First refugees arrive in tiny Catalan villages under repopulation plan

Orwa Skafe, who fled Syria seven years ago, is among those given jobs and a home in attempt to revive rural areas

It’s been a long journey since Orwa Skafe fled the war in Syria seven years ago but thanks to an innovative resettlement scheme he’s found peace in a tiny village 900 metres (3,000ft) up in the Pyrenees. He is one of the first to benefit from a Catalan government programme to relocate refugees in depopulated villages.

The programme, called Operation 500 because it involves villages with fewer than 500 inhabitants, is being run jointly by the regional employment agency, the equality commission and the Association of Micro-villages.

The scheme, which runs for one year, provides participants with a home and a salary of €19,434 (£16,700) paid via the local authority, which also organises work for them. The programme is open to refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants who are legal residents.

So far, 30 families have been accommodated, 24 of them refugees.

“Up till now the system of dealing with refugees has been very centralised and focused on major cities,” said Oriol López Plana, a facilitator at the Association of Micro-villages, which helps participants integrate, learn the language and become independent.

Tírvia where Orwa Skafe found peace and safety having escaped the war in Syria. Photograph: Orwa Skafe

“The programme aims to integrate people in villages where there’s a social network and then, if they want to move to the city, they can.

“There’s a similar system in France. The difference here is we create a social fabric, we run mentoring and communitarian programmes, in both the work and social spheres.”

Skafe, who comes from the coastal town of Latakia where he worked as an English teacher, left Syria in 2015 and went to Haiti because, he says, it was the only place he could go to legally.

“It turned out that Haiti is even more dangerous than Syria,” he said, so he made his way to Spain and arrived in Barcelona in January this year. A month later he was granted asylum.

He now lives in Tírvia, a remote, mountaintop village of 130 souls close to the border with France, although Skafe says in reality the population is more like 50. He’s employed by the local authority doing maintenance and cleaning.

“I’m very happy here,” he said, freely mixing Spanish and English. “What I want most of all is peace. I like Barcelona but there are too many people. I love nature, which is why I wanted to join this programme.

“I’m learning Catalan, poc a poc [little by little]. Everyone in the village is Catalan. I’m the only foreigner. I don’t understand much but I’m patient and I’m not afraid to learn new languages.

“People are very welcoming, everyone talks to me, they offer me help or to do my shopping. That’s the case for 90%. Of course, there are always people who don’t like strangers.”

He hopes that his wife and child, who are still in Syria, will be able to join him once he obtains a residency permit, but sees no prospect of returning to Syria.

“I want to stay in the village when the programme ends and I want my family to live here with me. I’m going to work hard to stay here.”


Stephen Burgen in Barcelona

The GuardianTramp

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