PLANT CITY, Fla. — A man from Plant City reflects on his time with the United Aid Foundation in Romania helping Ukrainian refugees trying to escape war.
Botosani, Romania is a long way from Plant City.
There, Ukrainian refugees are seeking shelter as Russian troops invade their homeland. There, Cenovio Villa recently showed up to help.
“There was a little bit of concern of our safety,” Villa said. “We didn’t really know what we were getting into — what we were going into.”
Villa was born in Los Angeles but moved to Florida as a young child. His family — migrant workers who sought out agricultural jobs — traveled up the peninsula from Homestead to Winter Haven to Plant City, where they settled and worked at the farmer’s market.
Villa, a graduate of Plant City High School, now works as a licensed contractor who specializes in kitchen and bathroom remodeling. However, he sometimes spends weeks of the year away from Plant City and Florida on humanitarian missions. He’s a board member of the United Aid Foundation, a nonprofit that offers aid and assistance after disasters near and far.
“In the U.S., it’s a lot of hurricanes and floods,” he said.
But Villa said the nonprofit has also taken him to international destinations like Nepal, Haiti, and the Bahamas.
When Russia invaded Ukraine — displacing millions of refugees — Villa and the others felt obligated to help. Weeks ago, they traveled to Botosani, Romania, which is only about an hour away from a major border crossing from Ukraine.
“On the left of me, there’s busloads of refugees just coming in. You know, some people have babies. Some people have puppies,” Villa recalled. “You just feel for them, and it does stay with you.”
During his 10 day trip, Villa and the other volunteers bought food from supermarkets to replenish shelters and helped shelter two families in a former orphanage.
“One mother, Marina, with her two boys. And another mother with a daughter — 14-year-old daughter, 12-year-old boy, and her mother,” Villa said. “They’re regular people like us, you know.”
Now, he’s back in Plant City, but in many ways, his heart is still there.
Villa said the trip not only taught him about Ukraine. It also taught him something about America. Seeing the struggle of Ukrainian refugees made him realize that some of the fights and complaints that divide Americans pale in comparison.
“We’re the greatest country in the world, and we tend to, you know, we tend to complain about the smallest things sometimes," Villa said.
He hopes more Americans will put aside their differences to do good.