‘I was shot in the leg back home’: the refugees reviving rural Spain

‘i was shot in the leg back home’: the refugees reviving rural spain

‘It’s a much quieter life, and if we want to go dancing, we can go to Barcelona’ … refugees living in a rural village in Catalonia. Photograph: Paroma Basu/The Guardian

Walther Valbuena, a journalist and drag artist, had to leave Colombia. His best friend, a trans woman, had been murdered by a former lover who wanted to get his hands on their apartment. “My only crime was being her friend,” he says. “I was shot in the leg. When I went to the police, they dismissed it, saying it’s not serious. I explained that I was shot at during a robbery and they said, no, it was because you’re a maricón [poof].”

Valbuena, 37, is from Cali, which he describes as “the capital of salsa”; he now finds himself in the more sedate surroundings of Campdevànol, a village of 3,200 people in the foothills of the Catalan Pyrenees, as a pioneer in the programme Comunitats Rurals Queer.

Relocating LGBTQ+ refugees to small villages may not be the most obvious way of slowing the depopulation of rural Catalonia, but for Jordi Coch, the rural activist who devised the programme, the aim is twofold: to break with the stereotype of rural communities being narrow-minded and intolerant; and to mitigate one of the least discussed causes of rural depopulation.

“People leave villages for economic reasons, for lack of work or services, but they also leave because they have a different or dissident sexual identity,” he says. “We want to bring refugees who are refugees because of their sexual preferences, because people with different sexual identities who live in rural areas don’t have role models. We want to create this community.”

With funding from the equality ministry of the Catalan regional government, Valbuena now shares a house in the village with two other Colombian refugees: Edwin Cardenas, 54, a trans man, and his partner Nazareth Moreno, 51, who is a lesbian.

All three have applied for asylum but enjoy legal protection while they wait for their applications to be processed. They have committed to stay for a minimum of one year in Campdevànol – once a town of metalworkers, now more dependent on tourism in an area popular among hikers and cyclists. While not a picture of decline, Campdevànol has the feel of somewhere whose best is behind it. There are few people on the street and those there are, are mainly elderly; barely 10% of the population is under 14.

Homosexuality isn’t illegal in Colombia, but the LGBTQ+ community suffers constant harassment and persecution. According to the NGO Caribe Afirmativo, in 2022, 124 trans and gay people were murdered in Colombia because of their sexual orientation.

“I know other people who have been murdered,” says Valbuena. “People make dates with them via apps and then torture or kill them. Gay people in Colombia have no protection.”

Valbuena’s housemates fled Colombia because of persistent threats from Moreno’s ex. “Wherever we went, he followed us and threatened us with violence,” she says.

“In Colombia we’re insulted, they say we’re ugly, in the street, in church,” says Cardenas. “And in the family, my father treated me horribly.”

Both are working, Moreno in the local hospital and Cardenas as a volunteer (the programme is now finding work for Valbuena), and say they’re not bothered by the lack of anything resembling a local queer scene.

“After all we’ve been through, we don’t need to go to a discotheque or be with lots of people,” Moreno says. “It’s a much quieter life, and if we want to go dancing, we can go to Barcelona.”

“We go to church or the cafe and chat with local people,” Cardenas adds. “We feel very welcome. The most important thing is feeling at peace.”

“I think it’s a great opportunity for a village of 3,000 people, which should be extended to other villages,” says local resident Blanca Sánchez. “I’ve got to know them, in the shops, at mass, they’re very open.”

Fellow resident Pablo Vila agrees: “I think it’s a really excellent project, above all to make these people more visible and so they can enjoy a decent, safe life in a village such as this.”

Rural depopulation is not a uniquely Spanish problem, but Spain has Europe’s second-lowest birth rate after Malta and, at 84 years, the continent’s highest life expectancy after Switzerland. The only thing that is slowing population decline is immigration.

Until 2000, Spain had not seen any significant immigration since the Arabs and Berbers swept across the country in the 8th century. On the contrary, for centuries it’s been a place from which people have departed, mainly to the Americas. However, attracted by an economic upturn driven by a construction boom, around 6 million immigrants arrived during the first 10 years of this century, a population increase of 15%.

The boom also accelerated the process of España vaciada (hollowed-out Spain), as people from all over the country left the countryside to work in cities and coastal tourist developments. As a result, over the past 10 years 75% of municipalities, both small towns and villages, have seen their population decline, with 80% of them recording more deaths than births over the past decade. Overall, Spain’s population is now in decline.

Refugees and migrants are looking for a place where they feel safe and where they can contribute

There are officially 3,000 abandoned villages and many thousands more with fewer than 500 inhabitants – a critical mass for maintaining services such as schools and medical centres.

In this context, it’s not surprising that people might think of addressing one issue – rural depopulation – with another: what to do with tens of thousands of asylum seekers.

Oportunitat500 is another scheme to repopulate rural Catalonia with refugees, in this case in villages with fewer than 500 inhabitants. It began in late 2022 with €189,000 in funding from the Catalan equality ministry. “By the end of the first phase last year we had achieved a significant participation of refugees in their communities,” says Oriol López-Plana, a coordinator of the programme. “In December we began the second phase, with the focus on inserting the 18 participants into the labour force.”

One beneficiary of the Oportunitat500 scheme is Sabiha Kammoush, 50, a refugee from Aleppo, Syria, who for the past two years has been living in Bellaguarda, a tiny village – population 289 – surrounded by olive and almond groves in the Catalan interior, along with three of her six children.

Her eldest son was living in Barcelona and managed to bring his mother, whose husband was killed in war, and four of his siblings to join him. “Everyone in the village is my friend. People treat me very well,” says Kammoush. “I love living in the countryside, my husband was from a village. I love working in the vegetable garden. It’s not a problem for me.” She has work maintaining gardens and other public spaces for the local authority. Her main complaint is the lack of public transport.

“It’s been hard changing country, changing language and customs,” says Kammoush, the only Syrian for miles around. “It’s hard being alone here with three children but I’m getting used to it. My children speak Catalan and have a good life here and wherever my children are, that’s where I am. What I need now is a permanent job and a car.”

From 2015-2023, more than 500,000 illegal immigrants, many seeking asylum, arrived in Spain. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a further 22,270 have arrived so far this year, mostly by sea and mainly from west Africa, while a further 200,000 Ukrainians have been granted temporary protection since March 2022.

In spite of far-right parties’ efforts to stir up xenophobic sentiments, Spain has been broadly welcoming and sympathetic towards migrants, so far.

“There’s a very strong sense of solidarity here,” says Sophie Muller, the UNHCR’s Spain representative. “Spanish civil society is the UNHCR’s largest private donor, which says a lot.”

Muller says the UNHCR is actively participating with NGOs and municipalities in schemes to relocate refugees in villages. “Small centres mean they can be more tailored to the needs of the individual,” she says. “But local initiatives have to be thought through so they are sustainable and viable over time. It’s not about renting a place in the village, that can lead to exclusion and stigmatisation. The community has to participate.”

Eunice Romero Rivera, responsible for migration, refugees and antiracism in the Catalan government, agrees: “If you dump 300 people in a village with a small population, and furthermore in a country which is quite racist, it’s hardly surprising that there’s a populist reaction,” she says.

“Of course, it’s cheaper to put 300 people in the same place but it doesn’t take into account their dignity or the political consequences.”

“Refugees and migrants are looking for a place where they feel safe and where they can contribute,” says Muller. “The community has to participate. You have to take into account the views of the refugees and the host community and design a project on the basis of their views.”

Both Muller and Romero say the reception process is hampered by a lack of communication between Madrid and the regional governments who have the task of resettling migrants, while the process of seeking asylum is not only slow but varies from region to region.

There are now about 3,000 people under international protection in Catalonia, and this year the regional government has earmarked close to €11m (£9.3m) to help local authorities to accommodate refugees. Romero says her department doesn’t always wait for the asylum process to be completed. “The Catalan government makes its own assessment of whether people meet the criteria of being refugees without waiting for the official process to be completed, and has devised programmes specifically for these people,” she says.

“There are immigrants who are doctors, lawyers and architects but they can’t enter the system because their path is blocked by [Spain’s] structural and institutional racism that makes them invisible.”

Spain is just one of many countries that are finding rural homes for refugees. Back in 1998, Domenico Lucano, the mayor of the all-but-abandoned village of Riace in Calabria, in southern Italy, invited immigrants to repopulate the village. Within a few years, 450 non-European migrants were living there. Twenty years on, most of them have moved on and mostly only elderly villagers remain. Earlier this month Lucano was elected to represent Reggio Calabria in the European parliament.

Inspired by Riace, the social cooperative JungiMundu (“unite the world” in the local dialect) set about repopulating Camini, another Calabrian village, which now hosts 118 migrants in a total population of 810. The increase in population, both in terms of newcomers and returning Italians, has also allowed Camini to regenerate, economically and socially, and has facilitated the return of the school and post office.

In 2022 Emmanuel Macron, the French president, announced a scheme to repopulate rural France with migrants and refugees, but it was dropped the following year amid widespread opposition. Nevertheless, NGOs and local authorities are involved in various programs to relocate migrants in rural France.

One paper on resettlement in small French towns debunks the stereotype of rural society as closed and unwelcoming and claims that what differentiates small towns from big cities is residents’ sense of belonging and local pride in showing they are capable of adapting. Reports confirm that local people are usually hospitable and refugees are quickly integrated, although, like Kammoush, they often complain of feeling isolated and that the lack of public transport makes them too dependent on others.

The key element is preparing the ground in advance. Coch started discussing the idea of Comunitats Rurals Queer in 2019 but, with the added hiatus as a result of Covid, the first refugees only arrived in Campdevànol a few months ago. In bringing local people around to the idea, it helped that Coch grew up in the village and is both well known and well liked.

Since their arrival, the three Colombian refugees have participated in local cultural events and attend bingo sessions in the village, so that they and locals become familiar with each other. None of them says they have encountered any hostility in the village.

“Thanks to Jordi our lives have changed a lot,” Cardenas says. “We get along well, the three of us.”

“I’ve never lived with gay people before,” says Walther. “We’re from the same country although from a different city. It was a bit difficult at first but we found a way to make things work.”

Europe’s resurgent far-right parties are playing on people’s fears of being “swamped” by refugees and other migrants, and Spain is no exception. The far-right party Vox has taken up the cause of España vaciada, claiming the country is ruled by a metropolitan elite that has little interest in rural affairs. And in last month’s regional election, Campdevànol voted for Catalonia’s own xenophobic party, Aliança Catalana, whose leader Sílvia Orriols, says, among other things, that “it is impossible for a Muslim to be a Catalan”.

Coch says he has spoken to Orriols about his project and, while she doesn’t support it, says she won’t oppose it either. “I don’t think the far right is really representative of people here,” he adds. “What I mean is that, although Aliança Catalana has a fascist ideology, the voters aren’t fascists themselves, but they’re presented with this polarised debate. Mostly they’re just scared of difference. This project gives them an opportunity to think differently and to break down barriers and stereotypes.”

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