feet.
While Lucano waits to hear if the Italian government will send him any of the 155 survivors from the vessel that sank off Lampedusa more than a week ago, and as Italy reels from another fatal sinking on Friday near the same island, a group of Eritreans has arrived after surviving a panicked landing in Sicily last month, where 13 of those on board drowned as they tried to leap from their vessel.
Locals admit that goodwill toward migrants is partly linked to the government funding they bring — 25 euros to 30 euros per migrant per day — and the social services jobs they generate.
“Many people here are unemployed, so this means work for us too,” said Monica Audino, who works for an agency helping new arrivals file asylum claims and find accommodation.
“Whatever the challenges, this has to be a better solution for migrants than being locked up in a holding center where their children cannot go to school,” local Francesca Salerno said.