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Wine Importers Shift Efforts To Humanitarian Assistance: Italy Responds To The Ukrainian Refugee Crisis (Part Two)

By News Creatives Authors , in Business , at January 1, 1970

When they began their companies, importers of wine into Ukraine may not have thought of themselves as playing a pivotal role in a humanitarian crisis. But they — namely Good Wine and Wine Bureau Import & Distribution Company in Kiev — are a critical and common thread that is referenced repeatedly during conversations about the Italian wine community’s recent response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis.

For Federica Zeni of Cantina Zeni in Veneto, Wine Bureau’s involvement is the continuation of a theme. “Wine Bureau has always invested significant economic resources to promote wine and wine culture in Ukraine, not only by helping producers but also by creating ad hoc initiatives,” Zeni said. “In Kiev, within its beautiful Good Wine shop, they opened a Wine School in 2012 and from June 2016 they organized the first Wine Festival in Kiev, which has been held every year since then.”

Shifting their attention to humanitarian efforts may still have been an adjustment, but nonetheless the importers are the starting point for the second post in this mini-series about the Italian wine community’s response to refugees entering their country from Ukraine. I’ve written previously about the Italian infrastructure and relief efforts underway around the country. Here I focus on three first-person perspectives (two from Veneto and one from Tuscany) on their involvement.

How did you become involved in hosting refugees from Ukraine?

The response from Barbara Widmer, CEO of Brancaia in Tuscany, begins with their long-time Ukrainian importer partner, Good Wine. “The partnership started at [the Vinitaly trade fair in Verona] in 2007 and turned into a friendship, which has deepened steadily over the years through mutual visits,” Widmer said. “So, it was a fast decision that we want to help where and how we can. Taking in some women and children and offering them some normality seemed like a good idea.”

Similarly, Zeni traces her winery’s engagement with the Ukrainian import company back to 2008, when she and her brother Fausto made their first visits to Kiev and, since then, several other markets as well.

Over the past 14 years, Zeni has developed warm relationships with several of Wine Bureau’s employees, of which there are some 800 total. When the company asked their producers for help with accommodations for families fleeing the war, Zeni focused on the wife and four daughters of a long-standing employee that they know well. “They had already been on holiday in our area a few years ago and had come to visit us on the farm,” Zeni said. Since they don’t have a guesthouse on the estate to offer, Zeni turned to Don Paolo Bolognani, head of the “Don Bosco” educational community in Albarè that is also assisting refugees. The family now lives in an apartment in an ancient tower in Albarè, close to Zeni in Bardolino so that she can be a nearby contact for them.

For Elisabetta Tosi, wine journalist and media consultant in Valpolicella in Veneto, she saw two families arrive to her rural area a little more than a month ago after a two-day bus ride. The families are related to each other and consist of a father, mother, two girls, a maternal aunt and her baby boy. The families are relatives of Tosi’s in-laws’ caregiver, and comes from a village near Odessa.

Why did you decide to host the refugees?

Opposition to the war is at the top of the list of reasons to decide to host, along with sharing what they have and are able to offer.

“Of course, like most people, I am against this war and any other war and, as I mentioned above, I have a personal relationship with the GoodWines team,” Widmer said, counting at least two good reasons to help them. “I myself live in Tuscany in the middle of our winery. This is not only what I call paradise, but probably what many other people would also call paradise. And a paradise should not be taken for granted. So if I can help refugees from Ukraine, then I should do so.”

How would you describe the reality of the day-to-day lives in Italy for families of Ukrainian refugees? Where do they live? Are they familiar with your part of Italy? How do you communicate, and in what language?

Currently, Widmer is hosting two young women and a family that consists of a grandmother, mother and two boys ages five and one. They are all originally from Kiev, and now live in Brancaia’s apartment in the center of Castellina in Chianti, which Widmer says allows them to reach everything by foot or by public transport. They are all multilingual, she said, so communication is not a problem. In addition, “Castellina is very hospitable and helps enormously to make settling in for them as easy as possible.”

Like any of us with our phones and laptops, WiFi is essential for all of the Ukrainians not only to keep in touch with their family and friends but also for work. Widmer said that “one of the young women is a teacher for autistic children, the other one works in the IT field. Both still have their jobs. One speaks English well, the other is fluent in Italian. The mother, who is currently on maternity leave, works at Good Wine as an import Manager and speaks English.” Her five year old son just started attending the local kindergarten.

Zeni said that, for the family of women near Bardolino, “the daughters are at home [during the day] and follow the school program online with their school, from the youngest who is seven years old to the oldest who is 18. They are therefore busy with their studies and online English language workshops in the evenings.”

A reliance on Wifi is essential for the families in Valpolicella as well where, Tosi said, the oldest child living there takes her school lessons remotely, via smartphone. Tosi doesn’t know whether the school is still open, or if it still exists. Tosi said that one of the women was an elementary teacher while the other worked as an import manager with products from Italy. Their lack of work now is, obviously, a concern.

Do you have any sense of their future presence in Italy?

Neither Widmer nor the families themselves have any idea of what the future will bring but it’s obvious, she said, that they all want to go home as soon as possible.

“One thing is certain,” Zeni said of the family near Bardolino, even if the families “live in good accommodation, in a beautiful place surrounded by greenery, and even if they have people close to them who take care of them, the desire to return to Ukraine is great. They know that going back to Kiev, to their home, will be difficult in the next few months… They are happy here but they don’t feel on holiday. They are here because there is a war in their country. That is really clear to them!”

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