…. to bring hope to the world

Empathy across borders: the war in Ukraine seen from Romania

In these days of great sadness for what is happening in Ukraine, hope shines through the strength of empathy and solidarity, which crosses borders and reaches right into the heart of war. Romania, where I currently live, is the main gateway for refugees from Ukraine to Europe, as is Poland. From this observation point I went in search of touches of humanity and found many. I am convinced that as expats we have a duty to recount what is happening in the countries where we live. Interpreting reality from a new perspective can be very helpful.


For those born and raised in Western Europe in the second half of the twentieth century, war has always felt distant. Distant in time, fought between the pages of history books or in the stories of grandparents, or distant in space, even if, in fact, it was not. Just think of the example of Yugoslavia. But we liked to think about war this way: unfair, cruel, terrible, but “belonging to others”.

Perhaps it was a kind of defence mechanism, a way of not being overwhelmed by horror.  Maybe we should be a little indulgent to ourselves for every time we were not emotionally involved in other wars. Now I realize how superficial we were, and how bitter the awakening is today.

During my years in Bucharest, I often heard sirens, but was only afraid the first time. I often saw fighter planes pass over my house, but they didn’t worry me: Oh yes, there are NATO bases, I said to myself.

Today, however, war is close and is invisibly but tenaciously creeping into everyone’s daily lives. In recent days Italy has sent more planes the Mihail Kogalniceanu military base, near Constanța. Yet Constanța always evoked sea rather than war for Romanians, and for me, until a week ago.

A friend sends me a message: you can donate blood for wounded Ukrainians at the blood transfusion center at the Central Military Emergency University Hospital. I am overcome by anxiety and hearing my children in the next room going on with their life does not make me feel better. I need to go out. Passing near the Ukrainian Embassy is painful: flowers, candles, signs in many languages. A group of a dozen people are out there, maybe waiting to enter, maybe waiting for news. I dare not ask; I dare not get close to those harrowed eyes.

I need to find some humanity in these cold days, to get, if not relief, at least a moment of respite in my thoughts. I want to listen and talk about the solidarity that runs along those 600 kilometers of border with Ukraine, and that from there engulfs the whole of Romania. After all, Halso made up of the many gestures of ordinary people and organizations, and this, too, must be told.

My friend Alexandra Paucescu shows me the photos of the Caradja Cantacuzino Association, one of the many organisations receiving aid in Bucharest: the number of volunteers and the amount of essential goods is impressive. Meanwhile, within a few hours, the entrepreneur Alexandru Panait created the refugees.ro platform, to connect Ukrainian refugees, who can specify their needs, with those who want to help them with housing, lifts, meals, and basic needs. And the number of those who help out continues to grow, as well as the list of restaurants and hotels that offer meals and accommodation to Ukrainian passport holders.

Empathy across borders

Refugees form Ukraine arriving at Isaccea (Romania). Photo © Mugur Varzariu

As I scroll through the endless offers of help online, with hundreds of Romanians opening the doors of their homes, welcoming people to their table, or giving lifts, I get a message from Simona Carobene, an Italian social worker in Romania, who has travelled to the border with Ukraine.

She tells me about the cold, the snow and the many, many people who arrive having covered miles on foot. On her journey, she was left speechless when she received a call from a desperate woman in tears who asked for bulletproof jackets, helmets, gloves and boots for the soldiers.

Roman, a Ukrainian who managed to enter Romania with his wife and five children, could have moved on elsewhere. He has a network of contacts in other European countries, but he decided to stay there, at the border: he speaks English and Romanian; he can help his people. He lives in a shelter with 57 others, many of them children. And he knows that what they need is not only blankets or food, but also not to feel alone. They need a smile, a hug. ‘What hope do you have for your country, for your people?’ asks Simona. Roman shrugs: ‘Eternal life, perhaps’.

Right after this I get a call from Don Valeriano, a priest friend. He’s 50 kilometres from Budapest, on his way back from Italy. Two nights ago, he received a phone call from Lviv: You have to rescue disabled people, it is difficult to keep them in the improvised bunker in the building where they live. Valeriano and a colleague take a car and a bus and leave.

They arrive in the middle of the night at a secondary custom, hoping it will be easier for them to pass. And so it is: only three hours of waiting and a dozen people, including two in wheelchairs, cross into Romania. They drive through Italy. . As I write, Valeriano is making another journey, this time to rescue 44 people, mothers and children. Not all minors have documents, but he is confident that also this time there won’t be any problem.

Meanwhile, at the border, Romanians do what they can, bringing food, blankets, toys, offering car rides, a bed, a meal in their own home.

I scroll through the photos of a photographer friend, Mugur Varzariu. As I thought, he is there, at the border, too. I ask him to tell me about a moment, a face, a situation that struck him, that helped him to keep hope and trust in humanity alive.

He tells me about Anastasiia, who arrived with her mother and her child from Odessa at the border checkpoint of Isaccea, carrying a trolley and nothing else. Exhausted, she burst into tears when she realized she didn’t have her biometric passport with her. The frontier commander, a big man in a dark uniform, offered her a rose, which had somehow ended up there in the confusion, and then he let her through. From Isaccea, Anastasiia found a lift to Bucharest, where she is now hosted by the mother of a Romanian gendarme. .

Faced with so much violence, so much pain, when despair seems to overwhelm us, we must take a moment to think about the example of so many people, women and men, who in the cold of the long night our continent is going through, open the doors of their homes and keep burning a flame of hope, as small as it is precious.

This article was adapted from the original published in Italian on March 4, 2022 in the online magazine Mentinfuga.


All pictures ©Mugur Varzariu

Giuliana Arena
Bucharest, Romania
March 2022













How the language we speak shapes our brain

Photo by Annika Gordon on Unsplash

In these turbulent times, with so many examples of the difficulty we human beings face relating to each other, I end up asking myself why it is so hard for people to understand and feel compassion for each other.

Often, when people think differently about a subject, they find it difficult to understand each other, and then, given presumptions on what they understand, things escalate to a fight.

In a TED talk entitled, “How language shapes the way we think“, Lera Boroditsky inspired me to reflect on how the language we speak can interfere with our thoughts – and shape them. The same expression (or the same word) may have a different meaning for a person who speaks another language. In fact, certain words or expressions may not even exist in a different language.

For example, some languages are built on diverse relationships with space and geography – these factors combine to create a variety of thoughts and ways to express them. (This is extremely interesting! Take the time to listen to Lera Boroditsky… I assure you, you will have a different point of view on the role of language in human communication.)

After listening, I immediately imagined the dynamics of a conversation between two people using two different native languages; and then that of two people who use a third common language to communicate… How many times, when we speak with a person coming from a different culture or speaking a different language, are we aware that what we say may have a totally different meaning in the listener’s brain? Are we aware that the thoughts forming in our mind while listening could be very different from the meaning intended by the speaker?

Developing this kind of awareness is key: it’s like opening a door to a completely different approach for communication amongst cultures. Lera leaves us with the following questions to bring with us for our next interlanguage/intercultural conversation:


Why do I think the way I do?
How could I think differently?
What thoughts do I wish to create?



Cristina Baldan
July 2020


Photo by Nathaniel Shuman on Unsplash


We are all Expats from a world that we simply don’t know about

The beauty of managing a broad online community is that the chances to come across amazing persons multiply. An Expatclicker put me in touch with Vincent Lemma because she thought he had something to add to our ongoing discourse of What Expats Can Do. She was right. This interview with Vincent is interesting, thought-provoking and inspiring.


Welcome Vincent. Would you like to share a bit of your story with us?

Sure. I am a US-citizen, born and raised in Brooklyn to Italian parents. I came to Italy when I was 18 because my dad wanted to go back to his home country.

Mine is a bit of an unconventional path. When I arrived in Italy, I began to study engineering, but I soon realized it was too rigid for me. I also felt a certain call in a different direction.

It was then that I discovered the world of indigenous populations, and started working in their defense and for their protection, bringing their causes to the UN in Geneva and New York. I wrote speeches and acted as interpreter for a foundation I had joined.

I realized that humanity as a whole had been “robbed” of its roots and that this sort of “heritage plundering” still continues today.

Meeting these different people marked my life. At the same time I also approached the world of animals. I was frustrated by their present conditions, so I set up SOS Segugi, which has become a fairly known association in Italy. We fight hunting, save mistreated dogs, and try to raise public awareness.

Thank you Vincent. Could you elaborate a bit on what you mentioned about getting in contact with the world of indigenous populations, and how it marked you?

It was all by chance really. One night I was walking along the streets of Turin, just admiring the porticos but lost, and I see a plaque on a building that reads “Ecospirituality Foundation”. As I was curious, I attended one of their conferences, and it turned out to be an NGO that supported self-growth and indigenous causes.

They see the indigenous people as bearers of fundamental human knowledge and traditions that could benefit humanity as a whole. At that time, I felt that “the Universe” was trying to point me in a direction so I just followed my instincts and leaped in.

Years later, I found myself working at their side on issues of humanitarian importance, getting the chance to meet many indigenous cultures from around the world. Native Americans, Australian Aborigines, numerous African tribes and even indigenous cultures of Europe.

people who have had the opportunity to experience a greater perception and raise their cultural awareness have an enormous responsibility towards the evolution of humanity from a cultural, moral and ethical standpoint.

The funny thing is, for instance, that I had to come to Italy to discover the traditions of Native Americans, as they are poorly portrayed in the U.S.

I got a chance to discover so many traditions but all linked by a focus on our ties with a greater nature that links us all. Indeed, there were so many elements in common that is was almost uncanny, and from that point I realized that humanity as a whole had been “robbed” of its roots and that this sort of “heritage plundering” still continues today.

You might think that this all does not affect modern-day life; but I feel that civilizations cannot build a prosperous future without knowing their [true] past. Humanity could make astounding leaps in all areas of life. This all changed my life, and as often happen, I never meant for any of it to work out this way.

I find what you say here absolutely inspiring: “humanity as a whole has been “robbed” of its roots and that this sort of “heritage plundering” still continues today”. It made me reflect on how easier it is for people like me and you, who integrate diversity in their lives in a natural way (by living abroad, changing country, etc.), to have a vision of humanity as a whole, instead of a world population divided by frontiers, walls and flags. I know it is a vast question, but do you think that those people who have experienced what you have gone through, for instance, this realization you talk about, have a responsibility towards the world to spread their message? And what are in your opinion some of the ways they could achieve this? 

I’ll start by saying, yes, people who have had the opportunity to experience a greater perception and raise their cultural awareness have an enormous responsibility towards the evolution of humanity from a cultural, moral and ethical standpoint. We cannot make true progress towards a future without having a clear picture of our past and present. How can you enhance the human condition without knowing about it? Humanity is so much more than the economy on which our Western world is based.

…a single humanity is the canvas and many cultures are the colours that compose the painting.

Photo ©ClaudiaLandini

I often meet people who have just lived in one place, and their cultural awareness of the world and of its different peoples is often limited by what they are fed by external sources such as the media. It is impossible for a person that has lived in one neighbourhood all their lives and perhaps has only taken a few trips abroad to get a greater picture of the world. Even the school system in place fails to provide a greater sense of a world community. In my opinion, globalisation is actually having the opposite effect of closing borders and human interaction.

Sure, we have the internet, which is great, and we can talk to people from anywhere in the world, but we always think that they have our cultural mindset, and this is not always the case. The beauty of the world is its diversity, and this is undermined in today’s modern society. In other words, a single humanity is the canvas and many cultures are the colours that compose the painting.

As for the second part of your question, I believe that all communities of the world must come together to create a sort of “Heritage Doomsday Vault”, like the one in Norway that stores seeds in case the world goes south. I could really go on and articulate at length on this, as it has always been a problem for humanity, but now more than ever, we need to find ways of leaving traces of our history. This will not be on the internet or in books, although these are a great vehicle of dissemination, but perhaps we must encourage oral tradition again, and maybe burying a few time capsules wouldn’t hurt either.

I also feel that humanity must piece together its true history. This “heritage plundering” has indeed falsified our past, which has led to our current situation of strife. We need “history detectives” that are brave and unbiased to go beyond the accepted story that we are all fed at present.

We have so little time left to do this, which is why even initiatives such as “What Expats Can Do” take on a vital importance. We are all Expats from a world that we simply don’t know about.

Thank you so much Vincent. I would now like you to share your vision about animals and a bit of what you do for them in Italy. I know you have created an organization called SOS Segugi, could you tell us a bit more about its mission, but mostly why you have set it up? 

Sure, actually my path in human rights is tightly connected with animal rights. I learned respect for nature, animals and people when coming to Italy and along my path. I had an Italian hound dog that I loved dearly, his name was Tommy. Animals can teach us so much if we just take the time to “listen”, and I had felt so frustrated for a long time that animals are so mistreated.

Anyway, Tommy got cancer and he would soon leave me. I took him in my arms and promised him that I would help his species. Soon after I opened SOS Segugi, which is based in Italy, and is now going international under the name Hound Dog Society.

What we actually do is help abandoned and mistreated dogs, provide medical and mental assistance and home them. We also hold public events and run social media campaigns to raise awareness. Recently, we have been bringing our message of compassion into schools so that children can learn about the fantastic bonds that can be created between people and animals. Our efforts have saved hundreds of dogs and reached a vast audience.

As for my mission, I like the quote by Mahatma Gandhi that says “The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated“, and actually expand on it and say “the greatness of the world”. Animals are in effect a civilization, different than our own of course, but with their own right to life.

We are seeing many great advances in technology but I feel that ethics is lagging behind. Helping animals, in my modest experience, serves as an example to others to bring out the natural compassion that we all have but that often forget along the line. We share this world with other creatures. We often hear about climate change and how it’s important to take action. I agree with this, but I also feel that we must take action towards other forms of life so that we can better ourselves, and it all begins with us.

Plus, I have so much fun with what I do, and that never hurts.


Interview collected by Claudia Landini
December 2019
Photos ©VincentLemma except where otherwise stated

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