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LONDON - A refugee-run restaurant opening in Venice this week hopes to exploit Italians' renowned passion for food to improve community relations, one of its founders said on Thursday, as the arrival of thousands of migrants stokes tensions around the country.
Italy has become the main arrival point in Europe for people fleeing persecution and poverty in Africa, most of them crossing the Mediterranean from lawless Libya in search of a better life.
Their stories inspired Hamed Ahmadi, an Afghan refugee living in Italy, to open Africa Experience, a restaurant managed and run exclusively by refugees.
The eatery, which opens its doors on Friday in the center of the picturesque lagoon city, will serve fusion dishes mixing the cuisine of various nations sub-Saharan migrants crossed or left during their journey to Europe.
"Food is a pretext," Ahmadi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, explaining he hoped the restaurant would help bring down barriers between migrants and locals.
"Getting to know each other is essential - and empty-bellied people pay special attention to you when you give them something to eat," he said in a phone interview.
Ahmadi, a movie director who said he fled Afghanistan in 2006 after a controversy stirred by one of his short films, founded the restaurant with three fellow refugees - two of them women - from Afghanistan, Egypt and Iran.
Africa Experience employs four staff and three chefs from Nigeria, Ethiopia and Guinea, who were selected in a cooking competition moulded on hit television show MasterChef and run with the assistance of reception centers in the area, he said.
None of the cooks had any previous work experience behind the stove.
Mohammed Sow, 20, said he learned the craft preparing food for himself on the way to Italy, where he arrived on a migrant boat in 2014, after leaving his home in Guinea as a teenager.
"I never thought I could become a cook but it happened," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "I'm lucky I have found a job," he added. "I hope the restaurant is a success."
Ahmadi said all the chefs underwent a period of training after being selected.
GENEVA - The International Organization for Migration reports that at least 240 migrants, most from West Africa, have died or disappeared in two shipwrecks off the coast of Libya. IOM says 29 survivors, including women, children and several babies were brought to Lampedusa, Italy by the Italian coast guard.
IOM says most of the migrants already had died by the time rescuers arrived.
The organization's Spokesman Itayi Viriri tells VOA about 12 bodies have been fished out of the sea and more are likely to be recovered as the rescue effort continues.
"It is a really, really big worry because we are seeing these unprecedented numbers of people dying when normally around this time of year, whilst there have been tragedies like this, we have never really experienced the numbers that we are seeing now," said Viriri. "The fact that we are already talking of over 4,200 dead, when for all of last year, we are talking of 3,700 is of huge concern."
Viriri says smugglers are apparently persuading the migrants to make the treacherous journey by telling them Europe is going to turn over the rescue mission to the Libyan and Tunisian coastguards, and now might be their last chance to leave North Africa.
"The smugglers are certainly using that as a ploy to make sure that people who normally would not consider getting on to a boat at this time of year when the seas are really choppy and rough-that they reconsider because as the smugglers are telling them, they will not get the opportunity in the near future when first of all the Libyan and Tunisian coast guards clamp down on boats being launched off their shores," said Viriri.
Viriri says another big worry is that smugglers are piling the migrants into rubber dinghies. He says these flimsy craft are not suitable for the Mediterranean at any time of year, but they are especially dangerous now in the choppy winter seas.
Source: Voice of America