SAN SIMONE DI VALLEVE, Italy (AP) — San Simone, a tiny village in the Italian Alps, once had a thriving ski trade. But financial issues kept the lifts closed this winter. The local hotel now houses about 80 African asylum-seekers who were assigned to live there when they arrived in Italy.
But restaurant owner Davide Midali saw promise in both his village and its new residents. To lure tourists back, he set out to build igloos that could be rented overnight, like ones he had seen in Sweden. That's how a handful of immigrants unaccustomed to the cold picked up the art of igloo-making.
"When some of them saw me creating these blocks of snow, they voluntarily decided to give a hand to reach a common goal," Midali said.
Working with a small crew of volunteers, Midali built six igloos, each taking four or five days to complete. Omar Kanteh, a Gambian citizen who has been in Italy for nine months, is among the newcomers who embraced the construction project, as well as its friendly foreman.
"God made snow, but this time, man made igloos," Kanteh said. "It was very strange to me, so I am very excited. This is a new talent in my life."
The igloos, which were set up as a mini-village, sleep 18 altogether and have been fully booked on weekends since mid-January. Curious people stop by to snap photographs or for a peek inside the snow domes. Schools in Milan and Bergamo have brought children up for fieldtrips.
For 100 euros ($123) per person, a couple can dine at Midali's restaurant, sleep in an igloo and eat an organic breakfast before embarking on a guided snowshoe excursion in the Valle Brembana mountains.
Midali thinks the project has allowed him and the migrants to understand each other a little better, maybe even to serve as an example for others in San Simone.
In that way, the connection forged with tools and snow is a small counterpoint to the pre-election campaigning in Italy that has featured right-wing parties pledging to expel thousands of migrants.
"You learn to know these young men, where they are from and their background, and they also learn about our background and life here," Midali said.
Praising Midali's courage and open-mindedness, Kanteh said he would like to settle in San Simone if his application for Italian asylum is approved.
"He loves me for who I am, and I also love him for who he is," he said. "It's not about me being from Africa and him from Europe. We are all from one race."
Cristian Palazzi, president of the local tourism board, said the igloo undertaking project was "a small step to give life to a small community."
"I cannot guarantee whether this is enough, but for sure this has been a great idea because without it, today San Simone would be dead."
Colleen Barry in Milan, Italy contributed to this story.