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Pakistani migrant Asbah Faheem, pictured with her daughter in their Sutera apartment, says her new life is a delight. (Francesco Faraci for The Globe and Mail)
Pakistani migrant Asbah Faheem, pictured with her daughter in their Sutera apartment, says her new life is a delight. (Francesco Faraci for The Globe and Mail)

Refugees breathe new life into empty Sicilian town Add to ...

The entrance hall of the hulking Senatore G. Mormino school in the Sicilian hill town of Sutera is dominated by an unusual wall decoration. It is an enormous photo – more than two metres long – of a rickety boat taking African asylum seekers to Lampedusa, the rocky Mediterranean island halfway between Sicily and Tunisia.

The endless images of dangerously overcrowded boats have come to symbolize Europe’s refugee crisis and the enormous suffering of the refugees themselves, thousands of whom die every year in their passages to Italy or Greece. But for the Sutera school, the photo is one of hope, for it is the children of the refugees who have settled in this faded, depopulated town who are bringing the school back to life.

“In a sense, they are saving this place,” says Pino Landro, a teacher at the school and Sutera’s deputy mayor.

He tells the story of a Nigerian boy, Albhara, who arrived at the school two years ago but almost never talked. “We learned that he was in a boat that sank near Lampedusa,” Mr. Landro says. “He fell in the water and held onto the body of a drowned man and was washed ashore.”

Sutera is an ancient town plastered onto the side of an enormous monolithic rock, topped with a convent, in the middle of the western half of Sicily, about 90 minutes by car south of the Sicilian capital Palermo. Like many old Sicilian towns, it is a chaotic mix of arabesque, medieval and Renaissance architecture that makes it fairly popular with European tourists in the summer. But its distinguishing feature is an eerie emptiness. Since the 1960s, the population has steadily dropped from about 5,000 to 1,000 as deaths outnumbered births and the young fled to big Italian and northern European cities to find work. The funeral shop is one business that thrives.

Three years ago, as the Syrian and Libyan civil wars intensified and hundreds of thousands of refugees fled to Europe from the Middle East and northern Africa, Sutera decided to gamble on resurrecting itself by taking in refugee families and attempting to integrate them into local society.

The cash-strapped municipal government found help. Through an Italian state-funded project called SPRAR (Protection System for Refugees and Asylum Seekers), which in turn is co-funded by the European Union’s Fund for the Integration of non-EU Immigrants, Sutera was given financial and resettlement assistance that was co-ordinated by a local non-profit organization called Girasoli (Sunflowers). Girasoli organizes everything from housing and medical care to Italian lessons and psychological counselling for the new settlers.

The school appears to have been the biggest beneficiary of the refugees’ arrival. It has a dozen young refugee students, from Nigeria and Pakistan. While their numbers are few, they are actually a healthy increase for a school that, in recent decades, has gone from about 1,000 pupils to a mere 90. One of the recent arrivals is a seven-year-old Nigerian girl, named Gift, who bounds through the empty halls smiling. “She loves it here,” says her father, Alex Okunbar. “Because she’s happy, it’s hard for us to leave; I can’t find work here.”

Mr. Okunbar is one of about 35 asylum seekers who have, voluntarily, made their new home in Sutera, presenting a rare good-news story among the grim headlines of the refugee crisis. Most of them are from Pakistan, Nepal, Senegal, Guinea, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Syria. The ones interviewed by The Globe and Mail profess to be relieved to have found relatively comfortable lives in their strange new town, with one caveat: Jobs are so scarce that some of them don’t know if they will be able to stay if the state resettlement program comes to an end.

Santina Lombardo, 41, who runs Girasoli’s Sutera office, says the budget per refugee a day is about €35 (roughly $55), including housing costs and €2 a day of spending money. The glut of empty housing means that Sutera landlords are willing to accept small payments – about €200 a month for fairly large, well-kept, furnished apartments. “The people of Sutera are very happy with this project,” Ms. Lombardo says. “The school was about to close before the migrants came.”

Sutera’s resettlement project is one of several hundred throughout Italy, under various programs. Many of them don’t work. Ms. Lombardo says some are imposed on towns that don’t want refugees. Others are placed in grim places, where the migrants feel isolated and have no hope of finding work.

In spite of its fairly remote location and lack of urban buzz, Sutera is far from grim. The town is pretty, the views are spectacular, the weather is pleasant and the surrounding farmland produces some of the tastiest fruit, vegetables and olive oil in Europe.

Asbah Faheem, a 31-year-old Pakistani who arrived in Sutera six months ago with her husband and their two young daughters, says her new life is a delight. They had spent three years in Belgium, she says, under terrible conditions that prevented them from integrating into society, finding work and, at times, keeping food on the shelves.

Their Sutera apartment is clean and spacious, and her six-year-old daughter, Fatima, has made friends and speaks Italian. “Whenever we go on the streets, she finds friends,” Ms. Faheem says. “They all say ‘Ciao’ to her.”

Her husband, Ahmed, is one of the few refugees who has found work. He is a journeyman farmhand who is often away for two weeks at a time. But at least it’s work. “I’m very happy,” she says. “One call and we get everything. If we have a problem with the heating or the TV, they will come help us.”

Somewhat less happy is Christian Akhator, 22, who says he fled northern Nigeria in 2013, when the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram killed his father and his sisters. He travelled though Niger and Libya, landed by boat in Sicily and was transferred to a refugee camp in Calabria, in the toe of Italy, where he met Gloria, another Nigerian refugee who would become his wife. When she became pregnant – the baby is due this month – they jumped at the offer to move to Sutera.

Their apartment, complete with a few pieces of handsome furniture left by the owner, is small but well equipped and has spectacular views of the rugged hills and mountains that surround Sutera. They have everything they want except one thing – work for Mr. Akhator. “I’m an electrician but can’t work and would have to work as an apprentice if I do find work,” he says. “I feel distracted. I have nothing to do, nowhere to go, no one to talk to.”

Still, with a baby on the way, the Akhator family is unlikely to leave, and the residents of Sutera are happy that new faces can be seen in their dying old town. “I can’t say anything bad about the refugees,” says Salvatore Carruba, 61, a former bakery-owner in Sutera who spent 22 years in England. “I used to give them free food from the bakery if they couldn’t pay. We’re happy they’re here. We play soccer with them. In Sutera, they can get a five-star life.”

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