Southern Italy has become a “land of hope” for thousands of immigrants escaping from poverty, war and political persecution. In 2016 alone, 123,000 refugees landed on the Italian coast.
Navila, an outlying district of the city of Bologna, is one of the European communities transformed by the arrival of newcomers. With the influx, the need for new types of spaces emerged: in Navila, there are few places for residents of different backgrounds to come together. Without such spaces, new immigrants are at risk of isolation from their host communities in the long run.
Across Europe, local communities have the challenge and opportunity to receive a large number of newcomers. How can small urban projects respond to the complexities of a changing society?
Team Bologna identified community theater as a creative and playful way to break down barriers between people. Drawing from the example of a local theater company, Cantieri Meticci, which developed formats specifically for bringing together refugees and long-term residents, Team Bologna tailored theater workshops to address the needs in the Navila district.
The team organized theater workshops with up to 100 participants and used facilitated “listening tables” at which they shared their experiences of persecution and escape. The vulnerability that such conversations entailed and the trust built in the subsequent theater fostered bonds between participants.
Cantieri Meticci is often referred to as a family by its members. Indeed, the theater community provided social support for migrants while their actual families were thousands of kilometers away.
Team Bologna had a further goal: to establish a new cultural space for its community theater activities. In the process, everyone in the company — new and old community members, from many nations, and public, private and civic sector partners — worked side by side on carpentry, lighting and furnishings for what would become shared space. The official opening event was lively with music, art installations and – naturally – live theater!
The project raised the self-esteem, sense of power and shared belonging – particularly of newcomers to Bologna, many of whom have left their livelihoods behind. They were able to develop skills in the arts and crafts trades practiced by the theater company, and to become part of the core of the company: recent migrants and refugees are actors, workshop leaders, language teachers, stagehands, logistics managers and electrical department heads at MET.
Beyond increasing knowledge about asylum seekers’ journey through the regulatory process and their reception in a new country, the project increased interaction and empathy between long-time residents and these newcomers.