The Medieval Village With a Big Heart for Refugees

For nearly 20 years, this small Italian town has provided thousands of migrants with a safe place to call their own.
Riace, Italy. (Photo: Piervincenzo Canale/Flickr)
Apr 12, 2016· 1 MIN READ
TakePart editorial fellow Nicole Mormann covers a variety of topics, including social justice, entertainment, and environment.

As European countries continue to close their borders to refugees, with Greece recently deporting hundreds of migrants to Turkey, those in desperate search of asylum are scrambling to find safe havens.

Yet, those coming to Riace, a small town located near the toe of the boot of the Italian peninsula, report being welcomed as part of a plan to help the once-struggling hamlet thrive.

About a quarter of Riace’s 1,800 residents are former refugees, hailing from more than 20 countries.

Once a near ghost town with little job opportunity, the medieval village has seen an influx of residents and local businesses, and local schools have classrooms full of foreign-born children.

“It’s good the migrants are here,” Mirella Cogocoru, a Riace native, told NPR. “The town is now full of people. Before, there was nothing—no work.” She added that they helped her grow her bakery business into a grocery store and next-door café.

It’s not just refugees who saved Riace from near economic collapse. It’s also Mayor Domenico Lucano, who recognized the value of giving refugees residency in the town nearly 20 years ago. Now, Lucano is being recognized by Fortune magazine for his work, landing the 40th spot on its 2016 list of the world’s 50 greatest leaders.

The longtime mayor first realized the potential of refugees after a boatful of Kurdish migrants arrived on Riace’s shores in 1998. With the town struggling to cope with its young residents leaving for opportunities elsewhere, Lucano—a schoolteacher at the time—decided to offer abandoned apartments and job training to those who ended up in Riace. Since that time, it has welcomed more than 6,000 migrants.

For every refugee there, the town receives about $40 every day in government subsidies for a year, which then goes to migrants and their housing costs. While a majority of refugees move north in search of better job opportunities once they acquire their documents, some stay, as Riace offers a safe haven for many families fleeing conflict around the world.

As of right now, Europe is facing its worst refugee crisis since World War II, with more than 1 million people having fled to Europe in 2015 alone. An additional 135,000 refugees arrived on European shores in the first two months of 2016.

In an attempt to disseminate the influx of refugees coming to Greece, the European Union recently struck up a deal with Turkey to deport migrants and refugees attempting to illegally cross the Aegean into Greece back to Ankara. The EU in turn will take in one Syrian refugee for each person returned to Turkey. The move has aggravated human rights organizations and on-ground rescuers alike, who have led a number of small protests outside reception and removal centers for migrants. The European Parliament plans to debate the deal on Wednesday.

For political leaders like Lucano though, there’s greater merit in taking in refugees than keeping them out of Europe.

“To those Europeans who fear migrants bring disease, take away their jobs and sense of security,” he told NPR, “they bring us their culture, their world, their colors, and their knowledge.”