Ukraine War hits home in Rome where 200 volunteers help Santa Sofia church send tons of supplies to Ukraine

Santa Sofia’s supply tent from which they’ve made 80 shipments of supplies for war victims in Ukraine. Photo by Maria Pascucci

The big white tent next to the church parking lot looks like it could host a small circus. But inside on a dirt floor are hundreds of cardboard boxes, some stacked in a mountain about 10 feet high. Most are taped up. Others are open, waiting for a final touch and a shipping address. 

Dry pasta, olive oil, biscuits, vegetable broth. Non-pasteurized milk, hard candy, canned soup. Jeans, shoes, blankets. Even dolls. Medicine and female hygiene products are in one box. Towels and disposable wipers are in others. Bulging plastic bags are scattered about.

About a dozen people, all volunteers, fill boxes and secure them with heavy tape. Two months ago, more than 200 volunteers filled this tent, taking in anything anyone from concerned Rome citizens could give.

The Ukraine War has touched nearly every corner of the world but it hits home especially hard at Santa Sofia a Via Boccea. It’s the largest of three Ukrainian Catholic churches in Rome in the capital of the country with the third-highest Ukrainian population in Europe.

The Chiesa di Santa Sofia was built in 1967. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Rome has the most beautiful churches in the world, and Santa Sofia may lead all of Rome in mosaics. The inside of the church is a cascade of gold. It has been a gathering point and pulse of Rome’s Ukrainian population since it was built in 1967. 

Never more than now. 

Ukraine War numbers

Before Russia attacked Ukraine in February, Italy had a Ukrainian population of 234,354, according to the Ukrainian Embassy in Rome. Only Moldova (442,475) and Germany (272,000) had more. Some unofficial counts put Italy’s number at 500,000. Since the war began, Italy has taken in nearly 110,000 Ukrainian war refugees, including 35,000 children.

The Ukrainians who are stuck back home scurrying for food while dodging Russian bombs are getting help from Santa Sofia. The church has sent 55 trucks, each weighing 20 tons, filled with supplies from Rome to Ukraine. It also filled 10 huge buses and 15 mini-buses.

Father Marco Semehen was posted to Santa Sofia from Ukraine 18 years ago. Photo by Marina Pascucci

“If it happened in the United States, we’d do the same,” said Father Marco Semehen, the church priest. “It’s a solidarity with our people. From the first days of the war, we realized completely that with the war comes hunger, comes refugees, comes humanitarian crises. People are wounded. 

“We decided right away to help.”

Father Marco Semehen

The Ukraine Greek Catholic Church assigned Semehen to Rome 18 years ago. Left behind in his small town of Berezhany, about 50 miles (90 kilometers) southeast of Lviv, are a mother and a sister. Like all the Ukrainians in Italy, including the majority of volunteers at Santa Sofia, Semehen is always one phone call away from tragic news.

“The city is not being bombed but people in this city or other cities that aren’t bombed live under the pressure of the war,” he says. “We also feel the pressure here but we don’t hear the sound of bombs. We don’t need to go under the bomb shelters.

“There’s always pressure.” illustration

The city of Rome overwhelmed the church with its support, mirroring what Italy has done for Ukrainians. In fact, one food shipment to Santa Sofia came from Matrioska, a Russian restaurant in Rome. Romans contributed so many goods, the church filled up and they had to open the tent a month ago. Since then, they opened eight smaller tents nearby,

In the beginning of the war they had some trial and error. The organization was a little shaky but they finally got it down to a routine. Then Ukraine established six “Green Corridors” for human evacuation and that helped smooth the path to the target destinations of Kharkiv, the biggest city in the battered east, and Ternopil, the capital of Berezhany’s region. Those two centers in turn distribute the supplies to other cities.

And yes, the church knows the goods are reaching the needy and not just because of the tracking sticker they put on the boxes.

“One day we saw a TV report from Kharkiv,” Semehen says with a smile. “They were cooking pasta and it was the pasta we sent.”

Volunteers close a box of supplies headed to Ukraine. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The volunteers

The volunteers all have stories to tell. Some, with family in the more major war zones, sleep less at night. Lesia Romaniv has been in Rome 10 years but has her parents and two sisters in Ivano-Frankivsk, in the west. She said her family are teachers and are going to work every day. However …

“They’re always preoccupied with the situation,” she says. “There is no place for calm.”

Yulia Shkred lived through some of the worst. She comes from Novotroitske in Donetsk, one of the regions that Russia has fought over for years.

“The war didn’t start now for us,” she says. “It started in 2014. We have had this experience.”

For Yulia Shkred, who escaped Donetsk to Rome in March, the war has gone on since 2014. Photo by Marina Pascucci

After spending two months in a bomb shelter, she finally had enough and came to Rome March 15 with her three children. The Rome government is putting up refugees such as Shkred in hotels and feeding them. She left four sisters and a father behind.

“It’s an insane year,” she says. “When the war started in 2014, I didn’t escape. I have three children. But from 23 and 24 February it was just bombing non stop. I realized I had to go.”

On Putin

If you want to see how angry a Ukrainian can get, mention Vladimir Putin’s name. The man whose legacy will now be alongside Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot among the greatest murderers in the last 100 years, has killed 3,381 Ukrainian citizens, including 235 children, according to the United Nations, although the actual count is reportedly much higher.  

This war has also resulted in the deaths of 22,800 Russian soldiers as of the end of April, according to the Ukraine government. (Russia puts the total at 1,351 but a call from a Russian soldier intercepted in Kyiv claim the total is 25,900. “That’s in two fucking months,” the soldier said.) That’s not to mention the tattered reputation of the disgraced, incompetent Russian military.

Eight smaller tents have also been constructed. Photo by Marina Pascucci

It’s been a disaster for both sides. I ask what they think of Putin.

“Indescribable,” Shkred says. “No measure of words.”

Semehen tries.

“A tyrant,” he says. “He has a crisis of human dignity.”

Putin has made wildly unfounded claims that the Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk have suffered genocide at the hands of the Ukraine military which he calls Nazis. That’s news to Shkred who’s a Russian speaker herself.

“Many regions in Ukraine – Donetsk, Luhansk – and other regions are Russian speaking,” she says. “I am Russian speaking. Nobody asked him to save me and my family.”

Italy defense secretary Luigi Di Maio has received death threats for Italy’s defense of Ukraine. Wikipedia photo

Italy’s response 

 Like so many countries in the West, Italy’s government has stepped up. It recently increased funding for its Ukrainian refugees from 500 million euros to 800 million.

The Children of the East, an Italian association established in 1986 to help children after the nuclear disaster at Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear plant, brought 280 refugees to Italy.

“Ukraine deserves all the support we can give,” prime minister Mario Draghi told the High-Level International Donors’ Conference for Ukraine on Thursday. “Italy will continue to do its bit. The war in Ukraine has caused a humanitarian catastrophe. Millions of people, above all women and children, have left the country to find refuge in the EU.

“We must help Ukraine.”

Draghi also banned gas imports from Russia, cutting off 40 percent of its gas source. Instead, he signed a deal with Algeria to up the 31 percent it receives and sent a team to Angola to negotiate a deal as well. 

The response isn’t all positive.

Foreign minister Luigi Di Maio, who went to Africa for the oil deals, has received death threats. Internet chats included phrases such as “Putin will have him killed,” “Dirty little worm, hang up by the balls” and “Die you bastard.” They are decorated with images of coffins and axes.

Said Di Maio to Rai 1 TV: “Threats will not stop the action of the government. We have taken a very strong stance towards the invasion of Ukraine but we are keeping channels open with Moscow and Kyiv. What I’m worried about is the denialism that is circulating in Italy.”

Such as Sunday when a gathering of Russians met in Rome’s San Giovanni neighborhood carrying USSR flags and pro-Putin banners such as “He is protecting us” and “The citizens of Bucha weren’t killed.”

At about the same time in Piazza Repubblica near Termini train station, I came across a pro-Ukraine demonstration of about 200 people singing and carrying blue and yellow Ukraine flags. They held posters of Hitler and Stalin. One had a nuclear cloud with Putin’s head superimposed. Another had his face over a pile of skulls.

Before going home, I went to a crowded van doing brisk fund-raising and bought a decoration for my desk: a little Ukraine flag.  

How to help

For those wanting to contribute, the church could use food, medicine, flashlights, sleeping bags and generators. The address is Via Boccea 478 and phone number is 39-06-624-0203. For money contributions, the IBAN is IT10B0503403239000000003649. Account holder is Chiesa Santa Sofia. The cause is Help Ukraine.