Happy chaos in Rome as families — 1 Ukrainian, 1 Italian — wait out the war together


On a spring evening in Rome, the wisteria in its first bloom outside, Eva Giulia Cadeddu, 13, sits at the piano in the open, light-filled living room of her family’s apartment and plays Chopin’s Waltz No. 19 in A Minor.

As the notes float through the air, the scene around her is one of happy chaos: Sofia, 2, leans against the piano bench, grasping a small plastic toy, listening intently. Clara, 10, and Veronica, 6, lie on the floor nearby playing with Lego. 

Veronica and Sofia’s mother, Ukrainian Iryna Tselep, tidies up other toys, as the older girls’ mother, Canadian Charlotta Jull, slides pizza in the oven in the kitchen with the help of her husband, Italian Simone Cadeddu.

For more than a year now, the two families — minus Tselep’s husband, Yuri, who has remained in Ukraine — have lived together, sharing child care, cooking and errands — with Jull assisting Tselep troubleshoot Italian bureaucracy and with enrolling her kids in school.

Eight years ago, it was Tselep who was providing essential help to Jull and Cadeddu as a babysitter for Eva Giulia and Clara. Tselep was in Rome to be close to Yuri as he finished ordination training for the Greek Orthodox Church, which allows married priests. 

Jull, who is from Vancouver, was working full time as a lawyer for United Nations food agencies in Rome, and Cadeddu as a lawyer for an English firm.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in late February 2022, Jull reached out to offer their old babysitter and her family refuge. At first Tsepel declined, but after a week of missile attacks, constant sirens and sleeping in a garage in her hometown of Ternopil, she messaged Jull in the middle of one desperate night to accept the offer. 

A Ukrainian serviceman runs for cover from shelling across a street in the frontline town of Bakhmut, Donetsk region on Sunday, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. ( Anatolii Stepanov AFP/Getty Images)

‘We all thought it would be a couple of weeks’

The Rome couple sprang into action.

“I woke Simone up at 5 a.m., we booked the tickets for them and arranged for them to come,” said Jull. “We all thought it would be a couple of weeks because it seemed so hopeless for the Ukrainians. We thought, probably once [the invasion] is over, they’d go back.”

Yet more than a year later, the seven are still living together, with no clear end in sight. The resulting experience, say both families, has profoundly impacted how they view the world, family life and themselves.

A teenager plays the piano as a toddler watches in a busy living room.
Eva Giulia plays the piano as Sofia watches intently, at the Cadeddu home in Rome. (Charlotta Jull)

For Jull, who had planned to go back to work after a break during COVID, it has meant not only further postponing her return to work to better support Tselep, but it has also reshaped her vision of her professional future. When Jull does return to work, she wants to shift her career to supporting refugee women in the workplace, so they don’t end up permanently sidelined.

“With war, you always think of the soldiers fighting, but there’s that whole other side,” she said. “So many of the refugees are women all on their own with their children here and I know … how much help you need.”

The lives of her daughters, too, has dramatically changed; enriched, they say.

“I study piano at school and Veronica has expressed interest, so I teach her a few notes and scales and stuff. And Sofia likes to hear piano as well,” said Eva Giulia. She beams as she describes learning to bake the traditional Ukrainian Easter sweetbread called Paska.

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Eva Giulia took a babysitting course while visiting her grandparents in Vancouver the summer before the war. She added to those skills with a first-aid course last summer after spending so much time looking after her Ukrainian sisters. The fact that she’s had to postpone the plan to turn the guest bedroom into her own room has been an easy sacrifice, she said.

“My girls have learned so many things,” said Tselep. “How to share, how to get along with others. As well as Italian and English.”

The two older girls have also learned to understand a fair bit of Ukrainian, and proudly list off the names of dozens of items in the language.

Jull, Cadeddu and Tselep are aware of how unusual it is that their blended family has worked out so well, acknowledging the extra room in their apartment and being able to afford for Jull not to do paid work for a while playing no small part.

A woman and three girls sit in the back of a car, smiling.
Tselep, her daughters Sofia, left, and Veronica, centre, ride in a car with Eva Giulia, shortly after arriving in Rome from Ukraine. (Charlotta Jull)

‘The girls really miss their father’

Before the Russian invasion, Italy had among the highest number of Ukrainian immigrants of European Union nations, about 250,000, mostly women who worked caring for older people or children. Since Russia’s invasion, 173,000 more Ukrainians, this time as refugees, arrived in Italy, according to Italy’s Interior Ministry. 

Some 80 per cent of the Ukrainian refugees have opted to arrange their own accommodation, usually with fellow Ukrainians, either family or friends, and receive several hundred dollars a month in support from the Italian government,  according to the ministry. The remaining 20 per cent stay with families that are screened by NGOs, or in reception centres.

But with employment difficult to find in Italy and under the strain of living in close quarters, Tselep says many of Ukrainians she knows who came to Italy at the same time she did have gone back to Ukraine or bordering countries.

For months after Tselep and her children first arrived, they would flinch in fear every time a plane passed overhead or a police or ambulance siren rang out. Jull and Cadeddu are quick to turn off the television news if violent images from Ukraine are broadcast, and opt not to buy the daily paper if gruesome images appear on the front page.

Often, after the evening phone call between Tselep and her husband, who works as a Greek Catholic priest taking care of isolated elderly Ukrainians near the frontline in the east, a feeling of helplessness creeps over the household.

A soldier stands amid buildings that have been shelled.
A Ukrainian serviceman walks near residential buildings damaged by shelling in Bakhmut on Sunday. For months after Tselep and her children first arrived, they would flinch in fear every time a plane passed overhead or a police or ambulance siren rang out. (Anatolii Stepanov/AFP/Getty Images)

“I know the girls really miss their father,” said Cadeddu. “I never try to substitute him, but sometimes they need a hug. It tender and sweet, but you realize just how much they miss him.”

Sofia, two, has now spent more time with her Rome family than she has with her father, a small tragedy in itself, Jull and Cadeddu say.

Local politics casts a shadow

Local politics also casts a shadow. Polls show almost half of Italians don’t take a position for or against Russia or Ukraine, and just as many are against sending arms to Ukraine.

While Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has been a stalwart supporter of Ukraine, members of her right-wing coalition have expressed pro-Putin sentiments, views that at times are literally written on the streets of Rome, and infuriate Tselep and her co-nationals.

“Someone was spray-painting Russian propaganda on buildings,” said Tselep, “so I got cleaning detergent from the kitchen and went out with Sofia in the stroller and scrubbed it off, which wasn’t easy. The other Ukrainian women were cheering me on, saying, ‘You’re braver than we are.”

A woman in a business jacket sits in parliament.
Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni looks on prior to addressing the parliament in Rome on Oct. 25, 2022. While Meloni has been a stalwart supporter of Ukraine, members of her right-wing coalition have expressed pro-Putin sentiments. (Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images)

Tselep and her daughters have gone back home to stay with her parents several times for brief stays — for Easter this year, and during the worst of Italy’s heatwave last August — each time opting to return to Rome, where they feel safer.

Jull and Cadeddu say their family feels fortunate.

“It was unexpected and a tragedy for them, of course,” he said. “But for us it was a godsend. I’m not saying it’s [perfect], seven people under the same roof, but it’s opened up the world for all of us and showed the children what it means to have to flee war.”

Cadeddu grew up with stories from the Second World War from his father, whose family in northern Italy was forced to share their house with Nazis.

He says before Tselep and children arrived, he didn’t necessarily think of himself as the kind of person that would take in a refugee family. But he says he believes the Ukrainians are fighting for all of the West and didn’t need much convincing.

“We can tell ourselves that in our little, very little and finite way, we are doing something. And it’s very rewarding.”

Three girls smile sitting at a table working on some colouring.
Clara, left, Veronica, and Eva Giulia, right, smile together at the Cadeddu home in Rome. (Charlotta Jull)
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