In Europe, Migrantour offers new perspectives on cities

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Migrantour started in Turin, Italy and now operates across Europe to offer travelers and residents a new perspective on multicultural cities.

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OOn a gray Saturday morning in January, I joined a group of 10 people I’d never met at weather-beaten Roman ruins in Turin, northern Italy. Together we huddled at the edge of the city’s massive Porta Palazzo market – one of the largest open-air markets in Europe – and waited for our tour to begin.

Our guide arrived and started walking us around the market. She pointed out: freshly baked ceremonial breads thereartisanal soaps thereas well as ornately decorated vases and other ceramics there. Italy is of course famous for its traditional cuisine and handicrafts. But the bread our guide identified was actually Romanian, the soap was Syrian and the ceramics were from China. This wasn’t a typical group tour – it was a migrant tour.

The first of these tours started in Turin in 2010 as an initiative of Italian NGOs and a tourism company called Viaggi Solidali (“Solidarity Journeys”), a social cooperative focused on responsible tourism and activities that promote intercultural exchange and benefit the communities visited .

These Migrantours – run by immigrants – then inspired similar tours in other European cities, including Rome, Milan, Florence, Brussels (Belgium), Paris, Marseille (France), Lisbon (Portugal), Ljubljana (Slovenia) and Valencia ( Spain). Over time, NGOs in each city collaborated with those in Turin to scale up the initiative, receive financial support from the European Union and develop training courses for people to become tour guides. (The initiative refers to them as “intercultural companions”; they work as paid but not full-time tourist guides.) The focus of our tour was the Porto Palazzo Market; In other cities, tours focus on a specific neighborhood or product and how it reflects migration and trade history.

Migrantour makes sure that its tours are not exploitative. According to a 2018 Migrantour report, it acknowledges that it is trying to do something different without “commercializing diversity. . . to paint them in an exotic and folkloric way” or to promote clichés. As a result, their leaders and “protagonists are the people who live, work and reside in multicultural neighborhoods; People who live in our cities for a long time and who want to tell their own life story and their relationship to where they live.”

And while TV news and newspapers have often focused on deaths in the Mediterranean and far-right opposition to migration in Europe, the Migrantour initiative brings into focus how cities are already vibrantly multicultural.

“It’s not about telling the history of the area, or not just that; it is about migration stories. . . about what is different, about diversity,” said our tour guide Mirella Aurora, 57, who is originally from Romania but moved to Italy with her family more than 15 years ago in search of higher wages.

As we walked through some of the tour stops, Aurora provided her perspective on the history of Turin, which has long been a meeting place and hub for newcomers to Italy. In the 1950s and 1960s, hundreds of thousands of people from southern Italy moved to Turin, attracted by the jobs in the industrial city, home to auto giant Fiat. In the 1980s more and more people from Asia, Africa and Latin America moved to Turin. As of 2019, more than 15 percent of Turin’s population was foreign-born: the majority from Romania, followed by Morocco, China, Peru, Egypt and Nigeria.

Aurora has been involved with Migrantour from the start. What is unique about these tours, she says, is “our presence and witness” as immigrants whose motives for moving to Italy are also diverse. (The first migrant tour I attended late last year was led by a 35-year-old Russian who first came to Italy as an exchange student ten years ago.) These stories, Aurora adds, involve the pain of “leaving behind all that is familiar.” She hopes that sharing these perspectives will help participants on these tours “see each other through different eyes, which can improve our integration and ability to live together.”

For a growing number of locals and domestic tourists, these tours have offered them the opportunity to experience their own country in a different light. One of them is Chiara Blengino, 52, who was on the same tour as me in January. Turin-based Blengino had previously undertaken Migrantour walks in Catania and Naples with guides from North and West Africa. “I like it a lot,” she says of the tours. “It’s a new way of seeing.”

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