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Does Palermo really deserve the title "Youth Capital 2017"?

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Fuschia Hutton

(Opinion) Last month, Palermo was declared Italy's "Youth Capital 2017". It is an important national award which gives recognition to the city that has carried out the best initiatives for the younger generation. But does Palermo deserve this title? 

Youth unemployment is on the rise. The number of neets, young people not in education, employment or training, has increased. More and more Sicilian millennials are forced to leave their island in search of work. The few opportunities for progression have resulted in a general desire to escape, never to return again. And yet, last month in Perugia, a large panel made up of representatives from the  National Youth Forum, The National Association of Italian Municipalities youth section (Anci-Giovani), The National Agency for Young People, and The National Department for Youth crowned Palermo Italy's “Youth Capital 2017”. The prize is awarded each year to the Italian city which has impressed the panel the most for its youth initiatives. In the final, the Sicilian capital beat Bari and Venice to first place. It is a win that some consider is worth double, or even triple, since it is the first time that the prize has been bestowed on a southern Italian city. The organisations that actively participated in the competition by presenting their best projects are ecstatic, as is the business community and, of course, the university world.

Admittedly, when it was announced, the excitement of the win overshadowed everything else, after the stinging defeat of the "Capital of Culture 2019" and the current disappointment of the "Capital of Sport 2016". Palermo will be a magnet for the younger generation, who will be greeted with a city that is efficient, open, educational, cultural, supportive, liveable and productive - at least in theory. Which is wonderful. But then we stopped for a moment to reflect, and, in the cold light of day, we asked ourselves - is there really anything to celebrate? Is Palermo really a city that nurtures its sons and daughters to the extent that it deserves such recognition?

According to some, including the institutions, this is an award given in faith. In other words - Palermo is emphatically not a city for young people, but it will do everything in its power to become it. In spite of the eternal pessimists and those trying to jinx it. According to the most vicious commentators, Palermo was lucky; Bari and Venice were not exactly tough competition. Et voilà, victory is ours.

The award ceremony, which was held on the 18th January at the Palazzo dei Crociferi in Palermo, was streamed directly on the Municipality of Palermo's website; the comments under the video didn't hold back. There were few glimpses of optimism and a deluge of comments from those who could not see the light at the end of the tunnel, from, “I hope that Palermo's young people manage to get the best job that the city has to offer - as illegal parking attendants”, to, “Palermo is the capital of youth unemployment”, and the cruder and more direct, “a lovely recognition for the city, but the statistics speak of a youth exodus”.

Here are the statistics that have frightened many to the extent that they are turning a blind eye, pretending not to have seen them. According to the latest data published in the Report on internal migration in Italy (Rapporto sulle migrazioni interne in Italia), carried out by the Institute of studies into Mediterranean society Cnr (Istituto di studi delle società del Mediterraneo del Cnr), between 2003 and 2016 almost 70,000 Sicilians between the ages of 18 and 26, broken by  temporary work, a culture of nepotism, a lack of competitive exams for state jobs, and legal exploitation under the guise of internships, decided to leave their families and loved ones behind in search of a better future. These are young people who are sick of finding themselves being slowly roasted by their own city, and then systematically finished off by bureaucracy and politics that do not encourage their development and growth. It begins at university, where the experience is often torturous and incapable of preparing the student for the world of work, as the institution slips further and further into crisis. Is it any wonder that, as reported in a survey by Il Sole 24 Ore, the University of Palermo is ranked 55th out of 61 for the quality of its teaching and research?

The flight of young Sicilians is bleeding Sicily dry, and the situation knows no limits.  You hear of those who have to speak to their parents over computer screens, to coordinate their next Christmas homecoming with lifelong friends, to endure long-distance relationships that they are anxious of losing.  The stark numbers are impossible to deny and they show that Sicily is still an island that is incapable of helping the younger generations to realise their hopes and dreams. A younger generation that is ready to escape once their schooling is complete,  plane ticket in hand - one way, of course. It is an exodus that is clearing the city, as reported by the last city census which showed a decrease of around 5,000 residents.

Those who remain are considered heroes, sometimes nutters, or perhaps more simply as people who do not have the opportunity to set off into new horizons.  And thus they remain, caught between one "buon lavoro voucher" (payment for casual work) and another. Or they find themselves at 30, degree in hand, shining shoes on the street in an effort to rediscover, as some say, the trades of yesteryear. Because jobs of today do not exist. All they can do is settle and leave their dreams on the shelf. 

It must be said that, for some years now in Palermo, the seeds of change have been slowly growing. A swarm of associations and youth networks have sprung up, working hard from the bottom up to try and subvert the negative trends in a city that appears to have given up. This award is for them, for their desire to act, to not give up, and to believe that it is still worth fighting for their rights. But, please, don't try telling us that Palermo is a city for young people. It would be too big a slap in the face for Palermo’s sons and daughters who have already forgotten the smell of the sea. 

*Photos by Giuseppe Nicotra 

Translated from Palermo è davvero la "Capitale dei giovani 2017"?