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In Italy, an empty nest of a town seeks refugees

Abby Sewell, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

RIACE, Italy -- From the kitchen of their new apartment, Mohammed Ali and Kinda Nonoo watched their children run across a rooftop terrace with a view of the rolling green hills of southern Italy. They could see a shining sliver of the Mediterranean Sea, four miles away.

The tranquility of the scene was a marked change from war-torn Aleppo, Syria, which Ali and his family had fled nearly five years ago, and the chaotic situation they had found in Lebanon afterward.

And unlike in Lebanon, where the estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees were seen as pulling jobs away from the local population, leaders in this Italian community were pinning their hopes on the refugees helping to rebuild its economy.

The family from Aleppo had landed in the southern province of Reggio Calabria, an area that young Italians have largely abandoned in search of better economic opportunities in the north and abroad, leaving behind shuttered schools and fallow fields. In the four-story building the Syrian family now occupied, the two floors below were empty.

Over the last decade, a flood of migrants and refugees have begun to replace the Italians who left. From 2008 to 2013, the percentage of foreign migrant workers in the Italian farm industry nearly doubled to 37 percent from 19 percent, according to the National Institute of Agricultural Economics.

The town of Riace, where Ali and his family settled when they first arrived in Italy, has garnered international attention in recent years for making a deliberate effort to attract migrants from around the world. Immigrants from more than 20 countries now make up one-third of the town's population of 1,500, said Mayor Domenico Lucano.

The transition, for some, has not been easy.

The Syrian couple and their five children arrived in Italy in late February via the "humanitarian corridors" program launched a year ago by a pair of nongovernmental organizations affiliated with the Catholic Church and a coalition of Protestant churches.

The project, funded by the money Italian citizens divert from their taxes to the churches, has brought about 800 Syrian refugees from Lebanon to communities throughout Italy since February 2016. It will bring 200 more refugees from Lebanon and possibly Morocco, along with about 500 Africans now living in Ethiopia.

Many new arrivals cross the Mediterranean on smuggler boats -- and many more don't make it. Last year, more than 5,000 people died in the Mediterranean, according to the United Nations refugee agency. The main aim of the new humanitarian corridors project was to prevent refugees from attempting the dangerous sea crossing, said Paolo Naso of the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy, one of the architects of the program.

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