'Make Art Not Walls' Helps Refugees Build A New Life In Italy : Goats and Soda Amid an influx of African migrants to Italy, a project called 'Make Art Not Walls' is helping them assimilate — and get in touch with their inner artist.
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Painting Their Old Life Helps Them Build A New Life In Italy

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Painting Their Old Life Helps Them Build A New Life In Italy

Painting Their Old Life Helps Them Build A New Life In Italy

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Italy is ground zero in Europe's migration crisis. More than a half million migrants have arrived there since 2014. And despite a slower flow this summer, anti-migrant sentiment is growing. Now, in the Umbrian town of Trevi, a project called Make Art Not Walls is letting asylum seekers and residents get to know each other. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: (Speaking Italian).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: (Speaking Italian).

We're at a modest hotel-turned-reception center for 55 African asylum seekers. The storeroom in the back serves as artists' studio. Exuberant, brightly colored paintings line the walls. Some budding artists turned their personal dramas into visual stories. One of the most accomplished is a nine-panel series by 26-year-old Nigerian Benjamin Raphael. Before leaving his home on his voyage out of Africa, he'd never picked up a paintbrush.

BENJAMIN RAPHAEL: This is my voyage. This is the beginning, when I left my country.

POGGIOLI: First, we see Raphael waving goodbye to his uncle. Next, men crammed into a truck as they crossed into Libya. The fifth panel shows terrified, exhausted men detained behind bars by criminal gangs.

RAPHAEL: If you are not lucky, you might be caught on the way, maybe by police or the group of bad people in - the Libya people that are bad put you in a cage to demand for a ransom for your release.

POGGIOLI: After relatives pay a ransom, men are packed like sardines in a car trunk and taken to the coast. On the beach, they're ordered to inflate a rubber dinghy, carry it into the sea, pile in and, in the last panel, sail northward to Europe. Eight hours later, Raphael and his mates were rescued by the Italian coast guard. It took him eight months to paint these memories of his voyage. It was difficult, he says.

RAPHAEL: Yes, it was hard, very painful.

POGGIOLI: This migrants' art project is the brainchild of a longtime Trevi resident, Australian artist Virginia Ryan. Ryan aims to bring out the human potential and restore dignity to people stranded in limbo. Making art, she tells migrants, is a form of therapy.

VIRGINIA RYAN: The same courage that you apply to coming through the Sahara, arriving in Libya, getting on the boat, getting here, that courage can be also employed when you take up a pencil and you have a white sheet of paper and you manage to make a mark on that.

POGGIOLI: In Guinea, 29-year-old Zacob Camara worked as a mason. Here in the studio, he began to reflect on colonialism's effect on his homeland.

ZACOB CAMARA: (Foreign language spoken).

POGGIOLI: "We have heroes," Camara says, "people who fought for our liberation," such as his whimsical painting, a man in white on horseback floating above a yellow desert, two half-moon crescents in the starry sky. It could be a Chagall transplanted to Africa. Not everyone in Trevi is happy about the migrants' presence. But Federica Di Marco, who teaches Italian to the newcomers, says they've given as much to her as she has to them.

FEDERICA DI MARCO: (Through interpreter) It's been emotionally draining. I've connected with their stories, their voyage, their suffering. You live through it all. It's been a very significant experience for me.

POGGIOLI: With no control over their future, the Trevi migrants are grateful for the opportunity to do something with their time and learn new skills. Some may even emerge as the Matisse or Chagall of this African diaspora. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Trevi.

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