Rome: the Antonianum friary welcomes refugees from Ukraine

The fear of bombs, the hurried flight, the odyssey of trains across Europe and the worry of not knowing where to seek refuge. The Ukrainian families taken in by the Franciscan friars of the friary of the Pontifical Antonianum University in Rome left all this behind. “When the war began, we published on a platform our willingness to take in Ukrainian refugees, and since 17 March, they have been arriving gradually”, explains Br Lluis Oviedo, OFM, lecturer at the Antonianum. “There were six families, one of which has already returned to Ukraine. They came from Kharkiv, Lviv, Bucha, Kyiv, and Kyiv’s outskirts. Among them,some have been refugees twice because from the Donbas they had found refuge in Kharkiv, from which they later had to flee”. The friars who live on the premises of the prestigious university, promoted by the Order, daily engage in solidarity at the local level with the soup kitchen. Yet, they have felt they must also personally contribute to welcoming refugees from Ukraine in these difficult times. They have thus opened their doors to some thirty people, fourteen of them children, with the youngest being one year and nine months old.

“We had a local chapter and decided to welcome – explains Br Estêvão Ottenbreit, OFM, guardian of the fraternity. 156 friars live here, 82 of them students, but no one has complained. The fraternity has constructively experienced this reception, and we have received the cooperation of many, including the penitentiaries of St John Lateran, who have made a donation for these families. We have not lacked anything during this time, thank God, and they have also helped us at the police headquarters get them a residence permit for three months”.

Br Lluis Oviedo OFM recounts that, as soon as they arrived, the refugees found large dormitories with beds waiting for them and then, from day to day, the friars tried to meet their needs: “We had to get clothes, nappies. The children had to go to school, but they did not understand Italian. So, the first month we sent some of the older boys to act as interpreters, paying them for this service with the help of our benefactors”.

The management of the private school (run by the Marianist congregation), close to the friary, also showed great willingness to admit school-age children into the classroom. “It was also a means to bring us closer to the Marianists, and the same happened with the Passionists who live on the Caelian hill, from whom we asked for a space in their garden to park some of the refugees’ cars. As a result, today, they say they no longer feel like refugees here. They live with us, and they eat our food. We want to make them feel at home, even in this temporary situation”.

 

“Taking in these families has been a discovery every day, a new challenge to face”, says Br Javier Del Angel De los Santos, OFM, a friar of the Holy Name of Jesus Province of the United States and a student in Rome. “We have experienced the help of people close to us, with donations of goods or money. Sharing life with the refugees also included moments outside the friary. For example, we took them to see the Pope for the Sunday Angelus, to walk around the centre of Rome”.

The flight from Ukraine

Andrew, who had a wooden house on the outskirts of Kyiv, says: “We managed to escape weeks before the war started because we realised it was going to happen. The first time we decided to leave, we waited two days at the border with Poland and could not cross it because of the huge number of people. We crossed the border into Hungary in a second attempt and took a train to Berlin. We did not know where to stay and decided to go to Sweden then. According to the law, we should have moved to a city a thousand kilometres away from Stockholm for a better distribution of refugees. However, the cold temperatures were too difficult to bear, along with the precarious living conditions in a five square metre room with no mattresses for everyone and insufficient sanitary facilities.

Andrew is the father of six children, who have experienced this difficult time with him and his wife. When the youngest, aged six, also fell ill, the concern for the future in that land worsened. “We took the first train available. After changing nine trains, losing luggage and travelling all over Europe, we arrived in Rome’, Andrew continues. One night I prayed to God to help me, and the next day I found the Franciscans’ welcome. With the other families staying with us, we live as one family, even though we did not know each other before we came here”. This is confirmed by Xenia, one of the young refugees, who has continued to take her exams at the Faculty of Philosophy online amidst the flight and the difficulties. Life also went on for Taddei, a 17-year-old boy who, thanks to the help of the friars and benefactors, managed to enrol in a football school in Rome to revive hope by cultivating his passion for the sport.

The Franciscans are welcoming and kind to all of us”, says Andrew. “We are grateful for the welcome we have received. In these cold times, the warmth we breathe here is a gift”.

Beatrice Guarrera