STIGNANO, ITALY — Nigerian-American designer Wale Oyejide visited the southern Italian region of Calabria to photograph and film some of the migrants who have helped repopulate the deserted towns of this depressed area of Italy. Selected migrants were his models and wore his creations. The designer’s aim was to draw attention to an integration that has proven to be successful both for migrants and Italians.
Calabria is an Italian region that has largely been forgotten. It is not on the tourist track because it lacks the comforts and amenities desired by people on vacation. For years now, many young people have chosen to move away and go north in search of jobs, leaving its beautiful hilltop villages and towns abandoned. But in more recent times, the many migrants arriving on Italian shores have been responsible for breathing new life here.
Favour Joseph is 24 years old, from Nigeria. She holds her young daughter Wealthy in her arms and talks of her harrowing journey and the suffering she endured while transiting through Libya. She said she had to leave her home because there was no future for her there. Now living in Calabria, she is happy.
“I live a free life here unlike in Libya,” she said. “You are just like a prisoner in Libya. But here in Italy you can go anywhere you like, just move around. I think life here in Italy is better than back home. It’s better than in Africa. I believe so.”
Favour has been in Italy for two years. She has been given one of the empty homes in the town of Stignano, where she says the locals welcomed her like a daughter. She managed to obtain her papers to stay and her hope is to get a job so that she can properly take care of herself and her daughter.
Favour and Wealthy were selected by Nigerian-American designer Wale Oyejide to model his clothes. He came here because he realized how migrants like Favour had enlivened a declining community.
“Every time we’ve gone out casting into a group of migrants we’ve pulled out people who are not only physically gorgeous but they have incredible stories and incredible depth and intelligence to them that generally has not been regarded by society,” he said.
The designer believes that even if you come from a marginalized society, there is no reason not to feel proud about who you are and where you come from. And seeing yourself in promising, bold and regal images can help you and the society that surrounds you respect you.
“For me it’s kind of almost a social experiment on the idea of the biases we hold against people and on how we treat each other differently based on the way that our exterior appearances are,” he said. “And so when I put these migrants who are just regular people in clothes that are striking, all of a sudden we stop and we look and we see them as human beings”.
Eighteen-year-old Alieu Kebbeh, from Gambia, was thrilled to be the only male model chosen at the Calabrian center where he is living.
“Yeah, I feel great! The first day I wore the clothes I looked at myself, I say ‘Wow’, this is very cool,” he said.
Alieu arrived in Italy as a young teenager and is grateful to be alive. He remembers how tough crossing of the Sahara was and will never forget his journey across the Mediterranean on a rubber boat with 155 others before they were all rescued. “No one died fortunately,” he said. Even though he has no papers to stay, he is happy to be in Italy, which he says is a “peaceful” country, and he dreams of becoming a footballer.
Sabina Castelfranco I VOA