In a Tiny Italian Town, This Family Opened Its Doors to a Refugee

They are among 500 host families across Italy, which is struggling with the continued influx of migrants
February 2, 2017 Updated: February 2, 2017

BORRIANA, Italy—When Mamadou Sissoko first came to Borriana, a village in the northern Italian province of Biella in 2011, he couldn’t read or write in his own language, let alone make any sense of Italian.

“He couldn’t even spell his name. We only found out how it was spelled through his documentation,” said Claudia Tortello, who, along with her husband, Alberto Miglietti, took in the 29-year-old from the West African country of Mali.

She was introduced to Sissoko when her daughter Lara, a volunteer in a refugee shelter in the nearby town of Biella, brought him home for dinner. “We communicated with gestures and drawings,” she said.

At first, Sissoko slept with his bedroom door locked—a habit he said he picked up during his previous four years living in Libya.

“We worried that someone would break in during the night, and rob or attack us,” said Sissoko.

“We slept with our shoes on, too, so we could escape quickly.”

Sissoko, who has been granted asylum in Italy, is the only black person living among the population of about 900 in Borriana, which lies in the foothills of the Alps. But over the last few years, he has thrived: He has mastered a trade, made friends, and within a short period of time, learned enough Italian to pass his driving test.

Migrants on an overcrowded boat call for help off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa on April 17, 2016. (Patrick Bar/SOS Mediterranee via AP)
Migrants on an overcrowded boat call for help off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa on April 17, 2016. (Patrick Bar/SOS Mediterranee via AP)

On the day we met, he was just returning from giving a talk at the local school about his experience as a refugee.

In early 2011, Sissoko was among the migrant workers from Mali who were given a brutal ultimatum at the start of Libya’s civil war: either fight alongside forces loyal to former leader Muammar Gaddafi, or be killed. Many took up the offer, he said, believing there was no alternative and that Gaddafi would win and fulfill his promise of providing them with homes, cars, and Libyan citizenship.

Sissoko, who had been working in a floor tile factory, was imprisoned and endured regular beatings for his refusal to fight.

He was eventually crammed into a flimsy boat with around 700 people and sent toward Italy’s southern coast, one of the main arrival points for migrants in Europe. Such deportations were carried out under orders from Gaddafi.

“The [Gaddafi] government used migrants like bombs against Europe,” said Daniele Albanese, the local representative for Caritas, a Catholic Church-run charity that also helps find host families for migrants.

Sissoko was sent to a refugee center in Biella after making his way north from the southern island of Lampedusa, where he landed after being rescued from the sinking boat in 2011.

At that time, his own country had become violent following the death of Gaddafi, as Malian fighters fled home from Libya with weapons and formed their own rebel group. In early 2012, the Malian government was overthrown, and Sissoko sought asylum in Italy.

Tortello and her husband are believed to have been the first Italians to take a migrant into their home as arrivals surged.

“When we started the process, our lawyer couldn’t find a precedent,” she said.

They are now among 20 host families across Biella province and 500 throughout Italy, according to Caritas, which works separately from the government-funded accommodation system.

What began as a 15-day trial is now in its fourth year.

“We thought, maybe we can help. Our daughter was away at university, so we had a spare room,” said Tortello.

“We felt affectionate toward him. We couldn’t just send him back.”

A view of the Italian province of Biella, which still has the remains of ancient churches and villages that were part of the Via Francigena, a route for pilgrims that historically connected Rome to France and England. (Steve Sidepiece/Shutterstock)
The Italian town of Candelo in Biella Province in this file photo. Biella is home to 20 of Italy’s 500 families who host migrants. (Steve Sidepiece/Shutterstock)

Sissoko was “a little fearful” as they got used to living together, but he is now part of the family, she said. He works alongside her husband as an electrician and, having never had a formal education, is doing his final year of middle school.

It took a while for him to adapt to the colder weather and Italian cuisine, although he said he now loves bagna cauda, a dish similar to fondue that’s unique to the Piedmont region.

Sissoko’s story is a bright spot in a situation that has become increasingly hostile as the Italian government struggles to accommodate and integrate the increasing number of migrants arriving by boat.

Some 181,000 arrived by boat in 2016, a rise of almost 18 percent from 2015, the Interior Ministry said in late December. About 175,000 are living in shelters, mostly managed by cooperatives or NGOs, as they await the outcome of asylum applications. The government has made repeated calls for local and regional authorities to share the burden by making empty buildings available for housing and providing hosts with 35 euros per migrant per day to cover basic living costs, but many refuse.

When refugees arrive in Biella, they are usually met with protests by locals, said the town’s mayor, Marco Cavicchioli.

“Those supporting the Northern League create tension,” he said. “They say, ‘These people bring disease, they’re bad for security.’ But after one week, they stop protesting—they forget about it and continue on with their lives,” he said.

Despite the initial tension, the 1,800 migrants in Biella live relatively peacefully alongside locals. Apart from one migrant caught with drugs, the migrants’ presence hasn’t led to a rise in crime, said Cavicchioli.

The biggest challenges are helping them to integrate and find work, according to Albanese. Caritas doesn’t pay families for hosting migrants, but it does provide support to migrants as they try to settle into life in Italy, such as funding driving lessons or child care for working parents.

Some have found work in agriculture, in restaurants, or as caregivers, said Cavicchioli.

“It’s incorrect to say they’re doing the jobs that Italians don’t want to do—they’re doing jobs that Italians would only do ‘with conditions attached.'”

Sissoko, whose family in Mali live in extreme poverty, would like to stay in Italy, but he worries about the hostility toward migrants across Europe.

“Many people complain about us, but we can also complain about not feeling safe,” he said.

“Those who are afraid should get to know us first. I heard Italy was a Mafia country and that Italians were not good, so before getting to know them, I was afraid too.”