Two refugees embarce in Dnipro | Photo: ANSA
Two refugees embarce in Dnipro | Photo: ANSA

In Dnipro, an Italian chef who has lived for three years in Ukraine is helping refugees fleeing the war."When the bombs began, I did not think twice.You can't just leave. You need to help these people. It reminds me of Italy 30 years ago," he said.

For the past 40 days Nicola,, an Italian chef originally from Bergamo, has been going around Dnipro in south-central Ukraine in his black Jeep with lists of people, dates, places and products on the seat beside him, arranging packages and seeking empty flats. "But with the location services of the cellphone turned off, one never really knows," said Nicola, who has been living in Ukraine for three years with his Ukrainian wife Anna and their nine-year-old son.

Nicola felt involved in the war from the very beginning, when in the first week he began cooking for soldiers in the city. Now he acts as a kind of jack-of-all-trades volunteer coordinating humanitarian aid and evacuations.

However, Nicola likens his job to feeling almost like he is on the front lines. "The Russian military shoot at us. They have hit our vehicles with Kalashnikovs multiple times, despite our having white flags."

He then shows photos of a windshield shattered by bullets, as well as signs on the doors and sides.

'You can't leave'

"Here I started my restaurant business and I haven't stopped since," he said. "When bombs began to rain down I did not think twice. You can't just leave. You need to help these people. It reminds me of Italy 30 years ago: the people are united and despite stereotypes they are very affectionate," he said.

Nicola, who now feels entirely Ukrainian, sealed his love for his adopted country by getting a tattoo of the country's blue and yellow national flag, which he said "goes through the vein and into the heart."

In recent days, however, he has begun feeling concern. "More and more people are arriving from Mariupol, Kharkiv, Lugansk, Donestk, Kherson, and Mykolaiv. However, the situation could really change from one moment to the next. The mayor of Dnipro has urged people not to stop in this city anymore and to try to continue onwards since it could be dangerous. Many, however, want to remain as close as possible to their homes," he said.

In the city, where until a few weeks ago some other Italians were also living, he remains the only Italian left. "I began by bringing goods from our country, getting in touch with associations, then slowly as the lorries arrived in Lviv [in western Ukraine] the goods were offloaded - medicine, food, clothes - and people got on to travel to Poland. Even now we are organizing buses and vans to pick up the displaced fleeing Mariupol, including some of those who were in the theater that collapsed under the bombs," he said, adding proudly that he had "done the calculations and so far with various organizations we have rescued 27,000 people".

'Nico the Italian'

Everyone who meets him refers to him as 'Nico the Italian', even though with other volunteers he speaks in Russian - a language he learned years ago.

Sleep is a rare commodity these days. Nicola is often woken when sirens go off and bombs fall or when telephones begin to ring and messages arrive. He is constantly rushing off to various centers to see what is needed."There are hundreds of kilos of pasta but perhaps there are no pots or those displaced people do not have microwaves, so I go to pick up boxes and transport things to where they are most needed at that moment."

Nicola says another priority is finding places for people to stay. "For this, I try to find vacant apartments and I get blankets. Two hundred elderly people have just arrived, where can I put them? In one of the centers we have inflatable mattresses and beds. Organization is key for being able to progress in this war and survive. There are people fleeing missiles and guns, with their lives in two shopping bags."

 

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