Italy’s First Refugee Crisis

Hunting for migrants. Milano Centrale, August 2018.

Her resources already taxed to the breaking point, Italy was called upon to bear an additional burden of colossal proportions in caring for half a million old men, women and children, suddenly rendered homeless and penniless by the Caporetto defeat.

The plight of these refugees was pitiable in the extreme when they finally found their way to the railroad stations. And yet their trials were only beginning. Hungry, cold, and footsore, they were crowded into cattle cars as fast as these could be found (troop trains they are called by courtesy) and started on the weary journey for unknown destinations.

Sometimes they travelled thus for ten days or two weeks, men, women, and children, and
of all classes, closely packed, scarcely setting foot to earth, endlessly side-tracked to make way for train after train of soldiers and supplies hurrying north to the battlefront on the Piave.

What they endured and the condition in which they arrived can better be imagined than described. And there was no welcome awaiting them.

The refugees found themselves among strangers, often speaking a different dialect, by whom they were regarded almost as foreigners, whose presence even was sometimes resented — so many more mouths to feed in a hungry land. Why couldn’t they have remained at home?

And then they had to be housed in whatever shelters could be found — in barracks,  deserted factories or requisitioned hotels or villas, always crowded, and promiscuously herded together.

The kids are all right. Turin, August 2018.

And worst of all, they had nothing to do. All their old ties were broken, their occupations gone. Their enforced idleness was a menace to themselves as well as to the community in which they were settled. The government subsidy, of necessity meagre, barely sufficed to keep body and soul together.

The government, the various civil relief societies and especially the Italian Red Cross, rose to the occasion and did great work, and the people, once they had recovered from the shock and indignation caused by the first report of the disaster, gave generously.

But many of the things imperatively needed and needed at once, could not be had in Italy for love or money. Rarely has a nation been more in need or more deserving of help.

Help must be given, not merely as a humanitarian measure, but also, and chiefly, as a war measure. Imagine the discouraging effect on a community, perhaps already somewhat dis-affected towards the war, of the sudden appearance in its midst of thousands of these tragic visitors, with their tales of woe and defeat, and with nothing to do but talk of their troubles.

The first rush of refugees gave way to relief efforts in the places of settlement, helping to restore some semblance of normal conditions. These covered the primary necessities of clothing and food, the improvement of housing conditions and the providing of employment to the refugees.

It was necessary that they should be self-supporting, not weakened and demoralized by a dangerous dependence, that their children should continue their studies that had been interrupted by the enemy cannon, and that family life should continue unshaken. Assistance was given in all of these directions.

Sleeping in the park. Asian migrant, Turin.

The quarters to which the refugees were assigned were in many cases remodelled and equipped to make them suitable for family life. For example, at Chiaravalle, an old disused paper mill was divided into apartments by means of masonry partitions, was provided with sanitary arrangements and with a community kitchen where the meals of all the refugees were cooked, each family being assigned its particular stove and floor space. In Naples, the Hotel Victoria was equipped and arranged for the same purpose.

One of the most interesting refugee colonies was that at Leghorn, known as the Spreziano colony. The entire town of Spreziano on the upper Piave, both inhabitants and industries, was transplanted 300 miles across Italy and established in a group of unfinished and unfurnished villas on a hillside near Leghorn. These villas had no conveniences nor furnishings of any kind, lacking even chimneys and window sashes. They were remodelled and partly furnished.

Nearby was a large modern chateau, requisitioned by the government from its German owner, in which the American organization established schools for the children, workshops and sewing rooms and a public soup kitchen. Besides the elementary school studies, the older girls were taught sewing and lace making, and the boys were apprenticed in nearby carpenter and blacksmith shops.

The Red Cross also made substantial contributions to Italian organisations and individuals undertaking the care of refugee children. Thus funds were given, for example, to the granddaughter of Giuseppe Garibaldi to open a day nursery for them, and to the daughter of Cesare Lombroso, for a home for refugee orphans in Turin.

The aid which the organisation gave during its first seven weeks in Italy was various, scattering, and immediate. It was given at a time when it was necessary to strike at once and strike hard. It was necessary that the refugees be self-supporting, not weakened and demoralized by a dangerous dependence, that their children should continue their studies that had been interrupted by the enemy cannon, and that family life should continue unshaken.

One has nothing but admiration for the promptness and efficiency with which Italy took hold of her refugee problem, dispersing hundreds of thousands of homeless citizens throughout the country with a minimum of delay in spite of inadequate railroad facilities which were already congested by legitimate needs of war; for the systematic assistance given to refugees from the beginning to the end of their long and painful journey, and for the arrangements made for incorporating them into the communities to which they were transferred.

Stoking fear of Muslims on Sky Italia. Porta Nuova, Turin.

Adapted from The American Red Cross in Italy, by Charles M. Bakewell (1920). Published under a Creative Commons license. Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.