When the conflict in Ukraine escalated into war, Nataliia and her husband discovered the unimaginable challenges of living in a war zone with two young children.

“When the war was starting, all of the schools and kindergartens were closed. My work and my husband’s work we could do online, but with two kids for eight hours a day, it was impossible. We also understood there was no way things would become better in a few months,” Nataliia said.    

After waiting until the Sumy region where they lived in Ukraine was no longer occupied, Nataliia started reaching out for any job opportunities she could find abroad. Thankfully, she had old connections she could reach out to in Trieste, Italy.    

“I was in Trieste eight years ago when I did my PhD. When the war started, I began looking for a job somewhere—asked friends, sent emails everywhere—but the connection I made before worked for me well. They asked for my CV, and I was glad to have a job here.”    

After securing a job as a researcher, Nataliia boarded a bus to Italy with her children, becoming one of the many women forced to flee Ukraine without their husbands in order to build safer futures for their children. 

Economic empowerment: the key to thriving in new communities 

In 2022, Italy became one of the main destination countries within the European Union for refugees fleeing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At the end of December 2022, the Italian Ministry of Interiors had recorded about 173,589 Ukrainian refugees who entered Italy - most of them were women (53%) and children (28%) since all able-bodied men between 18-60 have been barred from leaving Ukraine due to conscription. 

While Nataliia was able to secure a job before fleeing home, many women can’t. With women travelling alone with their children and needing to be the main source of providing, economic empowerment is more important for them than ever. 

Since 2020, the IRC in Italy works with refugees, migrants and vulnerable populations to overcome barriers to entry into complex and unfamiliar job markets while ensuring that local community members see the value newcomers can bring to their economy. Our teams prioritize the most disadvantaged population groups, including unaccompanied children and women like Nataliia, and support them so that they can become self-sufficient and economically stable over time. 

We do this by distributing cash vouchers to cover basic immediate needs of newly arrived refugees, one-to-one support, social emotional support as well as basic and advanced digital skills for labour inclusion. We also support migrant and refugee entrepreneurs by providing training on local business systems and financing options. 

Even though Nataliia had previously lived and worked in Trieste, starting over after fleeing war had its own set of challenges.

“I had a lot of problems finding an apartment,” she said. “I didn’t know if I’d be able to find a big enough apartment we could afford, and we didn’t know how much to budget for grocery shopping because things are very different in Ukraine. You can’t really predict these things at first here.” 

One challenge was finding a place for her children to go while she was working during the summer. “In summer in Italy, all kindergartens were closed, unlike in Ukraine, so we had a problem with summer. I had to work, but the children had to go somewhere,” Nataliia said. 

Then, she was introduced to the IRC’s Women and Girls' Safe Spaces programme. 

Safe spaces: creating a home away from home 

The IRC centre added a whole new level of support for Nataliia’s family. Not only did the centre offer wonderful resources for her children, but also resources to help them adjust to life in Trieste.  

Since 2019, the IRC has partnered with local organisations to set up Women and Girls Safe Spaces (WGSS) in Rome, Palermo, Milan, Turin and Trieste. The WGSS approach is an evidence-based methodology where migrant women and girls can be engaged in creative activities and access psychological and case management services, supporting the development of social networks and promoting empowerment in a safe environment for them and their children. 

“They have a schedule of when there are speaking clubs, time for children, events outside on weekends. And that time my mom arrived here, when the centre organises speaking clubs, I asked my mom to come here once a week to learn some Italian. My mom comes once a week for the speaking club. And in the wintertime, they have events for children. So, she brings them and meets other Ukrainians. The kids can play together, organise events on the weekends. During those I can join the meetings—once a month.”  

“The most memorable moment at the centre was when we celebrated for the first time some traditional Ukrainian holidays and we organised St. Nicholas Day,” Nataliia said. “They do it here but also in Ukraine except on a different day. The children come here for St. Nicholas Day and they get presents. It was a really nice time. At the time it was just women from Ukraine and we were all learning Italian but it’s hard. Here we remember our Ukrainian, and it was nice.”  

Nataliia, an IRC client from Ukraine living in Trieste
"I am thinking about staying here, my children are learning Italian, and I hope my husband will come here later to us so we can live here as a family."

Photo: Robert Saunders for the IRC

Although Nataliia would love to return home, she’s realistic about the fact that it may be a long time before it’s safe to go back to Ukraine. But she doesn’t let the stop her from having hope for her family’s future.  

“I am thinking about staying here, my children are learning Italian, and I hope my husband will come here later to us so we can live here as a family. He’s still in Ukraine. He’s a programmer also. We have the rules on when the men can cross the border.” 

A World of Welcome  

While Italy has extended their welcome to people displaced from their homes, it takes all of us around the world to ensure that the more than 110 million people have what they need to survive, recover and rebuild their lives.  

When you support the IRC, you can help them do just that.  

Today, the IRC works in over 50 crisis-affected countries, delivering lasting impact in the toughest places on Earth and communities across Europe and the Americas. Our teams provide protection and healthcare, help children recover from trauma and learn, empower individuals and strengthen communities - always with a focus on the unique needs of women and girls.  

Every year, the IRC helps thousands of people like Nataliia become contributing members of their new communities. But it takes a global community to help them quickly become neighbours, colleagues and friends who shape our lives and communities for the better.   

Help families like Nataliia’s recover and rebuild their lives by making a donation to the IRC today. Give now.