Caring for our past

“Caring for our past” is a journey through the Ukrainian caregivers community in Italy, which began at the end of 2021 and lasted until June 2023. This project started from my personal story since my grandmother was assisted by an Ukrainian caregiver who later introduced me to the community. It was born as an investigation on the role of caregivers in Italians’ houses and from when the war broke out it continued documenting the feeling of leaving a conflict from afar.

Among the EU Member States, before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Italy hosted one of the largest communities of Ukrainian-born people. This migration made them one of the most stabilized foreign communities in the country, largely composed of women employed primarily in family and health services for the elderly. Today, as they care for our past, they watch their future crumbling from afar. The economic and political transformations that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union severely affected Ukrainian women. Migration became one of the most common responses to the social and economic transformations taking place in Ukraine, but also their solution to pursuing social mobility upward for their families. In the 1990s and 2000s, the rising of Ukrainian women’s migration to Italy was associated with a demand for domestic and care workers resulting from the combination of social phenomena: the aging of Italian society, the continuation of an unequal gender division of reproductive labor, the Italian familist welfare state, and the increasing participation of women in the labor force. Italian families could rely on a labor force that was particularly well adapted to work full-time with the elderly, as it was predominantly Christian, white, middle-aged and alone, thus without family obligations. Migrant workers have granted the continuity of a family-centered model of care. These women enter our homes as employees, but they become part of our family. They sleep in our old bedrooms, they bathe our grandparents by breaking their most intimate spaces. In a short time they build strong bonds of complicity, until they have to leave and start all over again. They accompany our aged people until their last breath more than we do. However, no one prepares them mentally for the transitions and mourning. Today many have stayed and work to support their country from afar. Tirelessly, they give love to our elders while their sons are on the front lines fighting. Communicating has become more complicated and their days are marked by tension and uncertainty. They do a physical and mental labor, but they are hired and monitored for their emotional labor; the capacity to manage and produce a feeling. However, when they wake up in the morning without knowing whether their loved ones have survived the night, it becomes almost impossible to pretend a smile.

This story was supported by The Alex and Rita Hillman Foundation Fellowship.