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Mohammad Abunimeh, a third-year International Relations major in the College of Arts and Sciences, spent a week last fall exploring the southern Italian city Palermo and speaking with migrant families from North Africa about the structure of their lives in the ancient capital of Sicily. With the help of a cultural mediator, Abunimeh was able to hear firsthand about the challenges migrants face, from finding housing to earning money and getting healthcare, often without official immigration documents. It was a chance to explore, too, the deeper questions of identity and community that migrants and immigrants face all over the world. While some of the Tunisian families that Abunimeh spoke with “saw Palermo as a launching point to go other places,” others intended to stay; some families were growing into their second and third generations in the city.
“We were really interested in what happens to the children of those migrants: how do they integrate into society?” Abunimeh says. “A lot of [North African migrants] felt that, because of the rich history there of different Arab and Muslim caliphates and civilizations having taken over Sicily a long time ago … they felt like they had some sort of historical roots there.”
Abunimeh’s explorations were part of a course called Palermo: Urban Migration, the Built Environment, and Global Justice. Cross-listed in Urban Studies and Italian Studies, the seminar was sponsored by the Humanities + Urbanism + Design Initiative, and funded by the Mellon Foundation. The course, part of a series of City Seminars, was led by Franca Trubiano, associate professor of architecture and Domenic Vitiello, associate professor of city planning and urban studies.
The seminar focused on the life of Palermo as a contested place, an “incredible melting pot” of cultures and communities, as Trubiano says. Students began by studying the city’s history “through its many eras of colonization, imperial rule, and especially the migration and settlement of diverse peoples from Africa and Asia,” according to a course description. Traveling to Palermo in October of 2022, students worked with the Consulta delle Culture, the city’s elected migrants’ council, to meet with and learn from community association leaders in five different migrant communities, including North African and Tamil groups.
Palermo is a site that captures the research and teaching interests of both Vitiello and Trubiano. Vitiello, the son of a Temple University professor of Italian who worked with anti-mafia groups in Sicily, studies sanctuary movements in Philadelphia and around the world. He has also worked with migrant community development groups in Philadelphia and Palermo. Trubiano, chair of the graduate group in the Department of Architecture at Weitzman, is a scholar of gender and the built environment.
The migrant experience is shaped by the built environment in Palermo, formally and informally, and in good ways and bad, Trubiano says. The so-called “Sack of Palermo” in the mid-20th century following World War II involved rapid new development but left the center of the old city in ruins.
“Many of the properties at the center of Palermo that were vacated by disinvestment are where many of the migrant communities make their homes, through registered means or not,” Trubiano says. “There’s a greater flexibility in the built environment for receiving others … they can build from the bottom up.”
Students were paired with mediators working with the Consulta delle Cultura, and conducted “semi-structured interviews” with migrant community members using a standardized list of questions, Vitiello says. Working in pairs, the students developed research papers and visual “trip diaries” describing their experiences in Palermo. The diaries are being used to build a website documenting the course.
Amanda Oh, a fourth-year urban studies major in the College, says she was interested in the “integration and assimilation” of Tamil communities in Palermo, with a focus on “religion being a super important part of Tamil experience and a way of forming connections with the local Italian community.” For Oh, who works as an intern with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, the trip was an opportunity to build a more granular understanding of migrant networks in Europe — and to hone skills in ethnographic fieldwork.
“Realizing how willing people are to talk to you when you’re willing to listen was a very valuable thing for me,” Oh says.
Oh and her classmates produced a series of case studies with similar structures but varied lenses, from race to religion to public health. Together, they “give readers a reasonably consistent but appropriately diverse set of community profiles,” Vitiello says.
“As a community development professional, I appreciate opportunities to bring teaching, practice and research together in ways that allow them to complement each other,” Vitiello says.
And without the opportunity to travel to Palermo in person, Trubiano says, it would have been a less enriching experience.
“There’s nothing that replaces the ability for students to get access to an onsite experience,” she says. “No amount of reading could have made the impression that being in the physical space does.”