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  • INSMS International Network for Students of Migration Studies

MATILDE Summer School Experience

In the week between 13 and 17 June 2022 the MATILDE Summer School was held in Bussoleno, Italy. MATILDE is a 3-year project funded by the EU Horizon 2020 facility that develops and tests a transdisciplinary conceptual and methodological framework for a multidimensional assessment of the economic and social impacts of Third Country Nationals (TNCs) in marginalized communities. This summer school dealt with the impact of migration on the local development of rural and mountain regions.

Our team member Caterina Salvo, who works as a researcher and project manager at the intersection between mobility, social cohesion and regeneration of Italian inner areas, took part in the Summer School, and shares with us her first hand experience with the INSMS community!

This is one of the official MATILDE postcards that can be found and downloaded on their website.

Day #0 the arrival Sunday June 12

The MATILDE Summer School has a very peculiar avenue: the Red Cross and Civic Protection Center (Pic0) at Bussoleno (Pic1), a small village of the Susa Valley, which connects the city of Turin with the French border. This choice wasn’t by chance considering the topic of the school, meaning the role of migrants in the development of shrinking regions, such as the mountains. The fact that we were hosted in an emergency center has some other, more practical, implications on our staying: since the Red Cross is actually hosting some Ukrainian families escaping the war, there was no more availability of private or double rooms. We ended up sleeping in a dorm, which, considering that the majority of attendees were women, hosted 10 bunk beds for a total of 20 girls sleeping in the same room and sharing the same bathroom! If you are thinking: “well that’s pretty wild!” I agree, and even though we were informed about the situation, the majority of us did not expect such an overcrowded condition. However, as we have learned, nothing more than a challenging situation helps in creating strong bonds with others, and we developed almost immediately a nice and warm spirit of comradeship :)

Moreover, based on other participants' stories about similar Summer Schools tackling the issue of migrant integration, this is generally the type of accommodation provided and I have to say it helps a lot in understanding, really first hand, what a refugee or asylum seeker center looks like from the inside! At the end of the day, looking at it as a glass half-full, it has been a win-win situation!

Left: location at the Red Cross Center. Right: Bussoleno village.

Day #1 lecture day one Monday June 13

We do have a very intense schedule! It was written in the program and it turned out to be real: from 9.30 am to 5pm with one hour break for lunch and two short breaks of 15 minutes each in both morning and afternoon. But, I have to admit, time flies!

I guess it is for the warm environment and the constant exchange among us. It has been so great to see all those focused faces, following the lectures with passion and exchanging impressions from the 4 corners of Europe and beyond! The countries represented in the room were: Germany, Spain, Turkey, Albania, the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, Canada, Tajikistan, Kurdistan, Serbia, Greece, Italy, Switzerland, Finland, Sweden, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and the UK!

The classroom

The panels were all very interesting, helping us in understanding the phenomenon of migrant residents in peripheral settings and situating the MATILDE research project. I enjoyed in particular the discussion around Territorial and social dimensions of migrants’ interactions with rural localities made by Stefan Kordel from the University of Friedrich-Alexander in Erlangen Germany, and Ingrid Machold from the Austrian Federal Institute of Agricultural Economics, Rural and Mountain Research.

Everyday there was a special surprise in store for the after-dinner time. On Day #1 we went to the inauguration of the photo exhibition on migrant workers and newcomers in the Alps of Piedmont and of South Tyrol by the photographers Daria Akimenko and Alberto Bertone, host in the beautiful Casa Aschiari, a traditional merchant house from the late XIV century facing the old Francigena Way.

The Photo Exhibition at Casa Aschiari. Photo credit: Alberto Bertone

Day #2 lecture day two Tuesday June 14

We woke up quite early to enjoy a tasty Italian breakfast in the center of the village which is 20 minutes walking distance from the Red Cross Center. An energy booster to deal with a whole day focusing on methodology! We touched upon ethical challenges in researching vulnerable groups and the social and economic impact of migration in rural areas.

I particularly enjoyed a workshop suggested by Michele Bianchi from the University of Parma. We were divided in 4 groups to recreate the setting of a “Future Forum”, a safe space for encounter, discussion and innovation which allows local stakeholders to meet and exchange. Our imagined Future Forum was held in a small peripheral town and had the aim of facing the challenge of migrants integration in the village, changing the perspective around migration from a burden to a resource. My group represented the Local Enterprises and it was extremely mind opening to think from the perspective of the private business sector for once! We suggested working in synergy with the local administration to create traineeship opportunities targeting foreigners offering full-time contracts while allowing to have language classes during working hours.

After lectures we had the opportunity to experience first hand the location of an actual project of mountain requalification. We hiked under the guide of Andrea Membretti from the Red Cross Center to the small village of Falcemagna, which is almost depopulated at the moment and, thanks to its privileged location at the outskirts of Bussoleno and only 40 minutes from Turin city center, it will be transformed into a Mountain Hub. The houses will be transformed into community spaces for those who want to escape from the city center and it will be possible to re-imagined the surrounding area recovering typical agricultural production.

If the day starts sweetly it ends in a more bitter-sweet mood: the writer, photographer and performer (or as he would better say “someone who writes, photographs and performs”) Opher Thomson. The author read and displayed parts of his project FORREST, an exploration of the distances between us and our changing habitat, and an invitation to reflect on the many forms of homelessness that may ultimately unite us.

Day #3 lecture day three, Wednesday June 15

During the last day of lectures we looked at the mountain and marginalized areas from a political science perspective, thanks to the lectures of Anna Kastreva from the New Bulgarian University, who focused on “Re/De/Bordering Remoteness, and Ayhan Kaya from Istanbul Bilgi University whose presentation went in great depth around the topic of populism in remote places.

The afternoon and evening turned quite emotional when one of the attendees at the school revealed to have been extremely touched by the performance of the previous night by Opher Thomson: she had a personal life experience of migration and, even though her wound opened up due to the poetic of the artistic representation, she felt safe enough to share her story in front of the class, proving that the environment we were living in during those days was extremely open, respectful and, above all, friendly.

June 15 was also the birthday of another participant and to celebrate the happiness of having met each other and share such an amazing and intense experience we all went to have dinner together in a local Osteria!

Our last dinner at Osteria

Day #4 The excursion day, Thursday June 16

To end with a flourish, the last day we walked from the Italian village of Claviere to the French one of Mongenévre. Claviere is peculiar because while the built-up area is in Italy the surrounding mountains already belong to France. This peculiarity made this location the most highly frequented route for transit migrants who want to cross the border between Italy and France. We hiked along and across the border line guided by the Italian Red Cross who, since 2017, are the one taking care of those migrants who are pushed back or get lost while attempting to cross. Being in the mountains the weather conditions can change abruptly and frequently migrants, especially in winter time, need support and assistance. The Red Cross volunteers told us that during the Covid-19 restrictions, considering that also the border controls became less severe, the number of attempt to cross increase significantly: in the only month of July 2020 around 4.000 migrants wanted to reach France, the same number generally is seen over the course of an entire year!

The walk along the Italian-French border

The paths in the forests and woods of the area tell millions of stories of hope, fear, success, failure, violence, friendship, solidarity and persistence. On average a migrant needs 3-4 attempts before finally reaching France. While the Italian police is mainly occupied in office activities (having no interest in keeping irregular foreigners on Italian soil), the French gendarmerie adopts every means to drive the migrants back. Drones and thermal-scanners substitute ambushes and looks-out, without, however, diminish the brutality of such acts.

However, besides these gloomy accounts there are also many stories of empathy and solidarity. The inhabitants of those valleys, both in Italy and in France, shared a common history of resistance during World War II and, as a soul-stirring graffiti states on the road visible from the wood “we all walked along those paths”. Informal group of people started to support migrants in their route, particularly two shelters located each on one side of the border giving shelter to migrants crossing and communicating among each other to make sure of offering refuge to everyone.

It has been more than an excursion but the exemplification of what the “banality of evil” means in concrete. That borders are imaginary lines drawn on the real soil is something well known especially for those studying migration studies; nevertheless realizing I could have enjoyed the landscape and the clean air of that part of the world without even knowing I was crossing such a harmful threshold has been striking for me!

Just before saying goodbye to each other with the promise of keeping in touch and continuing our fruitful conversations, professors handed out participation diplomas to each of us and lots of clapping resonated all around.

Caterina’s diploma awarding

Final remarks

The MATILDE Summer School has been the first experience of this kind for me. I decided to participate even though I’m not in academia at the moment because I did my academic internship in one of the partner organizations, EURAC Research, and I got to know some of the researchers involved in it and I started following its developments. Moreover, I’m actually working as a freelancer for the Italian Association Riabitare l’Italia in collaboration with Professor Andrea Membretti in projects to tackle depopulation and abandonment in Italian rural areas from a migration study perspective.

Being my first Summer School, I didn’t have many points of reference to compare it with, but being with like-minded people, all sharing the same passion proved to be extremely worth it.

It confirmed once more that what makes the experiences great are the people you are sharing them with! We now share a Telegram channel where we exchange all the pictures we have taken during the week and update each other on our endeavors, researches, but also locality in the hope of meeting in person again.

Concerning the lectures, I would have preferred a more practical approach along with the theoretical one, dedicating a few hours a day to actively engage in some real problem-solving exercises. But overall it has been a very enriching and insightful experience! Can’t wait to enroll in a new one in winter time!

If what has been shared resonates with you in one way or another, if you do believe that inclusion and diversity are key elements in the renewal of societies in rural and mountain regions and you want to contribute in changing the narrative around social cohesion in marginalized communities, let’s participate in the MATILDE Essay contest and tell how #migrationinmylife affect you. All useful information are at this website.

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