The residents of a sleepy, hilltop town in southern Italy have been protesting about migrants. More than 150 people in Ripabottoni – an isolated community of 504 people – signed a petition to halt the closure of their village’s migrant hosting center, while other locals held a rally to stop it from closing, despite rising anti-migrant sentiment in other parts of the country.
Village residents told CNN the 32 migrants who arrived in 2016 had become an integral part of the small community, playing in the local football team, singing in the churches’ choirs, attending local festivities and helping to create new jobs.
But despite the village’s efforts, the closure of Ripabottoni’s Xenia migrant center was ordered on January 11 and the inhabitants were sent to facilities in other parts of the region.
Nigerian James Eghosa, one of the migrants who had to leave the center, wrote a touching Facebook post thanking the community for its hospitality and friendship as he said farewell. Under it, a number of residents left comments expressing sorrow for the migrants’ sudden departure from the village.
Eghosa is one of thousands of migrants who traveled through Libya and across the Mediterranean to Italy. He arrived in Ripabottoni on October 9, 2016, a Sunday morning.
“The first thing I experienced was the fresh air outside and the bells ringing from the Catholic church,” he told CNN.
But initially, he said, settling in wasn’t easy.
When locals heard of the migrants’ arrival, many of them signed a petition to the prefecture to prevent them from coming. People were fearful that the migrants would disrupt their quiet, tightly knit community.
“Ironically, some of them have now signed a petition for them to stay,” Father Gabriele Tamilia, 74, the local priest, said.
Mariantonietta Sauro is among those residents who had a change of heart.
“I’m being honest: Those days everyone was saying bad things about migrants on TV, so I signed,” she told CNN.
“But on the morning of their arrival I saw these guys as I left home to go to church. They were more afraid than me and that broke my heart. I regretted that signature.
“I went inside the church and I apologized to the Lord and promised that I’d do everything I could to put it right. And so I did.”
Little by little, the local residents started to warm to the group of migrants, involving them in the community’s two main activities – church and football.
Lamin Darboe, from Gambia, has warm memories of those first weeks in Ripabottoni.
“I and some friends were offered free coffee in the bar just at the entrance of the village for almost a week,” he said. “They offered us clothes, shoes and footballs.”
Darboe said he spent most of his time teaching English and writing the first draft of three books and a collection of 40 fables for children. He said he fled Gambia because of his writing against former president Yahya Jammeh.
“Just a few weeks after our arrival we were summoned to meet with the village team at the football and there we agreed to be playing with each other every Thursday night,” Darboe said.
The Thursday nights continued until six of the migrants were permanent fixtures in the team.
“They are all currently playing for them,” he said.
Along with football, the new arrivals joined the Catholic church’s choir, singing traditional songs during Sunday Mass, and joining a polyphonic choir with orchestra under the direction of Father Gabriele.
“We used to go to Morrone [a village near Ripabottoni] for choir practice every Monday,” Eghosa, who played in the orchestra, said.
Ripabottoni’s declining population is a familiar story for many southern Italian communities.
During the 19th century, up to 5,000 people lived in the community but waves of emigration to North and South America, Europe and northern Italy left it depleted. The majority of people still living there are elderly; younger people have moved to cities in search of work.
Miky Frenza, former mayor of Ripabottoni, said the group of migrants had helped to rejuvenate the community.
“They became one body with the locals and managed to reanimate the town, regenerating its economic fabric,” he told CNN.
“Fifteen young people from the village were working in the migrant center – now they’re unemployed.”
It is not clear why the prefecture closed the center. Some local residents blame Mayor Orazio Civetta, saying he was in favor of shutting one of the two migrant hosting centers in the village.
The Mayor has said that the second center – which will remain open – is now hosting 12 migrants who are minors and means the village has met its requirements around hosting migrants, according to Italian paper Il Manifesto.
Civetta did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
News of the Ripabottoni residents’ protest in favor of keeping the other center open has resonated in the national media, and Danilo Leva, the regional member of Parliament, is now lobbying the Interior Ministry to reopen the Xenia center.
For now, the group of migrants remains scattered in several centers in the Molise region.
Gambian writer Darboe is in Campobasso, the regional capital, but said he hopes to return to Ripabottoni one day.
“There I had all the freedom to read and write,” he said.
“At Ripabottoni I had Italians helping me to translate the stories into Italian too.”
“The Xenia center was much more than a migrant center… It was like a huge family. I thank them all for the affection and I will cherish them for the rest of my life.”