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Badolato: The story of how a small town opened Italy’s doors to refugees

This is the story of a small town and its mayor in southern Calabria that opened their town's doors to a shipload of 836 refugees in 1997 and in doing so helped create Italy's system of refugee welcome centers.

BADOLATO, Italy (CN) — On a hot and still Sunday night in August 1997, a nameless ship silently beached at this town's sandy marina.

The captain and crew slipped off the vessel and disappeared into the darkness. Next, some 446 mostly young people climbed out of the ship's hull and stepped onto the beach here.

Many of the newly arrived wondered if they had reached Germany or Sweden.

No, they had landed on the doorstep of Gerardo Mannello, the communist mayor of Badolato, a small seaside town along the wild and empty eastern coast of Calabria, the southern tip of Italy.

Mannello was sitting on his terrace along Badolato's seafront when he saw the refugees who'd suddenly shown up on his town. He went out. There they were: tired, scared, hungry and wretched.

Most were young men but there were also women and children. They were in bad shape after several nights crammed inside the ship's hull as it crossed the Ionian Sea from Turkey.

“Almost no one in the town of 4,000 residents slept that Sunday night,” wrote Aldo Varano, a journalist for L'Unità, a Communist Party newspaper, at the time about the people of Badolato. “People emptied their refrigerators to find water, milk, clothes to cover the children.”

Mannello opened the town school to the refugees and the people of Badolato spent the night trying to talk with the foreigners, imagining the things and places they'd seen on their way from their war-torn and famished native lands.

The bulk of the refugees were Kurds, a very large but long-suffering ethnic group seeking a state of their own. In the 1980s and 1990s, millions of Kurds fled their homelands as their independence struggles were ruthlessly suppressed by Turkey and Iraq. 

In the meantime, police and carabinieri, Italy’s military police, showed up and the process of deporting them all back to Turkey began.

For Mannello, that hot August wouldn't be the moment when he'd put into practice his experiment: Inhabiting the old town of Badolato, a largely abandoned Medieval burg perched on a ridge of the nearby mountains, with refugee families.

But only four months later, he'd get another shot at repopulating the old town, a crumbling and hard-to-reach place where fewer and fewer people lived.

On Dec. 26, another aging vessel crossed the Ionian Sea from Turkey — this ship had a name, the Ararat — and landed near Badolato. There were 836 refugees aboard.

The old town of Badolato in the hills overlooking the Ionian Sea in Calabria, southern Italy. (Cain Burdeau/Courthouse News)

A lot changed between August and December of that year.

Ever since the fall of Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, European politics had become consumed with what to do with the waves of asylum seekers from Eastern and Central Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Immigration worldwide shot up following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent breakout of regional conflicts that defined the 1990s: the Gulf War in Iraq, the Yugoslav Wars, conflicts over control of ex-Soviet states and numerous civil wars in Asia and Africa.

“Among all the other problems we face — [migration] is the most crucial,” Douglas Hurd, the British foreign secretary, said after a meeting of European foreign ministers in 1992.

Hurd said Europe was becoming a “magnet for people seeking greater opportunities” just like America had been in the 19th century. But, he cautioned, unlike 19th-century America “ours is not an empty continent.”

By 1997, a reunified Germany had been transformed by immigration. It had taken in millions of East Germans and other ethnic Germans from Eastern bloc nations. It'd opened its doors to hundreds of thousands of war refugees from Iran, Lebanon, Turkey and former Yugoslavia. Despite efforts to limit asylum claims and immigration, refugees continued to flow into Germany.

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All of this led to rising tensions in Germany over what many saw as an unacceptable level of immigration. The appetite in Berlin for hospitality toward so many new residents was shrinking.

It wasn't just in Germany. Across Europe, anti-immigrant sentiment was growing in pace with the arrival of so many new faces.

The fight over immigration controls fell heavily on Italy, which was blamed by other European nations as having “loose borders.” Indeed, hundreds of thousands of non-Europeans used Italy as the route to move north toward the industrial hubs of Germany, Sweden, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France and Belgium. After arriving in Italy, many refugees and immigrants headed north in the hope of finding work.

Italy, in its turn, was being put under pressure from Turkey, which had begun launching ships full of immigrants toward Italy's shores. Turkey, meanwhile, was seeing huge influxes of people, many of them Kurds fleeing conflict. At the same time, a burgeoning system of human trafficking across the Mediterranean from Egypt and Libya into Italy and Greece was coming into being too.

To sort all this out, Germany's then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl pushed for the so-called Dublin Convention to be put into practice.

The convention was first signed in 1990 at a meeting of European leaders in Dublin. Under the agreement, Italy and its European partners agreed that asylum claims must be handled at the point of arrival for all refugees. But the agreement had sat unenforced.

That changed on Sept. 1, 1997.

Gerardo Mannello, the mayor of the Calabrian town of Badolato in southern Italy, has been hailed for turning Badolato into a model for housing refugees after a ship crammed with asylum seekers landed on the shores near his town in 1997. (Cain Burdeau/Courthouse News)

The Ararat, named after a dormant volcano in eastern Turkey where Noah's Ark landed according to myth, was a large 110-year-old ship carrying 836 refugees, the majority Kurds, when it came ashore on Dec. 26, 1997.

Once again, the captain and crew disappeared, leaving those aboard the vessel to go ashore on their own.

The ship's landing made international headlines — just like the August landing had done.

But this time Mannello put an ingenuous idea into action.

“It was something that was born inside of me,” Mannello said, speaking about the events that shaped his life 24 years ago. “It was spontaneous.”

With the Dublin Convention now in force, Italy was under the obligation to assess the validity of the asylum claims of all 836 people aboard the Ararat.

Quickly, the Italian government saw merit in Mannello's idea and allowed him to house about 20 Kurdish families in the old hillside town of Badolato. Hundreds of others were lodged temporarily in the modern part of Badolato situated along a state highway on the coast.

“The news [about the ship] went around the world immediately,” Mannello said, sitting inside the mayor's office. He was reelected town mayor in 2016, many years after he lost the seat, which he said was largely due to his support for the refugees.

He said then-Interior Minister Giorgio Napolitano liked his idea of housing refugees in old Badolato and gave his full support to the project. Considerable amounts of state funds also descended on Badolato.

By early 1998, Mannello's refugee project was a resounding success. Journalists came in from the United States, Great Britain and elsewhere in Europe to write about the Badolato experiment of welcoming refugees and using them to revive an abandoned town.

The mayor was invited to Strasbourg, France, the seat of the European Court of Human Rights, for press conferences and discussions. He spoke with seriousness and heartfelt fondness for the Kurds who'd come to live in his town. The United Nations' High Commission for Refugees praised his work. He was even nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Back in Badolato, the Kurdish families were busy fixing up homes, making ceramics and new street signs for the old burg; they worked for farmers and builders in nearby towns.

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“I always say that a new language was born here,” said Daniela Trapasso, Badolato's social services administrator. She helped Mannello create the refugee project after the Ararat landed.

“This new language was 'Curdolese,'” she said. “It was a mixture of Kurdish, the many dialects people of Badolato speak, a little bit of Italian, a little bit of English and French.”

Mannello, meanwhile, was eagerly helping young Kurds learn to cook their native dishes and open a restaurant in old Badolato to attract visitors.

It was a success: More and more curious people made their way up the steep winding road to see what was happening in old Badolato.

Newspapers pinned to a board inside a refugee learning center in Badolato, a Calabrian town in southern Italy, tell the story of how the town became a model for other towns in Italy to help refugees become integrated into Italian society. (Cain Burdeau/Courthouse News)

Today, Badolato is no longer an abandoned town — far from it.

Since Kurds first came to inject life back into the dying Badolato on the hillside, the old town has become a flourishing example of gentrification.

There are high-end restaurants and bars. It hosts celebrities — recently, even filmmaker Oliver Stone. In 2009, German experimental filmmaker Wim Wenders made a short film about the story of Badolato and its refugees called “Il Volo.”

The town has many new residents too — other than a handful of Kurds who've remained in Badolato ever since they arrived in 1997 aboard the Ararat. Its most famous new inhabitant is rock singer Piero Pelù, a celebrated musician in Italy due to his fame with the band Litfiba.

Gentrification is everywhere. The town is adorned with flood lights, the echo of people enjoying themselves, visitors. The town counts among its new residents Swiss, Germans and Americans who've purchased homes along Badolato's narrow medieval streets.

The old-time residents, the Badolatesi, seem happy too.

They like to talk about how much good has happened since the Kurds showed up at their once-abandoned town on the hill.

The Dec. 28, 1997 edition of the L'Unita newspaper shows asylum seekers being taken ashore from the stranded Ararat ship. (Screenshot from L'Unita archives via Courthouse News)

For his part, Mannello seems most proud about how Badolato retained — despite the years of deep opposition to it — a learning center for refugees up in old Badolato.

The center, which is affiliated with the Italian Council for Refugees, is located in a small modern building on a flat area under the old town. It's here where staff and volunteers continue to assist refugees. In July, the center was hosting eight new Kurdish refugees.

Mannello is pleased that refugees — whom he considers friends — are still welcomed in Badolato.

The mayor fondly remembered the first refugees he brought to Badolato.

“We fraternized. We even did a strike together because the interior ministry wasn't giving them enough to eat,” he said, chuckling at the memory.

“We ate together, we became friends, we had pizza together,” he recalled. “I brought a few of them to my home and gave them clothing – new clothing.”

He said it all seemed so simple to him.

“It was something that I felt I could do for these people,” he said. “Seeing these people in difficulty and disoriented, if you have any feeling inside you, you feel for them.”

Today, many other towns across southern Italy have adopted the Badolato model and opened refugee centers where people from all parts of the world are given a chance to live among Italians.

A few places, such as the nearby towns of Riace and Caulonia in Calabria, carry on what Mannello was unable to do after he was voted out of office following the arrival of the Ararat: They continue to breathe new life into their towns by making refugees new residents.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Follow Cain Burdeau on Twitter

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