In this sleepy Italian village, young migrants are starting to integrate
They’re often city kids, but they’ve been transferred to a rural village in the middle of Sicily.
The village of Naro is almost begging to be re-populated. It’s a bit of a ghost town, a village whose population has shrunk significantly over the past decades. Today, the count is a mere 7,500 inhabitants.
Naro sits atop a high hill in the middle of Sicily, about an hour’s drive north of the southern coastal city of Agrigento. The town smells of diesel from the cars working their way up the steep hills to the village. ‘For sale’ signs dot the buildings. The damage of a 1960s earthquake remains, with churches and other buildings of the old town still enshrined in rusted scaffolding. Since the earthquake, there’s been a slow and steady decline in the population, especially as young people come of age and move to the cities in search of higher education, jobs and culture.
It’s here that the Italian authorities have chosen to bring new young migrants to live. Naro has three reception centres: one for adults, one for boys and one for girls. Each one has around 20 residents.
According to data provided by the Italian Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, Italy had about 8,900 unaccompanied and separated migrant children in January 2019. A third are accommodated in reception centres throughout Sicily. Four out of five are between 16 and 17 years old.
What to do in such a small, isolated place?
“I was so sad to learn that the people here don’t do much,” says 17-year-old Omar from Senegal. He arrived in Naro in August 2018. “That’s not normal.”
To provide opportunities for Naro’s new young residents, UNICEF and its partner JA Italia decided to launch the Naro chapter of the UPSHIFT programme in November 2018. The programme is a social innovation class, held weekly, that addresses young unaccompanied migrants’ need to develop skills to be better prepared for work and have opportunities to integrate into their new communities. The classes include migrants and their Italian peers, and offer a space where they can discuss their social ideas together. In 2019, the students will start to turn their ideas into innovative projects with everyday social impact. The weekly UPSHIFT class is the only structured programme available in Naro to help young refugees and migrants integrate in the local community and thrive.
In Palermo, the capital of Sicily, the UPSHIFT programme launched in late 2017 has taken root. Migrants and young Italians have become fast friends. They’re starting to work on a social impact project that they presented at a demo day in Palermo in December, along with their peers from the city of Catania as well as Naro. But in Naro, just one month in, there’s still some way to go. The students greet each other in class, but not so much in town.
Yet, Omar is optimistic. “All young people like the same things,” he says. “Playing football. Going to the cinema. Cooking. Traveling.” Just like for everyone else, it takes time to build close friendships.
At the UPSHIFT class in Naro, Carmelo Roccaro, the owner of a restaurant in a neighbouring city, comes to give a lecture. The chefs at his restaurant prepare Sicilian-Senegalese fusion food and he employs quite a few migrants. He tells the class how people often talk of social integration as one culture absorbing another. But, in fact, it’s an active exchange of cultures. The teenagers listen with curiosity.
The unaccompanied boys say they are simply happy to stay in Italy where it’s safe and peaceful. Naro might not be the most happening place, but they see that they could have a stake in the town’s development.
“Here, where there’s tranquillity, I can live,” Omar says. “We hope that, with help from UNICEF’s [UPSHIFT] programme, opportunities will open up in Naro and the place will become livelier.”