PhD School in Soria: Reflections from a nurturing exchange

By María Molinari (University of Turin)*

This year, I received an interesting invitation from the MATILDE project to attend the International PhD School on Migration and Socio-ecological Change organized by Utrecht University and the Welcoming Spaces Consortium. It was a school for PhD researchers that consisted of two online sessions and one on-site session: the first part consisted of an introduction with open discussion in March 2021, and the second part was more dedicated to peer review discussions among participants lectures and field visits in Soria, Spain, during the last days of September.

The PhD school took the form of a meeting of scholars and doctoral researchers from different disciplines working on the same broad topic: migration and local development in European rural areas. During the School days, a main question was posed as the leitmotif of the discussions: How to contribute to just and sustainable futures in depopulating and socioeconomically marginalised European localities, while at the same time offering a ´welcoming space´ for non-EU migrants to pursue their life projects?

After the isolation, we suffered due to the Covid 19-related confinements, the opportunity to hold face-to-face discussions helps strengthening bonds among the network of PhD researchers established in the two previous online sessions of the school. But the on-site meeting in Soria offered us not only the opportunity to create and consolidate interpersonal relationships and to gain an in-depth understanding of each other’s work. It also provided an opportunity to visit a very special area within rural Spain and to meet with a diversity of residents therein. We had the opportunity to listen and discuss with the inhabitants of two villages, namely Yanguas and San Esteban de Gormaz, both in Soria province, and to reflect on the differences and similarities with our own case studies.

Reflections from the field

Yanguas, which name derives from ianuas (“door” in Latin), is a small municipality of a bit over ninety inhabitants located between the region of Soria and La Rioja. Of Celtiberian pre-Roman origin, Yanguas was located on the road that connected Numanzia and Calahorra and gained importance during the Roman war against Numanzia, an ancient Celtiberian stronghold that resisted the Roman conquest until its self-destruction. Yanguas is best known because it is mentioned in Chapter XV of Don Quixote, when its inhabitants beat up Don Quixote and Sancho for not being able to steer the mules that they were riding.

Picture by Alice Lomonaco

The meeting with some of the inhabitants, set in the local 14th-century castle, gave the PhD School participants an insight into the transformation of the village over the centuries. While until the beginning of the twentieth century, Yanguas was home to two thousand residents, today these not even reach a hundred. There are many actions that the townspeople take today to invite people to settle in the village, but the one that struck me most is the far-sighted action of the municipality, which has taken to heart the issue of housing.

Housing is the first glimmer that the dreamer sees to figure out his future in a new area

It is precisely in the houses, most of which are abandoned, that the municipality wanted to invest. It took charge of acquiring the abandoned house, applying for public funding to make it habitable and then selling it to the buyers at a reduced price. This facilitated the settlement of some newcomers who sometimes called on others to join. To accept the shortcomings of many services in the village and to have one’s own car are the preconditions for understanding the village and being able to accept it as it is, with its opportunities (a community life immersed in the beauty of the Soria region) and its limitations (such as the distance from basic and commercial services). In fact, most newcomers end up leaving the villages a trial period.

There was a lot to discuss among us PhD students about this experience, especially regarding the lack of knowledge by those running the migrant welcoming initiative about the actual reasons why most newcomers left after a trial period despite the available benefits. So, here lies the importance of properly understanding the problem. This resembles to that photo circulating on the internet about the bullet holes in the planes of the Second World War. The Allies mapped the bullet holes in planes hit by German anti-aircraft weaponry to understand the weak points of their aircrafts. They thought the way forward was to reinforce the worst hit areas and further armour the aircraft. However, they later realised that the bullet holes only represented the damage suffered by the aircrafts that made it back to base and not of those that were shot down. Thus, the areas that needed reinforcement were those where there were no holes, because if the aircraft and its pilot did not return home it was probably because those areas of the aircraft had been hit. In short, they were previously missing the “point of view” of the aircrafts that did not make it back to base.

We should give more voice to those who have left

Thus, I wonder how much energy do we devote to reinforce what we consider to be the weak points without sufficiently questioning the real reasons for the failures, the real motives of others, in our efforts to attract new settlers to depopulating areas? Perhaps we should give more voice to those who have left, sometimes with regret or resentment for not being understood. Sometimes the lack of services, job or housing are not the only reasons, but they are the ones we value most. However, there might be many other reasons of less material nature.

The second visit to San Esteban de Gormaz brought me home in a way because of the similarity between the Spanish Romanic architecture and that of many village churches in the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines in Italy.

The meeting with San Esteban´s mayor and councillors started with a walk showing us the main amenities and social services that are available in town. With over three thousand inhabitants, San Esteban offers adult education services, centres for the elderly and various schools. One of the active projects that struck me most is that of intergenerational training. Elderly residents are trained to “work” with children. They learn how to be with children, how to pass on their knowledge and share their precious time with the little ones. At the same time, the children learn about the importance of interpersonal relationships by listening to stories that they would not find on television or on tablets. In short, I found it a win-win approach in which both parties win and “gain”. In this way San Esteban makes use of its most valuable asset, and arguably the most commonly-available, namely the traditional knowledge of the ageing residents, for the benefit of the younger generations.

My take-aways from the PhD School

Enlightened by the experiences of Yanguas and San Esteban, and with the help of a smart facilitation, the PhD School participants compared these experiences with those in their own field research areas by identifying gaps, limitations, potentials as well as possible ways for improvement and topics for further research. In so doing, I found very helpful the mix of selected PhD researchers with diverse backgrounds and the role of the PhD School facilitators and other contributors during the lectures and panel discussions.

In fact, the PhD School in Soria proved to be a truly “welcoming space” not only in the sense of the project’s theme, but also regarding the welcoming attitude that each participant practiced during the School days among us, and towards the territories and residents that we had the chance to visit and meet. Although we have solid discussion networks, talking about fragile areas in a fragile Italy is often not enough to break down the sense of isolation and impotence that sometimes grips us all, whether we like it or not. But talking about fragile areas in an international context and together with people who share similar ideas and fears, made me realise that I am not alone in facing this new historical era that opens the door to a future that has yet to be planned. The exchange with our fellow human beings on both sides of the borders, including those who live in our own villages and to whom we seldom speak sometime, namely international migrant newcomers, has a great potential to offer valuable insights that we should seize in every moment of our work.

*Maria Molinari (

Maria graduated in Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology at the University of Bologna and after some development cooperation experiences abroad, Maria has been working on migrant inclusion in Italy since 2005. She has a master’s degree in intercultural studies at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia; a scholarship at the University of Parma; a postgraduate course in Museum and Art Anthropology at the University of Milan Bicocca, and courses in project management. Today, she has returned to her home village where she works as an nature guide and she’s active in planning, consulting and coordinating heritage projects. She is currently a PhD researcher in anthropology at the University of Turin in Italy.