On this third Tuesday of Women’s History Month, we want to shed light on an issue of unfortunate relevance today: a personal testimony by a female refugee from Ukraine. In the last two weeks, we introduced the concept of intersectionality, and put together a list of resources that might help us all better understand the complexities of gender roles and displacement.
Aleksandra* is a 55 year old woman from Ukraine. For the last ten years, she has lived in Italy, working tirelessly as an in-home nurse and caregiver for elderlies. And every month for the past ten years, she has sent a large part of her salary to help support her family still in Ukraine. There, her family relies heavily on this money that Aleksandra works very hard for, doing a difficult yet undeniably essential job.
For two years, as the Covid-19 pandemic both made her job all the more essential, and travel more difficult, Aleksandra was unable to return to Ukraine to visit her family. At the end of 2021, she was able to go back home, where she planned to stay for two months. Only two days before she was supposed to board a plane back to Italy, to continue her job looking after an old Italian woman, the Russian invasion began. That’s how her nightmare started.
Aleksandra was luckily able to flee Ukraine, and is now safe in Italy, from where she has told us her story.
Aleksandra and her family come from a city located between Kharkiv and Kyiv. On February 24th, she and her family were woken up by the sound of sirens, and news of bombing in neighboring areas. She said that in the first week after the invasion of Russian forces, she and her family didn’t want to leave their home. “It’s my land”, she said, and added that they thought this would be a quick and short war. However, as the days passed and Putin’s invasion seemed to get increasingly violent, Aleksandra and her family started to reflect on their possibilities in a war-torn Ukraine. If they didn’t have jobs, where would they find the money to even survive? These thoughts pushed Aleksandra, her 71-year-old mother, her sister and her 20-year-old niece to decide to flee. The only way for them to be safe was to try to leave Ukraine. Their destination was the Czech Republic, where one of Aleksandra’s sisters has been living for several years.
“We went to the train station to take the train to Lviv. The station was crowded, full of people. Everybody was pushing to try to get on the train. I had the impression I couldn’t breathe anymore because there wasn’t any space. At that moment I had a panic attack and I started screaming ‘I don’t want to die here’.”
This is how Aleksandra describes the beginning of her journey out of her home country. After arriving in Lviv, she and her female relatives had to wait for several hours before they were lucky enough to find seats on a bus that would take them directly to the Czech Republic, through Slovakia. “We were very lucky because we didn’t have to walk in the cold”, she said. “How could I have done it with my mother?”
Aleksandra and her female family members are now safe, in Italy and the Czech Republic respectively. However, her son cannot leave, her father does not want to. Speaking about them, Aleksandra says “That’s their land, their home, they don’t want to leave. My father could have left, but he didn’t want to leave our cats and dogs behind.”
As all Ukrainian male citizens aged 18 to 60 are prohibited from leaving the country, the media abounds with images of mothers, elderlies and children trying to cross the borders, and heartbreaking images of fathers, husbands, and sons saying goodbye to their loved ones. War impacts women and men in different ways, and this case is not different.
We asked Aleksandra “How does it make you feel to leave your country, but to leave the men behind?” “It’s a tragedy, it’s horrible”, she says. “I saw women with their small children and baggage fleeing by themselves, they had to carry the small kids in their arms and walk in the cold. I also saw men who traveled near the borders and then had to say goodbye.”
Now in Italy, she says “I am not good, but I work,” as she cooks lunch for the old lady she looks after. “I have to work, to keep myself busy, otherwise I start to think too much. It’s good to work when you’re depressed.”
In many European countries, the large majority of caregivers and in-home nurses for elderlies are women, and foreigners. In Italy, most come from Eastern Europe; from poorer countries that rely on these remittances, or salaries earned by their family members that moved abroad to get a job and earn money in one of the richer EU Member States. The health and caregiving sectors are highly dominated by women. Despite working hard and carrying out essential roles, they don’t earn much, and often a large part of their salary is sent back to their families. While Aleksandra has gotten used to being far away from her loved ones, she says that the distance now feels unbearable, knowing that a part of her family now risks their lives everyday as the Russian invasion continues.
“I still hear the sound of the sirens. Nobody should understand what waking up to a war really means”.
*The real name has been changed to protect the person's identity.