By Umberto Bacchi

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - 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 centre 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.

CONNECTING COMMUNITIES

The new restaurant comes as Italy is struggling to house almost 172,000 asylum seekers, with some communities opposing government plans to redistribute them across the country.

Last week, residents of the small village of Gorino, about 100 km (62 miles) south of Venice, set up makeshift roadblocks to prevent a small group of migrant women and children being given accommodation in a local hostel.

"Initiatives that put asylum seekers in touch with local communities are the only way of fostering integration through knowledge and discussion," said Valeria Carlini, a spokeswoman for the Italian Council for Refugees, a charity helping asylum seekers.

Over the past three years, more than 470,000 migrants, mainly from sub-Saharan Africa, have reached Italy by boat. Thousands have also died making the dangerous crossing, including at least 3,750 this year alone.

(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Megan Rowling; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)