We need to build a wall” – when Donald Trump uttered these words, the world lambasted this approach to tackling illegal immigration and crime from Mexico. Surely – we thought – we wouldn’t resort to such measures in Europe. Enter the “Great Wall of Calais” a 13 ft, mile-long wall that will run on both sides of the main road to Calais’ port, costing Britain £1.9m. Human rights associations have warned that this will lead to more extreme attempts to escape the Calais Jungle, described by volunteers as a massive rat-infested dumpster. Now that the camp is being dismantled, humanitarian groups are raising concerns over the treatment of the migrants, and in particular unaccompanied minors. Never mind that though, in the Age of the Wall, the border will be embellished with plants to “reduce its visual impact”. But what happens when you decide to knock down walls instead of building them?
Nestled in the harsh heart of the Sicilian countryside, the village of Sutera has become the focus of international media attention. Since 2014, Sutera has been hosting a SPRAR “Service for the Protection of Asylum Seekers and Refugees”, with an aim to integrate the individuals into the village’s social fabric. The model adopted is the most inclusive form in Italy, but, unfortunately, only 28% of refugees and asylum seekers benefit from it. The remaining 72% are housed in CAS – Extraordinary Welcoming Centres. Sucked into a faceless bureaucratic systems, migrants are faced with squalid and cramped living conditions, and prolonged periods of confinement. After having faced brutal journeys to Europe, many flee the infamous CIE – the Centres for Identification and Expulsion.
“We need to create more humane centres,” declares Agata Ronsivalle “otherwise what we have on our hands is a social ticking time bomb”. An activist from the Italian group “LasciateCIEntrare” (“Let Us In”), Agata is well accustomed to the dark side of the refugee crisis. “Catania’s central station” – one of Sicily’s largest cities – “is teeming with young people – most of them minors – who sell their bodies for as little as twenty euro”. Many are attempting to be smuggled elsewhere. “They are so used to it, they think nothing of it” she comments.
This stark reality is the result of malpractice and inefficient policies in the field of migration. The CIEs – and more recently the European-funded HotSpots – are often run-down and cramped. These “embellished concentration camps” as a migration lawyer in Sutera describes them – echoing the plans for the Great Wall of Calais – offer them no hope. If they succeed in escaping, many are “swallowed up and embroiled in the predatory networks of Organised Crime.” Agata tells me. However, Catania is not unique. The C.A.R.A. di Mineo, an infamous centre, has become fertile recruiting ground for prostitution and slave-labour; with women selling their aching bodies and workers toiling under the scorching sun in fields for risible sums in an attempt to pay back their smugglers. Deaths are not uncommon.
what happens when you decide to knock down walls instead of building them?
It is precisely the more humane spaces we need that Agata thinks she has found in Sutera. Perched on the side of Mount St Paolino, Sutera is immersed in the golden brown hues of the Mediterranean countryside. Exceptionally peaceful, the winding streets of Sutera did not strike the first family of migrants as the answer to their prayers. “The first family initially refused to leave the car when they first arrived in Sutera” – recounts Santina Lombardo, the coordinator from the non-profit organisation “I Girasoli” (“The Sunflowers”). “We persuaded them to spend one night in their new home. A year and a half later they don’t want to leave”. For Santina, granting families their own personal space is key, as migrants are often lumped together in the same quarters with other families, or are forced to see their families disintegrate in gender-segregated institutions, often for months on end.
The personal space given to each family is a defining trait of the SPRAR model, which also differs from CAS projects in needing the participation and approval of local democratic bodies. CAS projects can be easily imposed, bypassing local councils and often imposing disproportionate amounts of migrants, making integration impossible. Despite this, some locals needed persuading. Some expressed concerns about safety, likely spurred on by media and politics’ depictions of migrants as inherently dangerous, whilst others complained that local workers – hit by some of Europe’s highest youth unemployment – were being left behind. However, the project employed local residents as operators. Once the locals and migrants met, barriers crumbled.
The merging of people is celebrated in a two day festival in the Rabato, Sutera’s Arab quarter. Artwork burst in the village’s oldest neighbourhood and ethnic beats mingle with the traditional storytelling of the “cantastorie” (musical story-
tellers). Small rooms are reserved to showcase the lands the migrants’ were forced to leave. A small conference is organised to discuss the reality of reception in Italy, as the country’s position at the heart of the Mediterranean has made it the first port of entry to Europe for many. It is here that I meet Agata and Stefano Galieni, a journalist and activist from the association ADIF (Association Rights and Borders). For both Sutera is an exception.
A cursory glance to the crowd gathered in the Rabato reveals groups of locals doting on two of the project’s youngest guests. As Stefano observes, “Africa becomes less of a mysterious concept once it becomes the guy singing at the microphone and the adorable toddler everyone wants to hold”. The mingling has demolished the wall of fear. A young guest of the project tells me how after encountering much hostility, Sutera’s friendliness was a welcome change. For Mario, a 26 year old inhabitant and social work student, the villagers’ attitude has a specific name: community care. “The villagers activated the model without even knowing it. The community takes care of its members putting the emphasis on human relations”. This rings true to one of the project’s youngest adults.
Homs was once home. “I counted fourteen rockets a minute being fired in my city” – the young adult tells me. Yet, it was not the war that forced their family to flee, but the threat of being brutally killed and scattered across Syria. The family’s only fault was being distantly related to a man of the local political scene. It was the start of a horrific journey to Egypt, often paying exorbitant amounts of money to bypass potentially fatal border regulation. Once in Egypt, the hardest of all choices: the family split, with half attempting the harrowing journey across the Mediterranean on a rickety barge.
“I counted fourteen rockets a minute being fired in my city”
They all survived, unlike the thousands who perished at sea. Once ashore on Calabria, their fingerprints were taken and they were allowed to travel to Sweden to live with relatives. After that, it was life in a Northern Italian immigration centre. “We [the residents] called it the “Bordello” [chaos] centre” – my companion tells me with a wry smile, remembering the cramped living conditions and the bleak outlook the experience offered migrants. “It was then that we were moved to here in Sutera”. The first impact was tough, with the first two months being marked by isolation and linguistic barriers, worsened by the prolonged separation from the rest of the family. “It destroyed us, more than anything else” – the teenager tells me, recounting the long period spent away from their mother and siblings. “If you can’t imagine what I have been through, you are lucky” they finally add, thinking of this modern day Odyssey.
Now that the whole family has moved to Northern Europe, my interlocutor lives alone in Sutera. A strong command of the language betrays a change of faith after a difficult start. Now enrolled in a local academy, the speaker’s eye light up with when recounting the first meeting with a local association and the progress made at school, only occasionally relying on the help of his friends. Somewhat aged by hardship, their features regained an almost childish appearance when mentioning the newly found mentors. As we walk Sutera’s streets together, my companion is greeted warmly wherever we go, nonchalantly blending Italian and Sicilian.
Despite this, it is hard to conceal how hard it is to explain the situation in Syria. “Sometime we are talking together – say at the bar – and I am trying to explain why a certain thing is happening in Syria. But it’s hard, because to understand what is
happening now, you need to understand what happened before that and before that again”. More misunderstandings stem from the project itself and widespread feeling of being neglected, as Sutera has lost of 70% of its population due to lack of employment. “I understand that Italians feel abandoned by their government, but what people must understand is that this project is funded by the European Union, whilst the problems of Italians are a responsibility of the Italian government”. Migrants such as my interlocutor have their rent paid for by the association managing the project and receive 62 Euros worth of pocket money a month. A convention struck up with the village’s shops also means their food shopping is also covered by the project. It is perhaps the village’s deep connection to migration that has created fertile terrain for multiculturalism, as German and English tourists fill the air as Sutera’s own migrants return to Sicily for the summer holidays. Their future looks uncertain, but there is a desire to stay in Sicily and one day study Medicine. In the meantime, their family forges plans to send funds from abroad, as the project will be over before school is over. We part as the summer holidays draw to a close. In Sutera, the only battle is who gets to pay the bar tab. After years of coming to my family town in Sutera, I still have not succeeded, but my new friend has.