The bright side of Italy’s migration story

The Camonica Valley is a pristine patch of land in northern Italy dotted with hilltop medieval villages, ancient Roman temples and rocky parks covered in graffiti of cave men.

It’s a sleepy spot loved by hikers and cyclists who are lured by the great views and fresh air of the snowcapped Alps — and by its multi-cultural vibe.

  • Gulsher at work (Photo: Hotel Giardino)

Here, there’s a very peculiar hotel which has come to symbolize Italy’s bright side of immigration.

Hotel Giardino, in the tiny skiing resort of Breno, is run by a staff of refugees as part of a program aimed at integrating migrants by helping them find a job, settle in and become part of society.

They prepare and serve breakfast, welcome guests at reception, cook in the kitchens, tidy the rooms, give information on tourist activities, bring people on guided tours to nearby highlights and even help in keeping clean archaeological sites.

Afridi Gulsher, a 28-year-old Pakistani, was just 14 when he escaped from his native village on the Afghan border after a raid against the Taliban destroyed his house and killed his family, setting him on a two-year long journey.

“I walked for months across Iran, Turkey and Greece, where I stayed two years working as a cleaning man, and then finally I managed to reach Italy by sea. By then I had turned 16. I’ve done other jobs in Italy but this one has been life-changing: I’m so grateful that the hotel has given me a chance to start over again”, says Gulsher.

Wearing a bright green T-shirt he does wide-ranging chores: “My evening shift as a concierge includes registering new guests who arrive, handing them the keys to their rooms and giving basic information on hotel services and nearby attractions. I also help prepare breakfast.”

“Working here has allowed me to meet new people, and I love it, although I do have other plans for my future and dream of joining the Italian army”, he says.

Gulsher has worked at other hotels in Italy before arriving at Hotel Giardino in 2016, where he shares tasks with other refugees from Africa.

A month ago he received Italian citizenship and he now lives in a little cottage on the banks of Breno’s river together with other migrants.

He fluently speaks Italian alongside Greek, Dutch and English, which helps him communicate with foreign clients. Gulsher also works as a cultural mediator in hospitals assisting migrants.

Hotel Giardino stands out as a best practice among Italy’s many refugee integration and accommodation projects involving a total of 37,000 migrants. But as opposed to most which are financed by the state, it is completely self-funded.

The hotel project is supervised by the K-Pax non-profit group that also handles the so-called ‘diffuse micro-hospitality’ of 60 refugees who live in 30 cozy villages scattered across the Camonica Valley.

They share old farmer dwellings and attend Italian language courses and traineeships to become masons, carpenters and farmers.

Depending on their previous experiences and what they like doing there are also courses for wood-cutters, cooks, artisans, welders, hotel runners and waiters.

“Groups of refugees from different countries share apartments that were empty before and are so lending a hand in reviving small depopulating mountain communities” says Carlo Cominelli, head of K-Pax.

“They are taught all sorts of jobs in order to give them the necessary professional know-how and skills to earn a living. At the end of the training they usually find opportunities in sectors where there’s a shortage of Italian workers as in building, or growing cereals,” he says.

“They get good contracts with salaries of €1,200 per month. Our hotel staff has regular job contracts and so far we’ve employed some 20 refugees”, Cominelli adds.

Proof of hope

Cominelli argues how the Hotel Giardino, and the entire valley, prove that migrants can play a major role in revamping offbeat areas by turning into an asset.

In this welcoming valley where multiculturalism is key, migrants rub shoulders with locals participating in village life.

They cook exotic spicy dishes at food fairs and concerts and take visitors on guided tours, even in English, of the surrounding vineyards and woods.

When it’s Carnival time in February they dress up in costume and parade along cobbled stone alleys.

One year a group of refugees came up with their own masque to tease the dark, hellish drama they had to suffer.

They built a bright papier-mâché boat with the word Lampedusa written on the sides to recall the treacherous sea journey they had to face to land in Italy’s southernmost island.

The ‘diffuse micro-hospitality’ scheme is state-funded and local valley authorities are directly involved in hosting the refugees.

“With the money we get from the government we’re able to pay the apartment rentals for the refugees, the bills and the food at supermarkets. All this revives the economy and agriculture in favor of the local community”, says Paolo Erba, mayor of Malegno village.

Mohamed, from Senegal, took part in a wood-cutting workshop in the village of Capo di Ponte, where a local carpenter put at his disposal his own atelier and taught him to carve woods and tables.

Although he still has nightmares of the terrible sea journey from Libya to Sicily, Mohamed’s eyes shine with happiness now: “I’ve finally learned a job that I like and this is the first step to integration. I want to work and live here in Italy, I don’t want to go anywhere else”.

The furniture Mohamed built was for the Hotel Giardino where everything, including the food served to guests, is locally sourced. The migrant staff also contributed to renovating the hotel.

There are other successful refugee integration projects across Italy. City councils in several towns have employed asylum-seekers to clean public gardens, streets and parks.

In the deep southern regions of Basilicata and Puglia former ghost towns such as Acquaformosa, Badolato and Caulonia have been brought back from the grave by refugees who have re-opened ceramics shops, bars and bakeries.

In the village of Galatina refugees have been taught by local grannies the traditional art of crochet and work at boutiques where they sell hand-made decorated cushions, blankets and towels.

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