Riace, Italy – The cobbled street leading to an arched passage known as the “water gate”, one of the entrances to the hilltop hamlet of Riace, is as quiet as the valley it overlooks.
Inside the ancient walls, shops are shut and homes are up for sale.
“Normality clashes with a world intoxicated with hatred and prejudice,” said Riace’s former mayor, Domenico Lucano, speaking to Al Jazeera by phone from Caulonia, another small town on southern Italy’s Ionic coast.
Accused of aiding undocumented migration, Lucano has found refuge there since he was banned from living in his native village in mid-October.
“Riace has been destroyed,” he said in his typically emotional manner.
Lucano became Riace’s mayor in 2004 and was re-elected in 2009 and 2014.
His idea of reviving the dying village’s economy by hosting refugees in homes left empty by Italians who had migrated abroad attracted the international spotlight.
Bayram, a 52-year-old from a Kurdish village in southeastern Turkey, was one of 200 Kurds who arrived on Riace’s shores in 1998, an event seen by residents as a watershed moment. Of those refugees, he’s the only one who stayed.
“I was escaping war, but I realised here there was a different type of war: it was hunger. My friends said I was crazy to stay,” Bayram recounts. “Riace was very different when I arrived. None of this was here,” he says pointing at the terraces he helped build for an animal park that, it was hoped, would bring visitors.
But the animal enclosures now lie empty.
In the town, the Pakistani kite maker, Afghan embroidery shop and glass blower have been shut since last August after workers stopped receiving salaries when, a year ago, an investigation was opened into the use of public funds for refugees in the town.
The inquiry involved Lucano and 32 others.
The only charges still standing against the mayor concern a phone call that allegedly shows him facilitating a “marriage of convenience” and irregularities in assigning contracts for a door-to-door recycling service to a local cooperative without a public tender.
Bayram, who was a carpenter in his native village, was head of the woodworking workshop but lost that job alongside two young people from the town.
At Riace’s peak, the various organisations that operated in the town had created 80 jobs for both locals and refugees and an additional 14 at the multi-ethnic nursery school, now closed.
The atmosphere has changed, in Riace as in the rest of Italy. We have to go back to our beginnings.
When the tap was closed on public funds – about two million euro a year – Riace’s ecosystem collapsed.
As refugee arrivals peaked in Italy in 2015-2016, a third of the town’s inhabitants were asylum seekers. That number had gone down to about 200 in recent months as people started leaving, looking to make a living elsewhere.
“When we started, for the first three to four years, we didn’t receive any funding. [Lucano’s] organisation, Citta Futura (City of the Future) was born that way. Some tourists would come, but it wasn’t enough to pay the bills,” says Bayram, who at the time worked in construction and volunteered for the organisation.
He now works as a driver and handyman for those refugees left behind, but he has no idea if he’ll ever be paid for it. And for the first time in 20 years, he is thinking seriously about leaving.
A town in limbo
Riace’s two local bars are always open.
One is known as being for and the other against the mayor’s politics. From the old men who hang out there all day, to the refugees in the nearby square, everyone is waiting to see what comes next.
Earlier in October, Italy’s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini caused an uproar when he said all refugees living in Riace would be transferred.
“Some people panicked and left, they thought they’d be deported,” says Rosa, a Cameroonian single mother whose five-year-old is playing in the town’s main square. She, like others, has no idea what will happen.
“She loves this town like her own,” says Rosa of her daughter, who has now spent more of her life in Italy than in Cameroon.
According to locals, three or four families left of their own accord after the announcement. The rest are in a limbo, waiting to see when and where they’ll have to go.
Salvini’s statements were picked up by enough media outlets to have an effect on public opinion. The interior minister, who adopted a hard line on migration as a whole, retracted shortly afterwards, explaining that the transfer to other reception centres would be voluntary – but that those deciding to stay would lose state help.
The reality is that no one can afford to stay in a place with no income or work opportunities.
Even the local football team, AC Riace, faces an uncertain future. A lot of the players are part of a project for unaccompanied minors. On the pitch, French is the preferred language.
Daniel Yaboah is originally from Ghana but speaks Italian with the sighing and soft consonants typical of the local dialect. He’s been living in Riace for a decade. His two children, five and nine years old, grew up here.
The 36-year-old used to be part of the cooperative that ran the rubbish collection service Lucano is accused of assigning without a public tender. He’s now eking out a living as a day labourer.
“Here there wasn’t something like work for Italians, and work for foreigners. We were in it together,” Daniel said. “There has never been a problem between locals and foreigners, like elsewhere in Italy. Things worked, until this mess with funds,” he added.
Lucano’s idea became a model for other hamlets in the region and throughout Italy, which form the Network of Solidarity Towns (ReCoSol).
The organisation has started a fundraising campaign for Riace.
“We can create jobs in the workshops, 15 to 20 workshops that can give work to youth from Riace and refugees,” Giuseppe Gervasi, the deputy mayor, told Al Jazeera in the mayor’s deserted office.
Posters behind him speak of multiculturalism and anti-mafia culture.
“The atmosphere has changed, in Riace as in the rest of Italy,” said Gervasi. “We have to go back to our beginnings.”