The hilltop medieval village of Riace on Italy’s south coast was almost a ghost town 15 years ago. Houses were derelict and the local school was near to closing.
The village was in danger of becoming extinct as residents disappeared to northern Italy, and abroad, for jobs during the economic boom.
Since then Riace has seen a change in its destiny, by openly welcoming a controlled number of migrants, who live and work as part of the community.
This transformation was instigated by the mayor, Domenico Lucano, who set up a scheme, funded by the Italian government, to offer refugees the abandoned apartments and training. It has helped to rebuild both the town’s population and economy.
“I do nothing more than what I think is right for our little community,” says Lucano, who started the pioneering programme in 1998.
“The multiculturalism, the variety of skills and personal stories which people have brought to Riace have revolutionised what was becoming a ghost town.
“There were people without a house here, and there were houses without people here. It’s simple.”
This year, Lucano was named by Fortune magazine as one of the world’s 50 greatest leaders. The honour puts him in the company of names such as Pope Francis, Apple chief Tim Cook and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau.
About 450 migrants, drawn from more than 20 countries beyond Europe, are living in Riace – about a quarter of the village’s total population. Inevitably, there are some tensions with locals – yet Lucano has earned enough respect to be serving his third term as mayor.
Some of the children are originally from Ethiopia but have grown up in Riace and speak fluent Italian, in addition to English and their native tongue.