Ukrainian Refugees Arriving in Italy Receiving Help from Unlikely Source – A Bunch of Lawyers
Ukrainians fleeing across the border to Poland have found an unlikely yet devoted group of supporters in the form of a north Italian law practice.
It’s not a characteristic that one immediately associates with lawyers—free labor—but whether it’s driving through the night to personally bring people to temporary homes or volunteering to legally-represent refugees needing integration into society, Studio Legale in the city of Varese is a credit to the profession.
In the sagas of the Icelanders, we can read that no-one played a more critical role, and no-one was more respected in Viking-Age society, than lawyers.
Avv. (attorney-at-law) Andrea Boni is a kind fellow, but doesn’t have a long history of volunteering. But just ten days after the Russia-Ukraine war began, he jumped in a van and drove from Lombardy to Przemyśl, the Polish town on the border with Ukraine.
“We left on the 6th [of March] with an organization from the parish Almavera near Varese,” Boni told GNN. “The parish had a contact in an association in the camp near the border with Ukraine. We had different things we were bringing—food, medicine, clothing, and there were around 15 people ready to come here in Italy. They already had referrals for where they could go.”
Boni had witnessed a refugee camp from the Lebanon War in the 1980s, but that was the extent of his experience with relief efforts.
“I remember the human tragedy,” he said. “I never thought I would do something of the sort, to go into a refugee camp for people escaping from war.”
“I tried to put myself in their position. I thought, ‘What would I want if it were my family?’” he said.
Northern Italy is a part of the country where immigration from eastern Europe is common. It’s just a short boat ride from Albania, and those from the former Soviet republics need only cross through Slovenia (a country about half the size of Switzerland) to arrive in Veneto. Like many people here, Boni was struck by the near-ness of the conflict.
“This war is really close, and we can see it on the television in real time. It’s 1,600 kilometers away, yes, but it’s Europe. It’s your home,” he told GNN. “So I didn’t think even for a moment: ‘It’s 1,600 kilometers, it’s 20 hours travel, should I go, shouldn’t I?’ No. We left immediately because it was the right thing to do.”
Boni left with two vans loaded with supplies, and drove 20 hours through Austria, the Czech Republic, and through Poland to Przemyśl where a shopping mall has been turned into a shelter for those arriving via train.
He was expecting 15 people, but when he reached the mall only three had arrived. Since Russia had struck targets in the vicinity of the railways, service had been temporarily suspended to protect people fleeing the country. Nine were unable to leave, but a separate group of three, a mother and two children, had been able to take a train to Budapest.
“So we left for Budapest, arrived at the station, and found them. Then we came back to Italy.”
Since his intervention, Boni has already returned along the same route for a second trip, while the family he brought back have settled in the city of Varese, about fifty minutes outside of Milan, where he practices.
The courts of Varese and Milan are trying to do what they can to quickly and seamlessly integrate Ukrainians minors into society. They needed volunteers to act as representatives of refugees to ensure they have access to the opportunities insured to them by EU refugee law.
Avv. Mara Braghini, who practices in the same firm as Boni, immediately volunteered.
“Some weeks ago the Child Court of Milan nominated me the representative of this 16-year-old Ukrainian guy, Viacheslav,” Braghini told GNN. “He left Ukraine after his mom and little brother. He wanted to stay with his father, but his father decided to volunteer to fight.”
With the help from an association called Us with You, Viacheslav arrived Lombardy in March.
“They arrived here after a long bus ride at 5:00 in the afternoon, and the group called a woman who had volunteered to host him named Patrizia, and said, ‘Okay they are here, he needs you,’” says Braghini, who offered to help another child named Yulia, who is staying next door to Viacheslav’s host family.
“She speaks English fortunately, so it’s easier to speak with her, but with Viacheslav it’s not so easy but we’ve had some good moments,” she adds. “I told (Yulia’s family) if they have any difficulties, if they have any problems, I will be there to help them.”
“At the moment he’s in school, and there’s an old teacher who speaks Ukrainian and who can help them with their Italian,” she says. “I saw the difference in Viacheslav with respect to the first time I met him ten days ago, he speaks quite well. He told me and Patrizia that he’d love to stay in Italy, which isn’t something common among Ukrainians because they usually want to go back to their families.”
At the time of writing, Viacheslav has acclimatized very well.
There are two other lawyers at Studio Legale, both of whom pitched in financially to fill up Boni’s vans with supplies.
In Italy, lawyers are always addressed as “Avvocato,” which is like being called “doctor,” or “officer.” Many believe the Italian Bar exam is the hardest in Europe. They are always addressed in the formal tense—the equivalent of referring to someone in English as “the Gentleman,” or “the Madame.”
People like Mara and Andrea are a credit to the fundamental humanity of their ancient profession.
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Editor’s note: This story has been altered to correct the name of the group that brought Viacheslav to Italy.