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Ukrainian caregivers in Italy feel effects of war from afar

Caregiver Liliya Khodunay cuts Anna's hair in Anna's home in Milan, Italy, in February 2023.
Chiara Negrello
Caregiver Liliya Khodunay cuts Anna's hair in Anna's home in Milan, Italy, in February 2023.

Prior to Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2022, among European Union member states, Italy was home to one of the largest communities of people of Ukrainian origin. According to data from the EU, over 200,000 Ukrainian citizens were living in Italy as of late 2020. This migration made them one of the most rooted foreign groups in the country, largely composed of women employed in family and health services for the elderly.

Photographer Chiara Negrello's grandmother Lidia Maggiolo was one of them. In 2020, after spending several months in the hospital due to COVID-19, when Lidia returned home, she was no longer autonomous. For this reason, her family decided to hire Lyubov Mala, a middle-aged Ukrainian caregiver. The project "Caring for our Past" begins in Negrello's childhood home, where she was curious about Lyubov's choices to live and work in Italy.

Khrystyna Mala, Lyubov Mala and Milana Dorosh applaud photographer Chiara Negrello's grandmother Lidia as she pushes her wheelchair by herself for the first time since returning home from the hospital in April 2022. Lidia was thin, breathing poorly, unable to feed herself and bedridden when she returned from the hospital. Lyubov helped Lidia improve so she could accomplish small tasks on her own.
/ Chiara Negrello
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Chiara Negrello
Khrystyna Mala, Lyubov Mala and Milana Dorosh applaud photographer Chiara Negrello's grandmother Lidia as she pushes her wheelchair by herself for the first time since returning home from the hospital in April 2022. Lidia was thin, breathing poorly, unable to feed herself and bedridden when she returned from the hospital. Lyubov helped Lidia improve so she could accomplish small tasks on her own.

In March 2022, one month after the conflict in Ukraine started, part of Lyubov's family lived at Lidia's house. At that time, six people from four generations and two different cultures were living in a small apartment in Rovigo, Italy. Cohabitation was not easy due to different languages, habits and needs. Living together was a collision in some ways, but also a solidarity encounter at a time of tremendous suffering.

Olena Melnyk tunes the bandura, Ukraine's national instrument, in Ravenna, Italy, in January 2023. Olena works as a caregiver, but she studied to be a professional bandora musician. Today, she uses the instrument to bring people closer to her culture.
/ Chiara Negrello
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Chiara Negrello
Olena Melnyk tunes the bandura, Ukraine's national instrument, in Ravenna, Italy, in January 2023. Olena works as a caregiver, but she studied to be a professional bandora musician. Today, she uses the instrument to bring people closer to her culture.
Lyubov Mala huggs her daughter Khrystyna Mala the morning she arrived in Italy from Ukraine after the beginning of the war on March 3, 2022. Lyubov was relieved because Khrystyna managed to make it to Italy, arriving by bus a few weeks after the conflict started.
/ Chiara Negrello
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Chiara Negrello
Lyubov Mala huggs her daughter Khrystyna Mala the morning she arrived in Italy from Ukraine after the beginning of the war on March 3, 2022. Lyubov was relieved because Khrystyna managed to make it to Italy, arriving by bus a few weeks after the conflict started.

The profession of caregiver is a low-paying job in Italy, even though most people who apply have a good level of education and many were qualified workers before emigrating. They experience a work experience characterized by isolation, subordination, high intensity of work and emotional stress. Within the domestic walls, many live-in caregivers are in close contact 24 hours a day with the person they care for. The inevitable consequence of this circumstance is a negotiation of privacy, which on both sides is a very thin line. Caregivers are there at the elderly person's most vulnerable moments: they change them, wash them, feed them.

Caregiver Maria Oleksiivna Fedoryshyn's shadow appears as she goes to the kitchen to prepare the lunch for Tommaso, the man she cares for, in Bologna, Italy, in December 2022. Maria was vital in supporting Tommaso and his family when he returned from the hospital after he had a stroke, helping him recover and supporting his wife and son. Maria has lived in Italy for 20 years.
/ Chiara Negrello
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Chiara Negrello
Caregiver Maria Oleksiivna Fedoryshyn's shadow appears as she goes to the kitchen to prepare the lunch for Tommaso, the man she cares for, in Bologna, Italy, in December 2022. Maria was vital in supporting Tommaso and his family when he returned from the hospital after he had a stroke, helping him recover and supporting his wife and son. Maria has lived in Italy for 20 years.
Caregiver Liliya Khodunay responds to messages on the phone during a break in Milan, Italy, in December 2023. For people who experience the conflict from afar, this "social" experience is much more amplified. Phones are not only a way to stay in touch but also to stay constantly updated on the news. The phone affects their mood, doesn't let them sleep at night and rings all the time.
/ Chiara Negrello
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Chiara Negrello
Caregiver Liliya Khodunay responds to messages on the phone during a break in Milan, Italy, in December 2023. For people who experience the conflict from afar, this "social" experience is much more amplified. Phones are not only a way to stay in touch but also to stay constantly updated on the news. The phone affects their mood, doesn't let them sleep at night and rings all the time.
Ukrainian caregivers and their family gather to celebrate Ukrainian Christmas, although not on the precise day of the holiday, in Bologna, Italy, in January 2023. Continuing to celebrate holidays despite the grief of the war allows Ukrainians in Italy feel closer to their homeland.
/ Chiara Negrello
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Chiara Negrello
Ukrainian caregivers and their family gather to celebrate Ukrainian Christmas, although not on the precise day of the holiday, in Bologna, Italy, in January 2023. Continuing to celebrate holidays despite the grief of the war allows Ukrainians in Italy feel closer to their homeland.

The caregivers experience their employers' homes as if they have always been part of them, sleeping in their children's old rooms and moving from place to place as old family photos hang on the walls watching their movements. However, they are also forced to compromise their personal space, finding themselves in an environment they call "home" but that is not entirely accurate. When they are allowed to take a break from work, they continue to sense the presence of the person they care for, and are on the alert if the person calls out, in need.

With the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, many caregivers have decided to stay in Italy and assist their own families, financially, from afar. However, experiencing conflict at a distance causes great tensions that can also undermine the relationship with the elderly person they care for. They are often nervous and have less patience, isolating themselves with their phones and reading the news, moving to other rooms to text or make a quick call.

People attend services at the Ukrainian church in Bologna, Italy, when the community was praying for the tensions that were already looming between Russia and Ukraine in January 2022. Many caregivers use their free time to attend church. This is not only a way to ease the pain of distance but also to get together with friends with whom they can share common concerns.
/ Chiara Negrello
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Chiara Negrello
People attend services at the Ukrainian church in Bologna, Italy, when the community was praying for the tensions that were already looming between Russia and Ukraine in January 2022. Many caregivers use their free time to attend church. This is not only a way to ease the pain of distance but also to get together with friends with whom they can share common concerns.
Maria Oleksiivna Fedoryshyn is on the phone with her family in Ukraine on a morning after intense overnight shelling while she lives in Bologna, Italy, in October 2022. Maria's son is a soldier who has been fighting at the front since the first days of the invasion. Maria wakes up in the morning immediately checking her phone to ensure that her son is still alive.
/ Chiara Negrello
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Chiara Negrello
Maria Oleksiivna Fedoryshyn is on the phone with her family in Ukraine on a morning after intense overnight shelling while she lives in Bologna, Italy, in October 2022. Maria's son is a soldier who has been fighting at the front since the first days of the invasion. Maria wakes up in the morning immediately checking her phone to ensure that her son is still alive.
Milana Dorosh plays at the park in Rovigo, Italy, in April 2022. Milana, her mother and brother escaped to this town after war broke out in Ukraine.
/ Chiara Negrello
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Chiara Negrello
Milana Dorosh plays at the park in Rovigo, Italy, in April 2022. Milana, her mother and brother escaped to this town after war broke out in Ukraine.

The caregivers share their fears about the war with the elderly people they care for, who empathize with them but are uncertain what to say to provide comfort. Bedrooms become the live-in caregivers' shelters, and although they are places where they had to adapt, today they are the rooms they have decorated and where they feel protected.

Liliya Khodunay stands with her friend Vira Zhmurko while they chat with family in their free time in Milan, Italy, in February 2023. Liliya and Vira are from the same city in Ukraine, which has been under attack since the first days of the invasion. They have been friends for a long time and have lived together since Russia invaded Ukraine, as Vira was visiting Italy and could not return home.
/ Chiara Negrello
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Chiara Negrello
Liliya Khodunay stands with her friend Vira Zhmurko while they chat with family in their free time in Milan, Italy, in February 2023. Liliya and Vira are from the same city in Ukraine, which has been under attack since the first days of the invasion. They have been friends for a long time and have lived together since Russia invaded Ukraine, as Vira was visiting Italy and could not return home.
A view of a window in Vira Zhmurko and Liliya Khodunay's house in Milan in February 2023. Since the war broke out and they are forced to live through it at a distance, many of the Ukrainian women describe a sense of emptiness and silence inside them.
/ Chiara Negrello
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Chiara Negrello
A view of a window in Vira Zhmurko and Liliya Khodunay's house in Milan in February 2023. Since the war broke out and they are forced to live through it at a distance, many of the Ukrainian women describe a sense of emptiness and silence inside them.
Lyubov's hand tenderly caresses Lidia's face. Lyubov, who has lived in Italy since 2007, started caring for Lidia in January 2021. Lyubov played a vital role in my grandmother's physical and psychological recovery. The two built a strong bond in a short time. Within a year, my grandmother was achieving small successes every day with Lyubov's help.
/ Chiara Negrello
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Chiara Negrello
Lyubov's hand tenderly caresses Lidia's face. Lyubov, who has lived in Italy since 2007, started caring for Lidia in January 2021. Lyubov played a vital role in my grandmother's physical and psychological recovery. The two built a strong bond in a short time. Within a year, my grandmother was achieving small successes every day with Lyubov's help.

Caregivers' days are punctuated by the phone ringing and the latest updates coming in from the many chats. Ukrainian women always check the areas where Russia has attacked, for fear that their friends or family might be affected. The caregivers are especially concerned about the elderly and children close to them, since they are the most vulnerable. They regularly write and call to ensure that all is well and want to be updated on anything that happens.

Familiar terms arise when referring war or conflict, such as invasion, borders, loss, compromise, withdrawal and irruption. In their own way, caregivers also experience these terms in their daily lives while caring for people in an unfamiliar country: invasion of physical and emotional personal space, negotiation between the two sides, loss of their intimacy and withdrawal from their homeland and family. They are living through a war from afar and facing a conflict within themselves.

Clothing hangs on a mechanical lifter in Anna's home in Milan in December 2022.
/ Chiara Negrello
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Chiara Negrello
Clothing hangs on a mechanical lifter in Anna's home in Milan in December 2022.
Caregiver Vira Zhmurko (right) holds Anna's hand in Milan in November 2023. Vira had come to Italy a few days before Feb. 24, 2022, to substitute for a friend who had to return to Ukraine. However, after the war broke out, Vira found herself stuck as her city was being bombed by Russia.
/ Chiara Negrello
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Chiara Negrello
Caregiver Vira Zhmurko (right) holds Anna's hand in Milan in November 2023. Vira had come to Italy a few days before Feb. 24, 2022, to substitute for a friend who had to return to Ukraine. However, after the war broke out, Vira found herself stuck as her city was being bombed by Russia.

Chiara Negrello is a documentary photographer based between Italy and Southeast Asia.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Chiara Negrello