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Refugees Brought This Small, Dying Italian Village Back to Life

A group of refugees have breathed new life into the sleepy town of Sant'Alessio in southern Italy. What was once a dying village in the foothills of the Aspromonte mountains is now a community bustling from the benefits of economic renewal.

The village opened its doors to families and vulnerable migrants three years ago as part of a project conducted by the national SPRAR network (Protection System for Asylum Seekers and Refugees).

Currently, eight empty flats house up to 35 migrants from Iraq, Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria, Mali, and Senegal. The project helps these migrants get back on their feet, providing vocational training; Italian lessons; legal, medical and psychological assistance; and social activities like gardening, cooking and dancing classes.

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Special projects are set aside for those who are the most vulnerable — HIV-positive, handicapped, and diabetic refugees, and victims of trauma and prostitution networks.

“Our mission is both humane and humanitarian, that’s the most important thing,” Stefano Calabro, the town’s mayor and a current police officer, told AFP.

“But there is a significant economic benefit too.”

Before the project was created, Sant’Alessio had a dwindling population of 330 inhabitants, many of them elderly. Streets were deserted, windows were shuttered, and young people had sought work elsewhere — Turin, Milan, Australia.

Many of the village’s basic services were on the verge of shutting down.

Now, with funding from the state, the village council has been able to open a small gym and upkeep a sports field where migrants regularly play against neighboring teams.

Some 16 people, including seven locals, have landed full- or part-time jobs since the project was created. Bars, small supermarkets, and pharmacies have gotten a facelift in the process.

Bar owner and widow Celestina Borrello said: "The village was emptying, so if there's a little movement now, it's a good thing".

Borrello’s son left years ago to find job opportunities in Belgium. "We know what it means to leave our land," she added.

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The massive number of refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Africa to Italy continues to grow, with more migrants coming in today than in previous years. In 2017 alone, over 36,700 refugees have made it to the shores of Italy, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

A plethora of issues have fueled this flight from Africa, but hunger and poverty have played the most considerable role. Many make the crossing on dangerous sea routes in hopes of escaping a dictatorship in Eritrea and terrorism in Nigeria — they’re willing to risk everything, even their own lives.

Over 28,900 have poured into Sicily, which is home to Italy’s biggest migrant holding center, the notorious Mineo refugee camp. Overcrowding has exacerbated the country’s pre-existing economic and political problems, and frustrated local communities.

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In light of this issue, the SPRAR network guarantees that communities that take in small numbers of refugees have the chance to opt out of hosting emergency receptions centers, like the one in Gambarie, a nearby town where around 120 migrants are reportedly amassed in a single hotel.

"Sant'Alessio has been our prototype," said Luigi De Filippis, the head of Coopisa, the association behind the project. The organization plans on installing similar projects in four more towns nearby and hopes it will be adopted in other European countries.

Since his resettlement, Ghanaian Salifu, a refugee in the small Italian village, has been helping locals with manual work in the fields.

“They behave well,” said 89-year old local Antonio Sacca of his new neighbors. “They live independent lives but often lend a helping hand.”