The chance no one else saw

FAZ, 13.2.2017

The Italian village of Riace was almost a ghost town when a boat with 300 refugees stranded there. The future mayor had an idea. Now Domenico Lucano has received the “Dresden Prize”. By Stefan Locke

One could not see the one picture without yet another glimmering through as on Sunday Domenico Lucano stood on the stage of the Semperoper, one of the symbols for the “sweet disease of yesterday”. One loves to indulge in this in Dresden, especially during the days on and around the 13th of February, the moment when the beauty of the city fell into ruins, now 72 years gone. Lucano, 58 years old and mayor of the village of Riace in Calabria, stood there in jeans and a sweater on the big stage and accepted for his exemplary integration of refugees the “International Peace Prize”, also known as the Dresden Prize, in the house before which Monday for Monday people demonstrate against refugees.

In these days, however, many things are different in Dresden, whereas many interject that this has always been the case. But now people are talking about it once again, and not merely reporting about the ridiculers and shouters, who have long given vent to their hatred and contempt in the squares of the city. Indeed, in these days the most important places belong to other voices and pictures: on the Neumarkt in front of the Frauenkirche the German-Syrian artist Manaf Halbouni’s representation of the bus barricade reminding of the suffering in Aleppo, and on Theatre Plaza in front of the Semperoper an installation of 90 photographs printed on mats of refugees’ graves, photographed in Sicilian cemeteries. “Lampedusa 361” is the title of the work of the Dresden author Heidrun Hannusch, who with it recalls the dying of refugees in the Mediterranean, people who often remain nameless and are only buried with a registration number corresponding to the order in which they were found. Meanwhile the capacity of many cemeteries in southern Italy has been exhausted because for twenty years the region has taken in successful refugees, as well as those who did not survive their flight.


A third of the population is refugees

It is nearly as long since chemistry teacher Domenico Lucano happened to be looking from the coast of his village as a sailing ship with three hundred Kurdish refugees stranded. That, as he said in his acceptance speech on Sunday, is what changed his life. “I saw the arrival not as a problem but as an opportunity,” he said. “Half of our inhabitants had left; no children were laughing in the streets; Riace was simply moribund.”

Domenico Lucano set about persuading his village’s emigrants, who now were scattered elsewhere in the world, to make their abandoned homes available to refugees. And he founded the initiative “Citta Futura” to rebuild the place with refugees and live with them. He doesn’t deny that many of the refugees did not want to stay in poor southern Italy, but to move on further to the north. But those who stayed over the years have revitalised the place; more than 150 houses had been renovated; shops, restaurants and even the school remained in operation. In 2004 Lucano was elected mayor, not least because of this commitment. He occupies the position to this day. Now 1800 people live again in Riace, about a third of whom are refugees from more than twenty countries.