SUTERA — After 40 years working in Sicilian high schools, retired school teacher Mario Tona now gives Italian lessons to newly arrived migrants as an unpaid volunteer. On a recent day downtown, he was eagerly welcoming his new students for a quick tour of the village in central Sicily.

He points out the important landmarks. "This is the bank where you can deposit your savings and send money back to your families.... This is the town hall, which represents us — all of us," he says. "It's the place where we try to resolve our problems."

Tona's class consists of 34 students, hailing from Gambia, Nigeria, Pakistan and Nepal. They repeat the words he teaches them, but the lesson is soon halted as passersby greet the students by name: Carmelina Salomone, owner of a nearby grocery store, hugs and greets Kufi, Shyam, Sonna and Alex.

"Sutera is a town of emigrants," says mayor Giuseppe Grizzante. "In the 1960s we had 5,000 inhabitants, but now only around 1,500 are left. Young people have always left town, many for northern Italy, and later also for northern Europe." Prime destinations over the years for Sutera emigrants included working on farms in England and in mines in Germany.

But after so many departures, those left in Sutera began to welcome new arrivals to revitalize their dying town. "When we left Sicily we always hoped to be welcomed with dignity," says Tona. "As much as I possibly can, I try to make these young people independent."

Far from the coast

The journey to Sutera is a difficult one. Though a mere 39 kilometers from the provincial capital of Caltanissetta in the heart of Sicily, covering the distance takes 90 minutes by car on a winding, unfinished and mountainous road. The town is isolated among fields of grazing sheep, blooming almond blossoms and prickly pears, at the foot of a giant monolithic rock called the Mountain of San Paolino.

"The isolation is the only problem," says Chris Richy, a Nigerian immigrant. "There's only one bus that leaves at 5:50 in the morning, but in Sutera there are good people, not racists. They really do help us, and when I finally get a job as an electrician I want to repay them for the help they've given us."

Sutera's decision to welcome migrants began after the sinking of a boat in October 2013, when 366 people died near the island of Lampedusa. It wasn't easy for the town to embark upon this path, and some of Sutera's elderly had serious doubts, and even fears, about the plan that cut against the widespread policy of confining migrants to the peripheries and out of public view.

The town decided on laying out clear rules for its policy of maximum integration, offering a home for each arriving family to safeguard newcomers' privacy. Now migrants live in the historical town center, in old neighborhoods with arabesque names, and work as clerks in Sutera's small shops.

In conservative central Sicily, however, the true mark of success came just before Christmas. The town proudly hosted its annual live nativity scene, which regularly draws 15,000 visitors — and this time Richy, the Nigerian migrant, took part as one of the three Wise Men.

New friendships

Carmelina, the shopkeeper, describes her friendship with an immigrant who has since left Sutera. "Bridget and I are very close, she called me yesterday from Padua (in northern Italy) and told me she'll come back to surprise me one day," she says. "We worked together in the shop and she helped me sew. When you look these people in the eye, you really empathize with them."


Photo: La Stampa

Families remain in Sutera until they get a response to their asylum applications, which usually takes around two years. During their time waiting, families are required to take Italian lessons, are forbidden to drink alcohol at home, must keep their apartments tidy and can only use washing machines in the evening to save money.

Six workers from the local "Sunflower" cooperative take care of the families and organize their stays. Mariella Cirami, a 28-year old local volunteer, is passionate about her job. "I'm very lucky, every day we meet people from around the world," she says. "I'm thankful for this opportunity and for what we are doing here. There aren't many children in Sutera, but now they can play with the children of migrants, and a new child will be born next month."

Locals are also keenly aware of the economic benefits of accepting the immigrants. Every year the town's council receives 263,000 euros to welcome the arrivals, and these funds finance new government jobs, rent out previously empty apartments, and provide incentives for more jobs in the commercial sector. Mainly, though, residents are happy that new life has returned to this sleepy town after years of people leaving. "We're simply doing what others elsewhere have done for us," says Tona, the teacher.

Sutera had once been famous for a more bizarre reason. The town was building a massive elevator connecting it to a hilltop monastery, financed by 1.3 million euros from European Union regional funds. It was completed in 2009 and locals hoped it would bring much-needed tourism. But it still has never opened, even though recent reports say that it may be tested in coming weeks.

Maybe — aided by a shiny new lift and industrious newcomers — this tiny Sicilian village in the middle of nowhere can become a glimmer of hope for the future.