Barbara Aiello

5 Ukrainian refugee mothers help Italians redefine Mother’s Day

Ahead of Mothers Day in Italy, these 5 courageous women are a shining light of optimism in the face of difficulty, and hope in the face of uncertainty
Illustrative: Children from Ukraine sleep on luggage at a railway station in Przemysl, southeastern Poland, on Wednesday, March 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits, File)
Illustrative: Children from Ukraine sleep on luggage at a railway station in Przemysl, southeastern Poland, on Wednesday, March 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits, File)

Mother’s Day is now celebrated in more than 50 countries worldwide and although not all countries celebrate on the same day, here in Italy we join with many other countries and celebrate our mothers on the second Sunday in May. But this year, in our tiny mountain village, Serrastretta, in Calabria, the “toe” of the Italian “boot,” Mother’s Day holds a special significance. The day marks nearly two months since the first two of our Ukrainian mothers and their children arrived in our town. Two weeks later Hanna and Olena were followed by Natalia, Vira and Kateryna – five mothers and nine children who, as they have found safe haven in our little town, have given us an important gift – a new appreciation of what it means to be a mother.

Brought to Calabria through the auspices of Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud (the eternal light of south Italy) the congregation’s refugee project, “In Esther’s Name,” has raised funds for transportation, housing, food and supplies for five Ukrainian mothers and their children. Hanna and her 9-year-old daughter, Miraslava, and Olena’s 4-year-old daughter Ola and 7-year-old son Miroslav were the first to arrive.

Exhausted from a journey that began in Kyiv and included a refugee center in Krakow, a flight to Sicily and a bus trip to Calabria, these intrepid mothers arrived with their precious children, legal documents and small backpacks with a change of clothes, a few diapers for their babies, and a trove of memories that graphically demonstrate the terror and danger they faced.

Hanna, who remembers the horror she experienced in the early days of the war on Ukraine, felt compelled to share her story.

“We run from Kyiv to a cottage in the forest. It has only one room with no heat, water or electricity. There was a little iron stove that was the only warm place in the house. We brought bread that is now wet from the snow so we dry the bread on the stove to have something to eat. We went into the woods and collected wood. We drank water from melting snow. We covered the windows with dark fabric so the planes would not see the house. So they would not shoot at us.”

Olena continues; “Then the Russian soldiers they find us and ‘thanks’ God they do not hurt us. They take our mobile phones but leave us alone.”

Each mother had a story to tell – a narrative that challenged not only their personal stamina and resolve, but required that through it all, these mothers allay the fears of their young children, helping them to feel a sense of safety and calm.

With their husbands either serving in the Ukrainian army or assisting the military as auxiliaries, our mothers found themselves thrust into the unknown – new places, new faces, new language and new food. Their donated apartments held mysteries that they had never experienced. How do these appliances work? Why two different types of electrical cords? How will we shop for food and will the children go to school?

When Vira’s toddler son cried almost non-stop for several days, Vira’s patience never failed. With tears in her own eyes, she rocked her little one, while at the same time telling us of her mother in Crimea where the Russian government refused her mother’s request to leave.

“I miss him so much,” says Kateryna whose husband serves as priest to a Ukrainian orthodox congregation. “But he remained with the older people of the church who could not travel. So I must be strong for my three girls.”

In the face of so much turmoil, each mother understood the benefit of a school routine for their children. “We want them to have friends here and to learn Italian,” said Natalia. One would imagine that when the children were enrolled in school and these mothers had “found time”, a rest would be in order, but that was not the case. Anticipating a permanent stay in Italy, all five mothers faithfully attend Italian Culture and Language Class offered three times per week by one of our synagogue volunteers.

Ironically it is America’s Mother’s Day that has its roots in conflict and war. It was West Virginian Anna Jarvis who remembered the courage of her own mother, who, during the American Civil War, helped every soldier she could find regardless of political persuasion. If a soldier needed shoes, Anna’s mother searched until she found some. If a soldier needed a place to sleep, she opened her home. If they needed a meal, she cooked for them. But most of all she encouraged other mothers to do the same.

Our Ukrainian mothers offer a similar lesson. As they calm their children and at the same time manage their own fears, these courageous women have supported each other, leaned on each other and encouraged each other. For us Italians, they are a shining light of optimism in the face of difficulty, and hope in the face of uncertainty. To our Ukrainian mothers we Italians say, “Buona festa della mamma!”  No one deserves it more.

About the Author
Rabbi Barbara Aiello is the first woman and first non-orthodox rabbi in Italy. She opened the first active synagogue in Calabria since Inquisition times and is the founder of the B'nei Anousim movement in Calabria and Sicily that helps Italians discover and embrace their Jewish roots
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