Ukrainian Refugees in Rome Yearn to Return Home

War victims housed at a hotel on the outskirts of Rome discuss their plight with the Register.

Oxana and her son pose for a picture in Rome.
Oxana and her son pose for a picture in Rome. (photo: Edward Pentin / National Catholic Register)

ROME — “We have fled a most dangerous situation,” said Oxana, a mother of two boys from Brovary, a suburb of the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. “My apartment is destroyed, and many people and children died in nearby Bucha.” 

Just two days earlier, Brovary was “targeted by rockets, but now it is quiet,” she said. Bucha, another Kyiv suburb, was ransacked in early March as Russian troops withdrew from the capital city.

Oxana is one of around 400 Ukrainian refugees, mostly women and children, who have fled the now-eight-week war in Ukraine and are currently being looked after by staff and volunteers at the Mercure Roma West hotel in the outskirts of Rome.

Together with her two sons, who are 8 and 11, Oxana said they will be spending two weeks there before being moved to another accommodation or staying with a family. “I’m lucky because my mother worked for 20 years in Italy, and I have good friends here,” she said.

Her husband, like most Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60, was conscripted to stay in the country to fight after the invasion. “He fought eight years ago,” she said, referring to when Russia invaded Crimea, then a part of Ukraine. “He got injured, went to [the] hospital and recovered, and now he’s back fighting again,” she said.

Sitting next to Oxana was Valentina, a divorced mother of two grown children, one of whom had been killed in the war, but she was too traumatized to speak.

The refugees at the hotel, who come from all over Ukraine, including the devastated Eastern city of Mariupol, are being helped to overcome the trauma of war, the challenges of having to flee their native land, and the overall instability they are having to face. 

They are among 91,000 Ukrainian citizens who have so far arrived in Italy. Since Russia invaded the country on Feb. 24, more than 5 million Ukrainians have fled their country, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.  

At the four-star Mercure hotel in Rome, the refugees are being offered medical treatment, school classes and excursions into the city, all funded by the Italian authorities. Many Romans have also shown solidarity by donating clothes, medicine and food. 

“They’re getting treated really, really well, and they feel at peace here,” said Marta Jehovich, a famous Rome-based Ukrainian opera singer who has taken charge of the volunteers at the hotel and is overseeing all the services provided. 

“The Italian authorities are taking care of everything, and all the systems are working great — they’re getting offered meals three times a day, have rooms and apartments, and they’ve been visited by civil protection officers, the mayor of Rome, and the president of Lazio,” Jehovich said. “They’ve also been taking care of the kids and giving them Easter eggs.”

Caritas Italy Perspective

Oliviero Forti, head of migration policies and international protection for Caritas Italy, said the majority of the refugees have found shelter with family members or friends or networks of associations. The number staying at “public facilities” such as hotels is about 20%, he told the Register, while an unknown number of Ukrainians have already returned home, especially to western Ukraine, “which is relatively quiet.”

The Catholic Church in Italy, together with Caritas Italy, the Church’s largest humanitarian organization in the country, has so far assisted around 8,000 Ukrainian refugees. “We have a system that has allowed us to welcome them at our expense,” Forti said, adding that they’re working with the Italian government to care for another 2,500 who are “expected to arrive in the coming months.” 

Forti said that unlike in some other European countries, few refugees are staying with Italian families. “We have had experience of that, and we know it’s very difficult,” he said. “It can work for a month, at most, but then it becomes complicated, and so we always try to create the conditions for autonomous accommodation.” 

He observed that compared to most refugee emergencies, this one is “very particular,” as Ukrainians are “independent people who know how to move, how to travel, and they don’t have, how can I say, plans for a future in Italy. Their idea is to find temporary accommodation, and as soon as possible they’ll return home.” 

Jehovich said how long they stay depends on Italy’s Ministry of the Interior and the European Union. The refugees were initially staying at the hotel only until April 15, but that has now been extended to May 20. Others are looking to stay in apartments or with families, while some are seeking to be legalized to work. Most, however, simply want to return home. “They’re very keen to go back,” said Jehovich. “They’re longing for that and looking forward to it.”

A native of Lviv, Jehovich said the Catholic Church and every Christian denomination has offered extensive help: Priests have visited, the faithful have provided a “huge shelter center,” and Pope Francis has “absolutely been of help”; but she repeated that what they’re really yearning for is true peace and to return to their homeland. 

“We [Ukrainians] have fought in the past when everyone else did, but the reality is different now,” Jehovich said. “We have had 22 years of independence, and the country is still very young, but now we’re facing something we didn’t expect; it’s political.”

She added that Ukrainians are looking to the whole world “to not only help, but to be peaceful, because peace is something so important and is a spiritual, physical and mental condition.”

“When you are caught in a war,” Jehovich added, “you long to turn the minus into a plus, which basically stands for the sign of the Church.” 

Since the end of March, after it was unsuccessful in its bid to capture Ukraine’s capital city and topple Ukraine’s democratically elected government, Russia has said it would be transferring its military operations to focus on “liberating” the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting the Ukrainian army for the past eight years. An estimated 13,000 to 14,000 lives had been killed in fighting there from 2014 to 2021.

Forti predicted that when the situation in western Ukraine stabilizes, “when they have a clear understanding that the conflict will remain only in the Donbas area, the rest of Ukraine will be safe, as in past years. A large number of refugees will then return home.”