Searching for a Warm Home: Women and the Italian Refugee Crisis of World War I

In a 1918 article about aid programs for refugee women and children in Italy, Ernesta Fasciotti recalled an encounter with a family she could not forget, describing her impression of a refugee woman: “a true lady, fine and delicate, who was carrying at her breast a newborn of a few months, and had clinging to her skirt another five blonde, curly-haired children, with celestial faces, true angels on earth.” Fasciotti lamented:

My strongest compassion was raised by that sight, and stinging tears fell uncontrollably from my eyes for the pain of my powerlessness in being unable to offer that lowly person a lasting comfort, a place to finally rest, to regain her calm family life, the tender care owed to her children, where they would receive the love and respect that they deserved!1

Fasciotti described this scene in Assistenza Civile, the civilian aid bulletin running during the war years, which in many ways captured the essence of the humanitarian crisis in Italy. It was about families broken by the conflict and women’s efforts to seek shelter in the homeland. The term “refugee,” as it was used by the state and aid groups, was an umbrella category that included emigrants forced to return to Italy from other European countries, ethnic Italians living in enemy lands who were expelled when war was declared, and Italian citizens evacuated from the battlefront. 2

While mass displacement occurred virtually everywhere affected by World War I, the Italian case was distinct because the droves of refugees arriving were themselves Italian. Even though there was no national difference between the local communities and the people they hosted, there were still countless obstacles in front of the refugees trying to rebuild their lives. To make matters worse, wartime conditions changed the makeup of the families uprooted by the conflict by removing men of service age and placing the full burden of the family’s survival on women.

Return of Italian refugees after the occupation. (US National Archives)

The fact that the refugees were Italian nationals did not evoke as much sympathy among local hosts as one would think. One Italian woman from Gorizia, then in Austria-Hungary but a part of Italy today, described her experience passing through the Tuscan city of Livorno with other refugees: “[people] who were on the street here and there [jeered] ‘Evil Germans, you have come to eat our bread’, and they spat at us.”3

Even the Italian state had viewed repatriated refugees as dangerous, leading to surveillance measures that increased skepticism among local inhabitants. This, combined with the perception of refugees as living off the community’s charity and forcing resources to be divided into more parts, only inspired more hostility.

Refugees were not entirely shunned, and their situations were by no means hopeless. While by and large the Italian state’s aid to refugees was delayed, inconsistent, and generally negligent, private organizations stepped in to help. Women’s organizations, driven by the same compassion as Ernesta Fasciotti’s, took up the refugees’ cause and were well-equipped to assist thanks to their existing programs that focused on similar social challenges to what the refugees faced.

One of the first tasks carried out by women’s organizations was to help refugees overcome the bureaucratic nightmare of requesting financial support from the government. These subsidies were difficult to request, and even when they were granted, they were often disbursed in irregular intervals that could arrive as many as three or four months apart. This made it extremely difficult to use these funds to support a family. Therefore, it became essential for women to find paid work in their new surroundings.

American Red Cross distributes dry groceries to Italian soldiers and refugees in Naples, Italy. (American Red Cross/US National Archives)

Some of the initiatives developed to support the general war effort proved beneficial to refugees, such as the workshops created to make wool clothing for soldiers, which employed women with families fractured by displacement or the absence of men recalled by the military. To enable mothers with young children to work, women’s organizations also coordinated child care for refugees and military families.4

In addition to these programs, women also played a crucial role in shaping the nature of refugee aid programs to better meet their needs. After founding a National Committee for Refugee Colonies (refugee communities housing multiple families were called “colonies”) in November 1915, three women, Teresita Pasini, Sofia Bisi Albini, and Margherita Sarfatti, ventured out to visit the colonies to see with their own eyes and hear directly from refugees about their needs.

Over the next year, they visited 68 colonies, producing a list of four requests made on the refugees’ behalf. The first three involved financial concerns like unemployment and inconsistent subsidy amounts, but the fourth asked for “special treatment for pregnant women and nursing mothers.”5 Advocating for pregnant women and those with newborns aligned with the broader objectives of the women’s movement’s wartime work. Across the country, local women’s groups set up services to care for young children during the work day as well as institutions to care for those orphaned by the war.

Italian refugee school children having a rest hour. (American Red Cross/US National Archives)

A common thread running through many of the refugee aid programs was the idea of creating or recreating a “normal” family environment for children. In Fasciotti’s article, she follows the sad memory of being unable to help families with a celebration of a newly established “warm home” for women and children refugees in Milan. The “white, beautiful, sunny” building housed about 60 people yet maintained a “familial character … in which the mamas can live with their children and care for them.”6

Institutions caring for war orphans also took in children mistakenly separated from their families while refugees passed through the larger cities. Hundreds of cases were documented of children between three and fourteen years old who were lost in the hasty transportation of refugees.7 In response, aid groups and women’s organizations set up schools, shelters, and placement in foster families for the missing children, many of whom were never reunited with their families.

The “warm home” for refugees in Milan was an ideal unavailable to most refugees, especially those placed in the countryside where there were fewer resources. For most, difficult conditions continued through the war’s end and into the following years. At the time of the armistice, hundreds of thousands of refugees were living in poverty, with a mortality rate one third higher than the rest of the population. Those evacuated from Italian territory returned home to find their towns in ruin, placing yet another series of challenges before them. 8

The Italian refugee crisis of World War I highlights the resilience required of refugees, whether crossing international borders or displaced in their own country, to overcome countless sources of adversity that arise in times of war. It also shows us how gender functions in the refugee experience. For many of the families displaced during the war, the only path to recovery required women to find paid work, often for the first time, without neglecting their family responsibilities. In relief efforts, women’s leadership brought these challenges to light and developed programs to support refugee women with a better awareness of their most urgent needs. It is impossible to tell this story without an attention to gender, which profoundly shaped the experiences of both refugees and the volunteers aiding them. Gender must be considered to fully understand cases of displacement in history.

Notes

  1. Ernesta Fasciotti, “Una Casa Ospitale per Donne e Bambini Profughi,” Assistenza Civile, March 1918, 125. Return to text.
  2. Neva Biondi, “Regnicoli: Storie di Sudditi Italiani nel Litorale Austriaco durante la Prima Guerra Mondiale,” in Un Esilio che Non Ha Pari: 1914-1918, Profughi, Internati ed Emigrati di Trieste, dell’Isontino e dell’Istria, Franco Cecotti (ed.), (Gorizia: LEG, 2001). Return to text.
  3. Paolo Malni, “Evacuati e Fuggiaschi dal Fronte dell’Isonzo: I Profughi della Grande Guerra in Austria e in Italia,” in Cecotti, 100. Return to text.
  4. Graziella Gaballo, Il Nostro Dovere: L’Unione Femminile tra Impegno Sociale, Guerra e Fascismo (1899-1939), (Novi Ligure: Joker, 2015): 185-186. Return to text.
  5. Donna Paola, La Donna della Nuova Italia: Documenti del Contributo Femminile alla Guerra, (Milano: R. Quintieri, 1917), 181. Return to text.
  6. Fasciotti, 126. Return to text.
  7. Daniele Ceschin, “La Condizione delle Donne Profughe e dei Bambini dopo Caporetto,” DEP Deportate, Esuli, Profughe (no. 1) (2004): 37. Return to text.
  8. Matteo Ermacora, “Assistance and Surveillance: War Refugees in Italy, 1914-1918,” Contemporary European History 16, no. 4 (2007): 458. Return to text.

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