Sicily and the off shore island of Lampedusa have been on the receiving end of a massive influx of refugees fleeing the chaos in Libya, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Syrian war.
Last Saturday alone more than 1,800 were rescued by the Italian navy and brought ashore. Sicilian churches have opened their doors, replacing pews and altars with beds in order to temporarily house the refugees. Italian government facilities have been overwhelmed by the increase in numbers – over 50,000 thus far this year.
Last October after more than 350 died just offshore when their rickety boat caught fire and sank, the government in Rome adopted the “mare nostrum” policy – “our sea”, It ordered the Italian navy to rescue and bring to shore all “boat people” fleeing from North African ports as an act of humanity.
Applications for political asylum are being processed as quickly as possible though nothing s easy in Italy. While documentation is in process many refugees are moved to mainland camps and are requested not to leave the country. Many however do escape and head north to the Italian border where family members from Germany, Sweden or France endeavor to pick them up
Most Syrian refugees landing in Italy are headed for Sweden (which allows a legalized Syrian to bring in his family) or Germany, where there is a large Syrian community.
Sicily however has begun to look upon the influx of refugees as an opportunity.
“The picturesque Sicilian hilltop village of Sutera, just 50 miles south east of Palermo, has been a dusty ghost town ever since the locals started dying off and the younger generation started moving away about a decade ago. In its heyday in the 1960s, the village had a population of more than 5,000 people, but the town has been losing residents at a steady rate of about 100 people a year. More than 50 percent of the homes are vacant, and most of the stores shuttered long ago. Last year, the average size of an elementary school class was just six students.
But in the last six months, Sutera has started what could be considered a resurrection of sorts, springing back to life, thanks to an initiative by a group protecting the rights of asylum seekers called SPRAR (The Protection System for Asylum Seekers and Refugees). They have convinced the Sicilian government that migrants and refugees might just be the solution for repopulating Sicily’s dying towns. Villages like Sutera get government grants to turn over abandoned houses and vacant stores to Italy’s newest residents who are mostly Syrian, Egyptian, Palestinian and Sub-Saharan African refugees.
One such Syrian refugee is making Sutera his new home. He fled Syria last year and landed on Lampedusa, off the Sicilian coast, last summer. He attempted to join his extended family in France before being turned away twice trying to get to Paris. Because he applied for political asylum in Italy, he is supposed to remain in the country (and refrain from using his name in the press) until the lengthy paperwork is completed. He heard about the Sicilian project and returned to the island. After he was given a home to repair, he decided to stay even longer. He and two other refugees—a Palestinian and a Nigerian—are now fixing up abandoned houses for themselves and their families in Sutera, using tools and supplies donated by the local government, while they wait for their wives and children to join them. “We are going to try to make our lives here. Sometimes opportunities present themselves in unexpected ways, and this is an opportunity for us.”
Of the 22,000 Syrians landing in Italy thus far this year, some 70% are headed to Sweden and another 21% for Germany. Some have decided to make Italy their home.
Sicily has a long history as a cultural crossroads for people moving between Arab countries, South Asia, the Middle East and Europe. The island was under Arab rule between 827 and 1061, at a time when the Arab world was far more advanced than any of Sicily’s previous rulers. The period was arguably the peak of the island’s cultural enlightenment, and its multi-cultural history is still present via architecture, cuisine and local dialect. Many of the grand basilicas in Palermo, Messina and Cefalu are topped with red domes that still have Arabic inscriptions carved into the walls, left in place when mosques were converted to churches. Sicilian dialect is filled with Arabic words like mischinu (taken from the Arabic word miskin), which means a poor person. Many older Sicilians still feel they are more connected to their diverse Arab and Middle Eastern past than to modern Milan or Europe.
Sicilians may have a long history of acceptance and tolerance, but not all Italians welcome the refugees. Projects aimed at helping migrants are facing renewed political opposition from within the country. The Italian government is asking the E.U. to share in the costs.
Forza Italia parliamentarian Maurizio Gasparri called the program utilizing the navy to rescue boat people a “taxi service”.
Even facing such an uncertain future, the refugee crisis shows no sign of abating. The Italian navy estimates that more than 600,000 refugees and migrants are waiting in North African ports in what has been described as a “biblical exodus”—all headed for Italy.”