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Ukrainian refugee orphans in Sicily: aid, bureaucracy, an incident involving the use of force

September 14, 2023, 21:55 308 Author: Natalka Kudryk www.radiosvoboda.org ROME - Italy, during the large-scale war against Ukraine, Russia temporarily took in hundreds of Ukrainian orphans and children deprived of parental care.

Ukrainian refugee orphans in Sicily: aid, bureaucracy, an incident involving the use of force

Sicily (illustrative photo)

It was a positive experience for many children of orphanages, and some of them have already returned to the Motherland. But sometimes the dynamics of facts are problematic, as evidenced by the stories collected by the project "How are you?" from the city of Catania, which is in the east of the island of Sicily in the bay of the Ionian Sea.

The first story about how bureaucratic collisions and disputes between the volunteer and state structures of the city affected the interests of Ukrainian pupils, as recently became known from the scandalous video, which recorded aggression towards evacuee teenagers.

The second story is about how, despite the difficulties and lack of funds, with joint efforts they did everything for a comfortable stay of the children in Italy and their return to their native country.

Relocation with tears and fists

In May of last year, more than 60 pupils of orphanages from the Donetsk region aged 4-16 were evacuated to Sicily. They were accompanied by two dozen teachers. This group was distributed among three cities - Trapani, Modica and Catania.

Already in Catania, part of the refugees - 24 children and seven teachers who accompanied them from Ukraine - was taken under its wing by a local public association Spazio 47, says her leader Marco Barbarossa.

Ukrainian refugee orphans in Sicily: aid, bureaucracy, an incident involving the use of force

Italian landscapes

Previously, the organization took care exclusively of cultural and sports work with young people and had no living conditions. But during the day, all possible resources were mobilized for the refugees from the house as well "Emerald Town" from Sviatohirsk, Donetsk region, found a place to live in two religious structures of the city.

The children were divided again - 12 in each group - to live in the mentioned parish houses.

The same association, according to its leader, drew up documents for children in the police and took care of other bureaucratic procedures - such as enrollment in a local school, organization of leisure activities with rest at sea, and more.

All this was done with the funds of the volunteer community, Mr. Barbarossa claims: "We did not receive a single penny from the commune."

"We did not receive a single penny from the commune." - leader of the Italian public association Marco Barbarossa

The children were identified by Italian authorities as unaccompanied foreign minors. The fact is that for a long time, at the beginning of the emergency situation, acting within the framework of Italian law, the courts did not recognize the guardianship of Ukrainian educators. Therefore, the judge, having confirmed the place of residence of the refugees, appointed them a temporary state guardian - an Italian citizen, who represents the interests of children in administrative institutions, and entrusted the responsibility and care of minors to the social services of the city commune of Catania.

Within a few months, this juvenile court found the living conditions of refugee children living in religious communities to be inappropriate and authorized social services to move them to a new structure that complies with the law and is specifically designed for the stay of unaccompanied foreign minors.

Such centers are listed in the state register, and it is they who receive state funds for the maintenance of foreign refugees from the city commune. According to the relevant law, 100 euros per day is provided for the maintenance of one such child.

The first group with younger children was resettled three months later and the Spazio 47 association lost contact with them. But a group of older foster children remained, consisting of 10 teenagers (two were previously sent to Ukraine to complete the previously initiated international adoption procedure).

Most of the educators returned to Ukraine, why - it is not known, the Ukrainian representatives of the children did not comment on their position at the request of RFE/RL.

The head of the association says that in the meantime, repairs have been made to the premises, and he has officially appealed to the city authorities to include their structure in the mentioned state register in order to also receive funding. But the local authorities refused.

"I refused to give the children to the employees of the new institution" - leader of the Italian public association Marco Barbarossa

Marco Barbarossa gives his version of events:

"On the basis of false reports that we did not accompany the children, that they were not sufficiently integrated, the social services got angry and wrote through the Italian guardian that they would come to talk to the children about moving. The first time, without court documents and permission, I refused to give the children to the employees of the new institution.

Social services returned several times, but did not explain the reasons. I already had all the standards, five professional educators, catering, other types of activities - everything was for a comfortable life for ten teenagers from Ukraine."

Ukrainian refugee orphans in Sicily: aid, bureaucracy, an incident involving the use of force

More than 60 pupils of orphanages from the Donetsk region were evacuated to Sicily, the group was distributed among three cities - Trapani, Modica and Catania

And finally, after warnings from the social service, accompanied by police officers in civilian clothes, they arrived to fulfill the court's decision: to move the Ukrainian pupils to a new place of residence.

The head of the Association was not there at that time, and the children, according to him, not wanting to leave the place of long-term residence, began to protest.

According to the head of the community, this caused the scandalous incident, which was filmed by the children from the bus, and Marco Barbarossa himself shared it on Facebook.

One of the young men - 16-year-old Mykhailo - showed more disobedience near the bus where his friends were already sitting - and the law enforcement officers used force against him. According to another version, as Radio Svoboda learned, the teenagers did not protest against the move so much as they were afraid that they would be separated from the rest of the group, which was at sea at that time.

The conflict between the Association and social services moved to the courts.

The head of the organization, Barbarossa, submitted the first statement to the court complaining about the lack of support from social services and false reports about the conditions of stay of Ukrainian children. And the second, a criminal statement on his behalf, concerns a case of violence against a minor during the transportation of children.

Earlier, the social services sued him, accusing the man of opposing the execution of the court decision and refusing to hand over the refugee children.

"They started the war to take these children" - leader of the Italian public association Marco Barbarossa

"We, as an Association, had no vested interest in doing business," Mr. Barbarossa told RFE/RL. - For others who would like to have this 30 thousand euros every month, it would be convenient (100 euros every day for ten children for 30 days - ed.). They started the war to take these children."

The head of the social services department of the commune of Catania did not provide an official comment to Radio Liberty, explaining that as a state executive she does not have such powers. At the same time, off the record, she denied the fact of forcible transportation of children and called the filmed event manipulation.

According to her, thanks to the efforts of social workers, the children are now in much better conditions, she feels calm, wrote about the situation to the UN and is preparing to defend herself in court.

At the time of publication, RFE/RL had not received a response to a request from the Juvenile Court of Catania.

Ukrainian refugee orphans in Sicily: aid, bureaucracy, an incident involving the use of force

For a long time, at the beginning of the full-scale invasion, acting within the framework of Italian law, the courts did not recognize the guardianship of Ukrainian educators

As Radio Svoboda learned from its own sources, the law enforcement officers of Catania are investigating the fact of violence against children, and those involved in the incident have been temporarily suspended from work.

After this incident, pupils from Sviatohirsk have already changed two places of residence. They are now in a facility on the outskirts of Catania, awaiting the decision of the Juvenile Court, which in September should give permission to return the inmates of this boarding school to a safe place in Ukraine.

According to the Ukrainian teacher who lives near the children, the pupils are now satisfied. They still receive small money (10-14 euros per week), buy food and manage to cook Ukrainian dishes.

They visited - and went to the Motherland

The Italian Orthodox priest Father Giovanni Amante actively contributed to the evacuation of children from a communal institution to Catania "Chernihiv Lyceum".

"After the first bombings in Chernihiv, we received a request from the orphanage for help" - Italian priest Father Giovanni Amante

"After the first bombings of Chernihiv, we received a request from the orphanage for help. The children arrived tired and disoriented, they had all the relevant permits to leave Ukraine. We have known this house for almost 20 years. This boarding school is well equipped, we helped them with repairs," says priest Giovanni, vice-president of the charitable association Arca senza confini.

He regrets that Ukrainian educators were not recognized as guardians in the beginning, so they had to rely on the Italian authorities, which were engaged in the resettlement of children in groups in the respective institutions. If they recognized the guardianship of Ukrainians, then they could themselves decide where to settle the children.

Ukrainian refugee orphans in Sicily: aid, bureaucracy, an incident involving the use of force

Landscapes of Catania in Sicily

"It was not easy for us," Father Giovanni recalls. - The initial idea together with Ukrainian educators was different. Did the children leave one orphanage to end up in another abroad? So we wanted the children to live in families, to have the experience of family living and more dignified care. Unfortunately, this did not happen."

"We wanted children to live in families" - Italian priest Father Giovanni Amante

His Association, he says, conducted a selection of families who could receive children at home. These people underwent psychological tests, courses, and as a result, their efforts came to naught.

"We warned everyone that it was about the temporary stay of the children, without the possibility of their further adoption. There was a lot of bureaucracy - and nothing worked out," adds Father Giovanni.

In the winter, the children were engaged in school activities, some online - in the Ukrainian school, some offline - in the Italian school. Leisure hours were spent mostly indoors, not often going outside the structure, as they told the priest.

According to the father's observations, the pupils had certain difficulties with the Italian guardians due to the language barrier. Some of them could say something in Italian because they had visited the country before. And even these children were not allowed to live with families, says Father Giovanni.

This group of pupils aged 6-18, together with the director of the orphanage, returned to Ukraine two weeks ago. In the beginning, the Association took care of the round-trip travel and leisure activities with its own resources.

"We were not allowed to see the children afterwards" - Italian priest Father Giovanni Amante

"But we were not allowed to see the children later," continues the priest. - We did not want something selfish. This time, they did not have enough help from sponsors to send, because the war in Ukraine is no longer news, people do not respond to requests for help."

The director of the Chernihiv Lyceum, with the consent of the Ukrainian authorities, decided to return to the Motherland with her children. The juvenile court of the city of Catania already recognized her authority based on a letter from the Ukrainian consulate in Naples, and the return permit was issued without any problems.

Ukrainian refugee orphans in Sicily: aid, bureaucracy, an incident involving the use of force

A group of pupils aged 6-18, together with the director of the orphanage, returned to Ukraine two weeks ago

"We wanted the children to stay in Sicily, because it is safer here" - Italian priest Father Giovanni Amante

"We, as the Association, wanted the children to remain in Sicily, because it is safer here, but we agreed with the Ukrainian side's wish. The children did not show any special wishes either to stay here or to return, they are very obedient and trusted us and the director.

However, they expressed a desire to live in families. When saying goodbye, they told me that they wanted to come back for Christmas, because they know about such upcoming projects," said Father Giovanni Amante, deputy head of the Arca senza confini association.

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