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The center of Sicily’s biggest city was emptied by the mafia. Now it’s being reclaimed by migrants

Buongiorno Ballarò.
  • Annalisa Merelli
By Annalisa Merelli

Senior reporter based in New York City

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Palermo, Italy

A kilo of apples, a head of broccoli, a fresh tuna—for the past 1,100 years little has changed in the market of Ballarò, Palermo’s most renowned shopping destination. With its stalls assembled daily in a neighborhood known as Albergheria, Ballarò’s streets are lined with fresh fish, seafood, fruits and vegetables alongside household items and the occasional cellphone accessory. Workshops, too, dot the area. Sellers scream, customers bargain, everyone tries to make a deal.

Francesco Malavolta for Quartz
Francesco Malavolta for Quartz

Markets have been the life of Palermo for centuries, says ethno-anthropologist Orietta Sorgi, who works for the government on the preservation of Sicily’s heritage. The first mentions of Ballarò, she says, come from the diaries of Baghdadi merchant Ibn Hawqal, who wrote about Palermo’s large market 11 centuries ago.

The market remained the beating heart of the city through centuries of war and modernization. “Ballarò may have had its crises but it’s never stopped [its activity],” explains Sorgi, though sellers claim that these days business is no longer good. They blame competition from larger, cheaper stores with lower prices as well as the city’s decision to make the area car-free.

Salvatore Cusimano, a pharmacist who’s worked in the neighborhood for about 20 years, says its quality of life has declined. The run-down state of the area he thinks, keeps it poor and is fodder for the mafia: “if you want to move war against the mafia, you need to provide services,” he says.

Yet this decline may be more perceived than real. While many locals prefer the comfort of air-conditioned supermarkets to the hot, sunny market streets, there’s no shortage of other customers to replace them. Migrants have planted roots in the abandoned streets around the markets and are repopulating the city center.

Annalisa Merelli for Quartz
A game of cards.

Until a few years ago, Palermo’s historical center was largely without residents. After the bombings of World War II, it was left to crumble, while in the rest of Italy, historical centers were renovated and brought back to life. Between the 1950s and 1980s the mafia ravaged Palermo: many of the beautiful art deco buildings that epitomized the aesthetic of the city were destroyed (some without permission, in the middle of the night); parks were paved over; and uninviting apartment buildings, some with faulty construction, became a mark of the city.

The center ended up depopulated and without life, albeit for one area: the street markets—particularly Ballarò.

Urban flight didn’t kill the market, which continued its activities while the buildings around it remained mostly empty. Then, in the late 1980s migrants from Bangladesh moved to town, and as migrants do, moved to where it was cheapest: the abandoned center. Not long after, Africans coming from the Libyan route did the same, and they are all continuing to do so now, putting up with precarious housing conditions and a lack of services. In the past 10 years, the process has sped up: over 29,000 Palermitani (Palermo natives) have left the city, while the number of foreigners has more than doubled to nearly 30,000, not counting unregistered immigrants.

Annalisa Merelli for Quartz
Mediterranean square.

“Many parts of the historical center of Palermo had been empty for 30 years,” says Juan Diego Catalano Ugdulena, a city councilman. ”The city had lost its identity,” he explains, but “now [the migrants] are making it alive again.” Alongside the traditional fare—fish, especially tuna, and sun-ripened fruit and vegetables—the market now sells more spices, and ingredients for curries.

“The city had lost its identity,” he explains, but “now [the migrants] are making it alive again.”

“Typically, migrants stay in the suburbs, but here they live in the center,” says Giovanni Zinna, a social entrepreneur who co-founded Millevolti Capovolti, a multicultural co-working space and restaurant right by Ballarò. The immigrants who relocated to the old town, Zinna says, are a godsend for the market, because they “resume businesses that we don’t do, and make them sustainable.”

Indeed, Ballarò teems with people of all ethnicities. The neighborhood is home to several cultural associations for immigrants, and Palermo’s mosque is only blocks away. Foreigners are both shop-owners and customers, and the market is a concert of different languages, dialects, and the quintessential shouting—abbanniari, in Sicilian dialect.

Not all locals like it; “you rent it to one, and 15 move in,” says Francesco Paolo Occhione, a blacksmith. He was born in the area, which he left to move to one of the new neighborhoods in the 1970s.

The mafia doesn’t like it either, and it’s fighting back.

On April 4, 2016, Yusupha Susso, a 20-year-old from Gambia, and two friends were walking down the streets of Ballarò, the oldest market in Palermo. A group of Italians from the neighborhood, led by Emanuele Rubino, 28, insulted them. When the three responded, Rubino shot Susso in the head (link in Italian) sending him into a coma.

“That was a mafia crime, not a racism crime,” Massimiliano Lombardo, an education activist from the city, said. Palermo and its citizens, he says, have their shortcomings, but intolerance toward foreigners isn’t one of them. They themselves are foreigners, he jokes, with a Norman, Arabic, and Spanish heritage. Indeed, an outpouring of solidarity for Susso (link in Italian), who eventually recovered, followed the incident. The perpetrator, who was known to be affiliated with Cosa Nostra, Sicily’s mafia, was arrested, and is in police custody awaiting trial.

Indeed, it’s not xenophobia that motivated Rubino, but rather the desire to mark his territory: Migrants are challenging Cosa Nostra‘s stronghold on the city center, merely by virtue of living there.

Migrants are challenging Cosa Nostra’s stronghold on the city center, merely by virtue of living there.

Throughout the 20th century, Sicily’s mafia has exerted power on Palermo’s economic and commercial activity. For instance, a local boss would regularly demand a pizzo or payment from merchants in exchange for permission to do business. These dynamics are commonplace for locals, but migrants are less willing to submit, and this defiance threatens the decades-old system of control.

Francesco Malavolta for Quartz

Any challenge to the status quo is a challenge to Mafia’s power, hence the reprisals, including the attack against Susso. Migrants are standing up to the mafia’s tyranny and, unaccustomed to its abuse of power, don’t seem to acquiesce. Their very presence threatens a secret code that has for many decades caused tragedy and injustice in the city and beyond. On May 23, 10 mafia-affiliated Italian criminals (also part of the Rubino family) were arrested in Ballarò (link in Italian) for threatening a group of immigrants and demanding blackmail money.

Francesco Malavolta for Quartz
Francesco Paolo Occhione in his shop.

“[The mafia] is fundamentalist,” explains Leoluca Orlando, the city’s mayor. “It wouldn’t use a non-Sicilian even as a killer.” Because of this, he says, Cosa Nostra struggles in a context where identity is not homogeneous. He hopes that the mixing of cultures will continue freeing the city from the bigotry that its organized crime is rooted in. ”Palermo,” he says, “is a Middle-Eastern city in Europe, and a Norman city in the Mediterranean.” Multiculturalism is at the core of its identity, and after decades where there were no migrants, he says, “we have to thank migrants for bringing harmony back to our city […] for showing us the human side of globalization.”

“Palermo is a Middle-Eastern city in Europe, and a Norman city in the Mediterranean.”

It’s not a painless process, of course, but the city’s administration has embraced the belief that foreigners could be a precious ally against Cosa Nostra. In 2013, the city council established the Consulta delle Culture (cultures council), a body of 21 representatives from seven different geographical areas, elected by the foreign citizens living in the city. Adham Dawarsha, a 36-year-old Palestinian doctor who was elected as the council’s president, says that while challenges persist, Palermo has a remarkable openness to migrants.

Annalisa Merelli for Quartz

The council, Dawarsha explains, has the ability to mediate issues that are relevant to the migrant population. They negotiated for street vendors to be allowed in certain areas of the center, pushing back against a ban, and they ensure that unaccompanied minors who arrive in Palermo via the Libyan route have access to support and education.

Together with the city administration, the culture council promoted the Charter of Palermo, a proposal that declares international mobility is a human right. It has been presented internationally, including at the German Bunderstag and at the US Department of State.

As Sicily’s capital and largest city, Palermo is in a strategic position for the Libyan route. Many thousands of the migrants who brave the Strait of Sicily to reach Italy are taken to its harbor, and then to the shelters of the area. The way the city deals with migration is of no small importance, both practically and symbolically. When thousands marched in the rain to show support for Susso, integration looked like more than a dream, but rather a reality that’s happening, one bargain at a time.

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