Stories of welcome: how Franciscans are welcoming Ukrainian families

Five months after the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine, we would like to take you on a journey among the friaries and Franciscan structures in Italy today committed to welcoming Ukrainian families and children fleeing the war. The friars have responded to the call for solidarity without flinching, right from the day after the conflict began. Here are four examples of reception and testimonies, but there are many others in every corner of the earth. There are about 300 Ukrainian families supported by the Franciscan family from the beginning of the conflict until now in Italy. A wound – that of the conflict – that accompanies many of our Ukrainian brothers and sisters today, frightened by a foreign invasion and a land, theirs, that changes face day by day.

Fraternity of Rezzato, Brescia: the hubbub of solidarity

The contrast is strong in the Rezzato fraternity. Nature, peace and silence dominate the spaces of the friary. “It was mid-March when the first Ukrainian women began to arrive, left on the streets without food or a roof. Lost and confused with mortar shells still ringing in their ears, they are there waiting for someone. At the friary, the first phone calls arrived from friends and local institutions: “What do we do?”. This is the testimony of Br Lorenzo, guardian of the fraternity of the Friars Minor of St Peter in Rezzato, in the province of Brescia, made up of four friars. “We immediately organised ourselves with a volunteer service for accommodation in the House of Spirituality adjacent to the friary. Doubts abound: How will we manage with language? Who will help us with the food? Who will take them to the hospital? The friars began the reception by listening to their hearts, just as the Poverello of Assisi did with the lepers. The first mothers arrived with their children, who found a roof and a hot meal to eat with the friars. Every week a family arrives: from Lviv, from Kyiv, from Kharkiv, from the Donbas, from Odesa. In two months, we reached 25 people, then the group settled down, and today we are at 15. There are seven families, five of them mothers with children, from the youngest of 4 to the oldest daughter of 20, and two elderly ladies. The most beautiful gift is the children who bring us back to smile, play and liven up the friary. I realise that communicating with a smartphone translator is not enough, and the group has to learn the language. Providence, at that moment, brought in the recently retired teacher Giulia, who immediately organised a one-hour afternoon Italian course for the little ones and one hour for the adults. The flood of information meant that other Ukrainians staying with families joined the course, all needing learning, knowledge, and communication. The reception house is wallpapered with little clouds of notes with the corresponding Italian names to learn them. Brother Matteo prepares the menu every week, providing all the necessary food, and Providence never fails to amaze us every day by replenishing the stocks. In collaboration with the local Caritas, there is no lack of bags of clothes, toys, and stationery for school. Volunteers do their best to take refugees to health facilities, the police station, and the dentist, and in mid-May, they brought the youngest children to school. Over time, the ladies became increasingly autonomous: they learned to cook for themselves and to keep the house and garden clean, with solidarity that could overcome cultural and religious differences. The basic knowledge of the language allows the guests to go out, say hello, and buy themselves something, but also to amaze us, entering the church to pray and sing together. Everyone comes in, Christians and Muslims, everyone feels like brothers and sisters before the mercy of God the Father, and everyone gives thanks for the gift of welcome and solidarity. Today, the ladies are waiting for employment, and we will soon have our first hires. In Rezzato, a town known for its marble work, gunfire can be heard in the Botticino quarries; but the Friars make the joy and noise of fraternity resound in the cloister, muffling every sound and restoring hope”. Dynamite and marble slabs break off from the mountain in the friary area: it is a routine activity, but the Ukrainians’ minds run to 24 February, when Russian troops invaded their country.

Br Loris, the heart of Sicily open to the neediest

“We started with the reception of families, more than 80 people, women and children, and gradually directed them to the relevant services. Today we still have five people in the Gancia friary in Palermo. The facility is suitable for accommodating other families and situations of poverty and destitution. To date, three mothers and two children of Ukrainian origin are permanently accommodated”. Thus, Br Loris, chaplain of the Pagliarelli prison in Palermo, continues: “Since 4 March, I have volunteered to welcome these people who have knocked on the friary door. A bombardment of solidarity from everyone: lay and religious. Among the gestures that struck me most was that of a Ukrainian boy living in Italy for years. Dimitri lives on very little, often eating in canteens, but he has the gift of painting. When he heard that we were taking in his compatriots, he made himself available to paint the friary rooms; he wanted nothing in return. He did not want to be paid and wanted to make his contribution”.

Br Faustino, the Ukrainian friar who helps his people

“On 2 March, we received the first refugees from Ukraine. The first were two mothers and three children with a small dog and two cats. After that, we welcomed 42 people, including mothers and children, and together with the Province of San Antonio, we started to welcome families. As a result, we currently have 39 people in our care”. Br Faustino has been in Italy for six years but comes from Shargorod, in central Ukraine. His father and brother are still there, and his sister-in-law, who is five months pregnant, recently returned with her two nephews, aged 8 and 12, after having spent the early days of the conflict in Italy, in the friary of Bordighera. “My father is 63 years old, and he is not fighting; he is helping the army,” continues Br Faustino, “and my brother is also helping displaced refugees who have arrived from the big cities at the moment”. Br Faustino, with his community, is working tirelessly on two fronts: welcoming the fleeing refugees in the friary and sending the aid collected by the parish with the minibus that has already shuttled five times to the Polish border. “Among the stories that impressed me most was that of Alona and Violeta, who with their girls travelled 2500 km to get to Bordighera and knock on the doors of our friary. Six days of travelling, overcoming the bombardments and with their two little girls”.

Br Mauro, an Italian school in Turin

The friars minor are working alongside the Ukrainian population in Turin at the Franciscan friary of St Anthony of Padua. Br Mauro Battaglino recounts: “Today we have eight people accommodated at our facility, all adults of whom three are elderly. Some women are now working, and all attend the Italian school we have established. Two or three hours of lessons a day. In our other houses, we host four adult mothers with five children, all attending the Italian school, and the children attend the summer centre. In another facility, there are four adults and three children, one adult and a grandmother. Among the three children is a little girl who is oncologically ill. There are many different activities that we have started, in addition to the Italian school. They have all got their documents to be legal and find a small occupation. We bear all the expenses, and thanks also to the contribution of the San Paolo Foundation, we have been able to afford them. Many people are helping us, but they have all lost everything”.

Br Mario in Recco, leaving space and supporting integration 

“We are hosting 17 Ukrainians in the friary of Recco, who arrived on 11 March last – Br Mario explains -. They were 23, but in recent months, two mothers and their children were forced to return to their homeland, while a young 24-year-old girl found work and accommodation in Emilia-Romagna. The current composition of the group is seven mothers, seven children between 4 and 10 years old, a girl aged 14, and a boy aged 17. All the boys and children were immediately placed in state schools (primary and nursery). They organise themselves for the kitchen, which we have put completely at their disposal, with us friars taking over the cafeteria. We provide all the expenses, food and utilities, but we are helped by the Yacht Club of Genoa, which contributes almost everything. Initially, we had a lot of help from the laity in foodstuffs and cash donations, but after two months, this stopped completely, and today, only the Yacht Club remains. In recent weeks, some mothers have found jobs, so they will probably be called upon to contribute to the various expenses of the house in the coming months”.

Francesco Stefanini

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