A sign in Riace reading Welcome to the Global Village, put up before Italys new far-right government cracked down on the towns pro-immigration model. Photograph: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty
The story began in 1998 when 175 Kurds (including 72 children) arrived in Riaces nearby stretch of seaside. Mimmo Lucano, then a 40-year-old teacher, decided everything possible should be done to welcome the refugees. He was soon given the nickname Mimmo the Kurd as he tried to find accommodation and work for them. Riace, back then, was empty and crumbling. Many residents had moved to the cities or the north, looking for work, and local businesses were being obliterated by the arrival of shopping malls and chain stores. Lucano had a vision of immigrants not only being helped, but helping bring Riace back to life. The migrant is a resource, not something to be used for profit, he says.
In 1999, Lucano founded an association, City of the Future (inspired by the Calabrian utopianist Tommaso Campanella). The village of Riace applied for funding for a new government programme called diffused welcome, which would later become
a model called SPRAR (system of protection for asylum-seekers and refugees). In this model, rather than using huge detention centres, local councils accept immigrants and are given the funding and responsibility to integrate them. Unlike the many dysfunctional models used in the Italian immigration system, SPRARs are widely admired.
Lucano successfully stood as mayor in 2004, 2010 and 2014. He used the 35-a-day state funding for migrants not for personal enrichment but to employ 70 cultural mediators (teachers, therapists, careers advisers etc) who helped those migrants become part of the social fabric. Funds were also used to renovate empty buildings, to create cottage industries and give migrants small salaries, bringing the cobbled streets back to life in the process. In the last 20 years, Riace has received 6,000 immigrants from 20 different countries. Riace, the road sign now says when you arrive, A town of welcome.
There was something so enchanting about what Lucano had achieved in a remote Calabrian village that he became a national figure. RAI, the Italian state broadcaster, began filming a docudrama about Riace and its mayor. Lucano
was listed in Fortune magazines 50 most influential leaders in the world.
I define our utopia as normality, he said in 2016. Lucano remained refreshingly scornful of worldly success and power, and his speeches were simple: We unite our weaknesses with many other desperate people from all parts of the world. We share a dream of a new humanity free of mafias, racism, fascism and all injustices.
Nobody doubted his sincerity: when Becky Moses died in a San Ferdinando fire last year she had been living in Riace until her residency permit had been denied a grieving Lucano brought her back to Riace for burial.
But his bluntness and visibility made Lucano some powerful enemies. Funds from central government became ever-more delayed, forcing Lucano to create Riaces own currency of IOUs (the banknotes had the faces of Mahatma Gandhi, Che Guevara and anti-mafia campaigner Peppino Impastato). The RAI docudrama was blocked under pressure from Italys new far-right government. Last summer, Lucano went on hunger strike when he learned that the Ministry of the Interior had suspended payment for the accommodation of asylum seekers for the second half of 2017, suddenly creating a 650,000 black hole in the towns budget. Since his arrest, Lucano has been banned from his town. His trial began this month, in the aftermath of a Salvini-allied mayor being elected as his replacement in May.