The migrant in transit is the most widespread type of Ukrainian immigrant. She is a middle-aged woman, often divorced or widowed (Vianello 2009), who left Ukraine when she was in her forties and her children were in their late teens or twenties. When she left her home country her plan was to stay abroad only for a year or two, with the aim of earning enough money to solve her economic problems at home and help her children to go to university and realize their potential. However her migratory experience in Italy goes on and on, for years, keeping her in a transitory condition or in a limbo in which she “put her life on hold until she returns to her family and will start a life again” as suggested by Fedyuk (2012: 297–298). She is strongly oriented to return, but she continuously postpones this event, carrying on living in Italy in precarious and marginal conditions (without a permit to stay; with a permit to stay but performing irregular work; working as live-in home care worker
for many years).
Even if she stays in Italy for a long time
(5–10 years), the narrations of the migrant in transit concerning her migratory project continue to identify return as her main goal. Thus, her behaviours, decisions, jobs, consumption and lifestyle are aimed at maximizing her earnings in order to return home soon, demonstrating loyalty to her family and fulfilling gender
norms. She does not invest her energies in the improvement of her life and working conditions in Italy, since her life abroad is instrumental to the pursuit of her family interests, a realization that shapes her migratory experience. Indeed, according to Näre (2008), unlike Sri Lankan migrants, Ukrainian women do not invest in decorating their houses, since they perceive migration as a transitory moment in their life. They prefer to invest in decorating themselves or in status symbols to restore or improve their social identity.
The return is thus a myth situated at an undefined moment in the future, when the migrant in transit will have reached her economic goals, her children will be economically independent or the economic situation in Ukraine will have improved. Actually such conditions rarely come true. In particular, the Ukrainian economic and political situation has worsened year after year, despite the illusion of a visible improvement produced by the Orange Revolution
(Solari 2006b). This is even more the case at this time with ongoing conflict, when the return is probably a mirage for many women. These migrants are thus in a situation of permanent instability, preventing them from either living fully in Italy or maintaining their social position in the origin country.
From the professional point of view, the migrant in transit experiences a radical process of devaluation. Even if she is well educated, highly skilled and has work experience in the education, health or administrative sectors, when she arrives in Italy she finds only low-skilled and badly paid jobs in the domestic and care sector. Usually she accepts working for many years as live-in home help or carer of elderly people without looking for another job as many migrant women do, because this allows her to save money on accommodation and board. Furthermore, working in the domestic sphere permits her to live in the shadows and to reduce the risk of being stopped by Italian police, given that during the first years of her stay in Italy she is undocumented.Footnote 7 The live-in work is characterized by an extremely heavy workload and potentially endless working days, because of the overlap between home and place of work. Furthermore, according to Näre (2007, 2011b) the labour contract is accompanied by a moral contract based on normative notions of familial duty, reciprocity and gratitude. It means that labour relationships are transformed by both employers and employee into family-like relationships due to the locus
of the work within the domestic sphere and the highly personalized nature of care work
. However, the migrant in transit accepts this job, because she sees the migratory experience as just an interlude in her life. It is a “short” period of time spent far from her home country, during which it is acceptable to occupy the lowest rungs of the social ladder. According to this view, downward mobility is more admissible since if it happens in a foreign country it does not radically impact migrants’ social status (Vianello 2014a, b).
The migrant in transit identifies herself primarily as a mother, even if she has adult children and is often a grandmother (Marchetti and Venturini 2013), since she uses this social role to make sense of her migration and to legitimize her absence (Vianello 2009, 2011). Her narrations are permeated with the rhetoric of sacrifice: she is working abroad only to fulfil her “mission”, that is guaranteeing the economic well-being of her family and in particular of her children, postponing her own well-being. Indeed, according to Fedyuk’s analysis of the pictures that circulate between Ukrainian migrant mothers and their families left behind, a migrating woman has to be very cautious about selecting photographs to send home, since she has to be careful not to suggest that she has a new life abroad. The photographs should, instead, represent the migratory experience as a sacrifice and confirm the mother’s devotion to family interests. For this reason photographs usually portray the migrant woman alone, stressing emotions of solitude and nostalgia (Fedyuk 2012).
The rhetorical discourse used by the migrant in transit to explain migration is based on the idea of the brave mother, real pillar of the family and society, contrasted to that of the weak man, an idler unable to fulfil his family duties (Vianello 2009). The rhetoric of female power could be partially explained as a mix of Soviet propaganda depicting mother-workers as heroes and the post-Soviet revival of the Berehynia myth, the ancient pagan goddess representing
the “hearth mother” (see also Chap. 5). In both cases women are depicted as independent, powerful and family oriented, but while in the first case males are portrayed as weak, in the second case the patriarchal order is reaffirmed. The migrant in transit, according to the Soviet rhetoric, portrays herself as a heroine and her husband as a failure, but at the same time she ideologically endorses the Berehynia model. She uses this contradictory discourse to answer accusations of being a bad mother and a rebel wife, who is subverting the Ukrainian patriarchal gender
order that is supported by many actors in the Ukrainian public sphere (Lutz and Palenga-Möllenbeck 2012).
The conflict between these two models is projected onto subsequent generations
. Some migrants in transit seek to re-establish the gender order in the next generation, using remittances
to enable their daughters to be proper mothers and wives, who stay at home with their children, and their sons to be proper men, independent and able to maintain their family (Solari 2010b; see also Chap. 5). Others seek a different future for their children, attempting to transmit to them an alternative gender model, not necessarily based on family roles (Vianello 2013a, b, c).
The migrant in transit is constrained by a dense network of obligations and pressures: maternal responsibilities, relatives’ and community’s expectations, Ukrainian economic and political instability and the suffocating job of home care worker
. However, within this narrow horizon she finds spaces for agency and self-realization. Her migratory status offers her a powerful new personal and social identity. First of all, she exercises her power through the management of remittances, deciding how to spend money and who will benefit. She is aware of her economic power and proud of her capacity to improve the living conditions of her family left behind. This strengthens her self-esteem and enhances her social status (Vianello 2013b). Second, active participation in religious communities and ethnic associations is one of the most common practices adopted by the migrant in transit to seek fulfilment, validate her skills and distinguish herself during her stay in Italy. She devotes her free time to being leader
of an ethnic association, minister of music in the church, Ukrainian language teacher in the community school for second-generation
children, or journalist for small newspapers (Vianello 2014a, b). Finally, according to Fedyuk (2011), the migrant in transit does not completely renounce her romantic and sexual life. She establishes romantic and sexual relations with Italian men, without threatening her capacity to perform the idealized role of a sacrificing mother.
To conclude, the reasons why the migrant in transit’s stay in Italy gets longer are multi-layered and include both economic and emotional reasons (Hochschild 2002). First of all, remittances
become an indispensable income for her left-behind relatives, in particular when her children get married and have their own children. According to Banfi (2009) Ukrainian women maintain a strong “ethics of remittances” even several years after leaving. Money is destined for their children, who grow up with a high degree of dependence on remittances even after the conclusion of their education, probably because of the lack of professional opportunities in Ukraine. Second, the migrant’s advanced age reduces her labour prospects in Ukraine and thus the possibility of being independent. Hence she chooses to finish her working life in Italy. She is also aware that she needs to put aside some money for her old age, given that Ukrainian pensions are very low.Footnote 8 Third, after many years abroad (from five to ten), the migrant in transit starts to build her identity around the figure of migrant worker and she does not really want to change her status/position in society again. In other words she is afraid to return and prefers to carry on her transnational life, since it guarantees her economic independence and power. Thus, sometimes finding new economic needs for the family left behind is a strategy to justify the extension of migration and postpone the return