ROME – As Russia and Ukraine mark 50 days of war, Ukrainian refugees being hosted in Italy have voiced gratitude for the welcome and assistance they received after fleeing their homes following the outbreak of the conflict.
Speaking at an April 14 press conference organized by the Sant’Egidio Community to mark the 50th day of the war in Ukraine, a man called Feodosiy, 44, who fled Kyiv with his family, said his greatest fear once the war began was “for my children and for my country, and for my friends.”
“They are waging this war with things that are old. We are in the 21st century, yet we see war like it was in a different era,” he said.
Feodosiy, who is one of the 91,000 Ukrainian refugees being hosted in Italy, the bulk of whom are staying with families or individuals, said he has been to Italy on several occasions, “but this time I felt a lot of solidarity, a lot of welcome, a good atmosphere, and a lot of care.”
Similarly, Yulia, who also fled from Kyiv with her family and is being hosted in Italy with the help of Sant’Egidio, said they were welcomed “with great love by the community.”
“To me it seems that everyone who came from Ukraine is shocked, they are agitated, they can’t understand what the future will be for their family, for their children, but little by little here with this welcome we can dream a bit,” she said.
Yulia said many mothers and even grandmothers are now taking Italian language courses, and their children have been enrolled in school again and are now making new friends.
“We understand that we are already living something great for us, because to live with bombs, when the bombs fall on your head, it’s not possible. With these sirens, when the children are afraid and cannot sleep. But here we are calm; we can live like everyone else,” she said.
She voiced gratitude to Sant’Egidio for the assistance it has provided, and to the many families and individuals who are helping the roughly 4.4 million refugees who have fled since the beginning of the war. So far, an estimated 4.7 million have left Ukraine and roughly 7.1 million have been internally displaced as a result of the war, which began with Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.
Mass destruction of crucial infrastructure has been done to numerous Ukrainian cities, while thousands, mainly civilians, have been killed in the conflict. Allegations of war crimes, including torture and rape, have also emerged in villages liberated from Russian occupation.
Speaking at Thursday’s press conference, Marco Impagliazzo, the president of Sant’Egidio, said 50 days of war is an important landmark, “because inside of these 50 days there is the suffering of a people, there are many millions of refugees, there are thousands of deaths, people who lost everything. There is a lot, and a lot of violence.”
However, as a movement dedicated largely to areas of social justice, Sant’Egidio’s main focus is on the humanitarian front, Impagliazzo said, noting that the community has centers and partners throughout Ukraine and Europe who are providing much-needed assistance to Ukraine’s besieged populations.
He also voiced support for Pope Francis’s Palm Sunday appeal for an “Easter truce” to the war in Ukraine.
In Ukraine, Easter is celebrated on two different days: the first will be this Sunday, April 17, which marks the Latin Catholic Easter, and the second will be April 24, when the Byzantine and Orthodox communities observe Easter.
“This is very important, to know that there is a week of truce, from one Easter to another. A truce that wants to save the blood of civilians, of women and children, who are dying, as we see, in the thousands,” Impagliazzo said.
Among those most at risk, he said, are the elderly, “who are dying because they cannot move or are blocked in institutions because they are no longer self-sufficient, they don’t have any more family, or they don’t have the ability to go away as millions of Ukrainians have done.”
Soldiers at times go without food and water, and those who are sick are also tragically impacted more than most, he said, because they are already weak and access to much-needed medicines has been made increasingly difficult.
Impagliazzo said around 100 people in need of dialysis have already arrived in Italy with the help of Sant’Egidio for treatment.
The community, he said, has already sent around 75,000 packages of medicines and sanitary materials in response to specific requests, from medicine for thyroid disorders to insulin for the treatment of diabetes.
Other medicines, such as disinfectants and anesthetics for surgeries are also desperately needed, he said, “because there are a lot of people who are wounded” by ongoing bomb and missile attacks.
“A ceasefire is necessary as soon as possible,” Impagliazzo said. “We know that to arrive at peace after so much hatred, so much violence, and after so much blood spilled due to the Russian aggression is difficult, but it must be attempted in every way to stop the war.”
“We hope, we are working, and praying, that the war ends as soon as possible, and we can begin speaking of reconstruction and of the return of Ukrainians to their country,” he said.
Jurij Lifanse, who is in charge of Sant’Egidio in Ukraine, joined the press conference through a video call. Like many others, Lifanse is from Kyiv but fled once the war began. He is now in Lviv, near Ukraine’s border with Poland, running a large distribution center for the humanitarian assistance arriving to Ukraine from Sant’Egidio.
“Unfortunately, there is no shortage of needs. Medicines are perhaps the most urgent, because due to the war, many logistical avenues have been destroyed for medical items to arrive in Ukraine, but also to be moved within Ukraine, and they are very needed,” he said.
However, “peace is what is truly lacking,” Lifanse said, lamenting the thousands who have already died, among Ukrainians and also Russians.
“The aggression is not ending, and cities remain blocked, like Mariupol, where it is almost impossible to send help, and where the people continue to live underground, often blocked, because their buildings are destroyed, so the people are blocked underground, and they need a truce,” he said.
People come to the Lviv center from all over Ukraine, he said, recalling the story of one young man who escaped the besieged city of Mariupol by swimming for two hours in near-frozen waters of the Tahanroz’ka Gulf of the Azov Sea until he reached safety.
“Thank God he is athletic and could do it,” Lifanse said, but noted that space in many cities, including, Lviv is running out.
In Lviv alone, the population has increased by 30 percent since the war began, he said, and most people have not been paid in the 50 days since the war began, so, space, food, medicines, and resources are running out.
At highest risk are the elderly, “because they are already vulnerable, and being in another city, … they need accompaniment, and increasingly more medicines,” he said.
“Then there are the children, who don’t go to school. There are families who look for work. The assistance can help, but what is really needed is to celebrate Easter without the alarms, to be able to be calm, to fix things, and rethink life,” he said.
Lifanse echoed the appeal for an Easter truce, saying one week might not seem like a long time, but it “can save thousands of lives, because it allows people to leave and to find other shelter for civilians who are blocked in these cities.”
“Fifty days are too many, we must increasingly ask for peace in Ukraine and that the shooting stops, that people are helped to obtain what arrives from the world,” he said.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen