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Trucks, Tanks and Gelato – Ukrainian Refugees in Bella Italia

As the Ukrainians who remained in Kyiv commemorated both Ukrainian Flag Day and Independence Day this week, the celebrations were somber. The usual military parades were scrapped and instead residents viewed and children climbed on the scrap metal monuments that were once Russian tanks and trucks.

Meanwhile nearly 2,000 miles (3,200 km) away in a tiny Italian mountain village, local school children celebrated Independence Day with their new Ukrainian friends.  It was “gelato” all around as the residents of Serrastretta marked the day with free ice cream, courtesy of the “In Esther’s Name” Ukrainian Refugee Project that six months earlier, brought  five mothers and their 14 children from Ukraine to south Italy, from bombs and devastation to “tranquilita` and gelato.

“You have made a miracle for us,” says Vira (who prefers that her surname not be used).  Vira and her 3-year-old son are one of the five families who fled Ukraine six months ago and arrived in our Italian mountain village. Her husband continues his work for the Ukraine government and her mother, a Ukrainian Jew, has not been permitted to leave her home in Crimea.

Each mother has a unique story to tell; Hanna speaks of hiding in an unheated shed, grateful that when Russian soldiers discovered her and her young daughter, “The only harm they gave to us was to take my mobile phone. We were very lucky.”

Of the five mothers who came to south Italy, two have returned to Kyiv. They are not alone. From the beginning of the war in February to August this year, the United Nations refugee agency, (UNHCR) reports that more than 10 million desperate Ukrainians, mostly mothers and children, fled their country to cities and towns throughout the European Union. In this same period, despite the lack of services, the scarcity of food and the lack basic supplies, over 4 million Ukrainian refugees have made the choice to return home.

What of our three remaining families – the ones we honored with our Italian ice-cream social? What has it been like for them and for us as we’ve navigated the unchartered territory of language and culture that characterize Ukraine and Italy?

For Olena and her two young children who began their journey in Kyiv and walked part way to Warsaw, the subsequent travel nightmare  included two flight connections, one of which landed in Catania, Sicily, a detour that necessitated a bus ride from Sicily, a ferry crossing from Messina and finally an arrival in Calabria. “It was nothing to us,” says Olena. “We saw the bombing, we heard the screams.  We knew we had to leave.”

For Hanna, Vira and Olena these six months have been challenging. “At first my children wouldn’t eat the food. Who doesn’t like Italian food?  That’s when the ladies of the Esther’s Name project explained that the only way our children could demonstrate their fear and frustration, was not with a language they could not speak or understand. They showed their distress by refusing the food.”

As one of the “ladies” that Olena referenced, I can attest that each new situation brought with it new challenges. The seven women of “In Esther’s Name” Refugee project worked hard at matching mothers and children with available housing, navigating Italian bureaucracy to obtain residency, school and work documents, reconfiguring mobile phones for use in Italy and learning how to use translation Aps so that we could make ourselves understood.

All that, along with explaining our project to our local residents who voiced concerns about the economic blight that affects so many southern Italian villages. Some were worried. How could Serrastretta support 19 refugees who came to us with nothing?

Thanks to the generosity of our charitable foundation we raised funds to create a program that brought economic benefit to our town. Donated funds paid the modest rent to locals who offered one of the many empty but available houses (so characteristic of southern Italy’s population difficulties).

Donations were used to pay the stipend for Italian language teachers and to purchase supplies for the local women who taught our Ukrainian mothers “la cucina italiana,” how to cook basic Italian meals. Donated funds paid for new clothes as the children grew out of shirts, pants, shoes and jackets and collection boxes placed throughout the village helped to defray the cost of school supplies.

As the months went by both refugees and residents experienced changes – mostly positive but some not. The warm welcome offered by our Italian children to their new friends was best expressed by Antonio who announced that Miroslav was his “new best friend.”

Then there was the day that our mothers approached our group with a request. They wanted to do something special to demonstrate their gratitude to our village. “Could we plant flowers?” Natasha asked. Soon Serrastretta’s main street was filled with local blooms planted by our Ukrainian mothers who experienced the dignity of giving back.

Problems arose mostly from communication difficulties. There were misunderstandings regarding directives from teachers about compulsory school attendance and one discussion about “la bella figura,” (Italian for making a good impression) deteriorated into a shouting match between two mothers and two group members. Voices raised, tears shed and to this day no one is exactly sure what the problem was.

As we approach the sixth month anniversary of their arrival, our three mothers understand that our foundation’s financial commitment to them is about to change. We now are working to help each mother find employment – a challenge complicated by their less than basic Italian language skills.  At the same time we are exploring ways to reunite the families when each Ukrainian husband is permitted to relocate.

At the beginning of the war when the refugee situation was at its most critical, we sought advice from agencies with years of experience in refugee in resettlement.  The best advice came from a young Italian man, whose work with refugees spanned nearly a decade.  “Remember,” Francesco cautioned, “Some people act as though welcoming a refugee is like welcoming a new puppy into the family. The puppy is so cute and so needy that we forget that there will be days when the puppy chews our shoes!”

Thank you, Francesco. Thank you for reminding us that welcoming refugee families is a mitzvah that swings between euphoria and frustration and that a healthy refugee program acknowledges the satisfaction of welcoming the stranger along with the  inevitability of bumps in the road.

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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