No one would be surprised to see people fleeing a burning building, many with the smell of smoke and cinders still enveloping them. In such circumstances, neighbors, municipalities, charities, and organizations would immediately coordinate relief measures, including food, clothing, housing, and counseling. The conflagration of anarchy, genocide, warfare, and constant danger that has been the real world in east Africa, Afghanistan, Syria, and Libya has produced millions of people running for their very lives. To where? That is the problem…the where. Countries in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and the West continue to debate the how and if to help those who have risked their lives to flee horror and chaos.
Close to 200,000 refugees arrived in Italy during 2015-2016, stretching the nation’s already struggling economy to the breaking point. According to the UNHCR, during one
weekend in the early summer of 2017, another 12,600 bits of crisis flotsam arrived on its shores, boat loads of real people simultaneously relieved and terrified. They joined the hundreds of thousands of others to whom Italy extended a welcome mat, albeit frayed and patched.
Like other countries where high numbers of refugees and asylum seekers have ended up, Italy has struggled to find solutions. Refugee camps sprang up all over Italy early-on in the crisis, places where often more problems arose than were solved. Clearly, thousands of increasingly hopeless people with limited freedom of movement cannot be kept safe in large groups. One “solve” for this was to place a portion of the refugees in one or another of the country’s thousands of cities, towns, and villages. The current formula for placement allots refugees up to 1% of the present population. Thus, a town with 12,000 can have up to 120 refugees.
Villages all over the country are housing, educating, and preparing refugees for whatever comes next, a future yet to be defined. In many of these towns, such as Riace, refugees have already brought about a sort of miracle. In the case of Riace, in 1998, it was a village slowly dying as young people moved away. The population had plummeted from a healthy 2500 citizens to an unsustainable 400. One day, a boat carrying over 200 Kurdish refugees washed up near the southern tip of Italy’s boot, not far from Riace. Dominico Lucano, then a local teacher, now mayor, and perhaps recalling the discovery of two bronze warriors from ancient Greece resurrected from the Mediterranean Sea in 1972, determined to give this new group, similarly abandoned, but alive and desperate, shelter and opportunity.
In the days before the quota system, Lucano arranged refuge for all the Kurds, offering housing in residences emptied by the young people who had sought better jobs elsewhere. He provided job training and work for those who wanted it, and watched as Riace crept back to vitality, prosperity, and a new-found diversity. Many villages are adopting all or part of this model, despite resistance from conservatives.
In Civitella d’Agliano, with its population of a mere 1,650 souls, the refugee population is easy to miss, numbering only 16. In early July, I noticed a young woman wearing hijab, the headscarf of Muslim women. She was accompanied by a couple of young men, tall and looking east African. On another day, four young men of an obviously different nationality appeared near my house, living in a previously unoccupied apartment, their clean laundry draped over the railing. The issue of empty buildings and emigrating young people is alive and worrisome even in the fairly prosperous boundaries of Civitella.
One morning, in bad Italian that matched theirs, I asked where the four men were from.
“Bangladesh,” came the answer, and ideas of communicating withered. Bengali is not one of the languages I can claim any knowledge of. A week later, though, something occurred to me as I passed the house again. “Do you speak English?” I asked. “Few words,” one of the boys responded, frowning. “Arabic?” (I asked this in Arabic just to be sure.) Third time’s the charm! For the next half hour, with neighbors walking by and turning to watch, I was able to learn something of the tale of the young men’s escape and arrival.
Civitella by way of Libya. Like the young people of Italy, Rubel, Nizamudin, Mouinul Islam, and Rakibul left home in Bangladesh for the promise of better paying work in Libya. One had been there eight years, only returning to Dhaka during the uprising that led to Mouammar Kadhafi’s death. Once it seemed safe enough, Libya beckoned, a dangerous siren promising higher wages than home. A chef, Rubel spent his time cooking in restaurants catering to both the Asian and North African workers with a wide variety of meal options. Mouimul Islam worked in ceramics, the type used to make bathroom fixtures. The other two became construction workers. All sent money home.
For all the men, working in Libya seemed a way to advanced life goals without too much risk. Of late that risk has heightened as Libya has come closer to being a “failed state,” a lawless country without a legitimate and functioning government. As ISIS and other factions battled for power and control, daily life became more tenuous and threatening. Eventually, Rakul and the others all made the decision to find a boat, pay a smuggler, and escape.
An eight hour boat ride in a fragile craft seemed to be leading nowhere, but fortunately, the Italian coast guard found them drifting and hauled everyone aboard. Several days later, after locating and rescuing many more refugees, the ship landed in Italy, where all four joined thousands of others waiting to be processed. Ultimately, they arrived in Civitella d’Agliano, and all the Bangladeshis were housed together while the east Africans were housed elsewhere in the village.
This is actually the beginning of their story, for that other life is surely over. Safe but uncertain, they await the next step in the process, receiving a food allowance regularly and visits from a refugee liaison officer who lives nearby. As yet, no language classes have been started, possibly due to the lack of Bengali/Italian texts. Without language skills, they can’t find work even if they had the necessary papers. They are waiting for those, too. Like the people in the camps, but without many of the inherent tensions, this quartet spends 24 hours a day doing just that, waiting. With so many in line, they know it may be months before any serious progress is made. Months without permission to work. Months with ample food and shelter but without purpose. These are people who have worked all their lives. They will happily work again, in Italy, as soon as they have the chance.