Igloos built by migrants warm hearts in Italian Alps village

In this photo taken on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, Omar Kanteh, of Gambia, carries a block of ice as he builds an igloo at an igloo village in San Simone di Valleve, near Bergamo, northern Italy. The local hotel now houses about 80 African asylum-seekers who were assigned to live there, but those migrants have picked up the art of igloo making to help a local restaurant owner realize a project to lure tourists back to this dying mountain resort. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
In this photo taken on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, tourists Elena Rota and Giovanni di Giovanni prepare beds for the night inside an igloo, at an igloo village in San Simone di Valleve, near Bergamo, northern Italy. The local hotel now houses about 80 African asylum-seekers who were assigned to live there, but those migrants have picked up the art of igloo making to help a local restaurant owner realize a project to lure tourists back to this dying mountain resort. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
In this photo taken on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, Omar Kanteh, of Gambia, carries a block of ice as he helps build an igloo with Davide Midali, owner of an igloo village in San Simone di Valleve, near Bergamo, northern Italy. Migrants from African nations far from the frozen north picked up the art of igloo making to help a local restaurant owner realize a project to lure tourists back to this dying mountain resort. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
In this photo taken on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, tourists walk after sunset in an igloo village in San Simone di Valleve, near Bergamo, northern Italy. With this year’s significant snowfall, restaurant owner Davide Midali, with the help of migrants from Africa, set out to create a series of igloos to house guests overnight in what once was a thriving ski resort. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
In this photo taken on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, tourists relax on sun chairs next to an igloo village in San Simone di Valleve, near Bergamo, northern Italy. With this year’s significant snowfall, restaurant owner Davide Midali, with the help of migrants from Africa, set out to create a series of igloos to house guests overnight in what once was a thriving ski resort. In the background closed ski lifts due to financial issues. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
In this photo taken on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, Omar Kanteh, of Gambia, lights a candle after sunset, at an igloo village in San Simone di Valleve, near Bergamo, northern Italy. Migrants from African nations far from the frozen north picked up the art of igloo making to help a local restaurant owner realize a project to lure tourists back to this dying mountain resort. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
In this photo taken on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, Omar Kanteh, of Gambia, with red fleece at center, and Moussa Sissoki, of Mali, holding a shovel at center right, are surrounded by children as they build igloos in San Simone di Valleve, near Bergamo, northern Italy. Migrants from African nations far from the frozen north picked up the art of igloo making to help a local restaurant owner realize a project to lure tourists back to this dying mountain resort. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
In this photo taken on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, Moussa Sissoko, of Mali, left, helps build an igloo with Davide Midali, owner of an igloo village in San Simone di Valleve, near Bergamo, northern Italy. The local hotel now houses about 80 African asylum-seekers who were assigned to live there, but those migrants have picked up the art of igloo making to help a local restaurant owner realize a project to lure tourists back to this dying mountain resort. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
This photo taken on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, shows children playing with sledges behind an igloo village, built in San Simone di Valleve, near Bergamo, northern Italy. With this year’s significant snowfall, restaurant owner Davide Midali, with the help of migrants from Africa, set out to create a series of igloos to house guests overnight in what once was a thriving ski resort. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
In this photo taken on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, a night view at an igloo village in San Simone di Valleve, northern Italy. The local hotel now houses about 80 African asylum-seekers who were assigned to live there, but those migrants have picked up the art of igloo making to help a local restaurant owner realize a project to lure tourists back to this dying mountain resort. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
In this photo taken on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, tourists take a selfie outside an igloo in an igloo village in San Simone di Valleve, near Bergamo, northern Italy. With this year’s significant snowfall, restaurant owner Davide Midali, with the help of migrants from Africa, set out to create a series of igloos to house guests overnight in what once was a thriving ski resort. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
In this photo taken on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, Omar Kanteh, of Gambia, left, stands next to a fire with Davide Midali, owner and manager of an igloo village in San Simone di Valleve, near Bergamo, northern Italy. The local hotel now houses about 80 African asylum-seekers who were assigned to live there, but those migrants have picked up the art of igloo making to help a local restaurant owner realize a project to lure tourists back to this dying mountain resort. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

SAN SIMONE DI VALLEVE, Italy — 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.

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