Irpin, March 5, 2022. Residents of the Ukrainian town under the collapsed bridge waiting to be evacuated (©Emilio Morenatti/AP/La Presse)

Ukraine: Staying human

From the April issue of Traces, a conversation with Elena Mazzola and the young members of the NGO called Emmaus based in Kharkiv. "Through this pain, I want to learn to love as He does, to bear all this pain as He does."
Luca Fiore

Father Aleksandr is the young pastor of a Christian Orthodox church in Cherson, the first city in Ukraine overtaken by the Russians. He is a friend of mine. In the last few weeks, we have been calling each other almost daily. Every morning he speaks live on Facebook about what he is going through, but when we talk in the evenings, he shares with me the pain and fear that he feels.” We met with Elena Mazzola, a Memor Domini who is also the president of Emmaus in Kharkiv, in Val Seriana, a valley near Bergamo that was one of the places hardest hit by the pandemic in 2020. She is taking shelter here as a refugee, together with coworkers and the orphans with special needs with whom she has worked for the past five years. They arrived in Italy after an odyssey that lasted over 50 hours. They reached the border with Slovakia, together with Maxim, Aleksandr, and Georgij, three adult men. However, these three were not allowed to cross the border. Aleksandr is married to Anastasia, the director of Emmaus, who is still breastfeeding her little son Matvei, who is just three months old. Georgij just turned 18 recently and according to the martial law in place, is of age to fight at the front.

“The other night, Father Aleksandr said, “Elena, I do a lot of things to try to help, but in my heart, I find it difficult to pray. What kind of a priest am I? I spent the entire morning going all over the city to buy packs of toilet paper and pads… When what is actually missing here is bread.” I replied, “Father, it is a question of dignity. We are fighting a war, but we are not beasts. Tomorrow, I will send you money so you can buy soap and body wash, the expensive brands!” He was quiet for a moment and then he exclaimed: “The lipstick of Father Giussani!” How strange to hear an Orthodox priest in present-day Ukraine recall the famous anecdote told by the founder of CL. When some teens were complaining that a poor woman spent the money given to her to buy lipstick, Giussani told them that they had not understood what sharing was, that they did not accept the real need of another person. At that moment, making herself look good may have been her real need, not the accomplishment of their moralistic plan.

Elena Mazzola and some of the young women from Emmaus lined up at the border

The experience of being in the Movement gave rise to Emmaus, which began as charitable work in an orphanage and over time developed into a nonprofit organization that provides a home for orphans and people with special needs, whose only option for their future in this post-Soviet nation after turning 18 would be to live in institutions. Elena, who, prior to arriving in Ukraine, worked at the Academy of Science in Moscow with Tatjana Kasatkina, is certain that her vocation to virginity is tied to these kids. “I realized this when Irka decided to tell me her story for the first time. She said that when the two nurses saw her deformed body immediately after her birth, they made an agreement with the doctor to declare her dead, to hide her from her mother. That is why she now has her own death certificate. Years later she was able to find her mother, but shortly afterward the mother fell ill and passed away, and they forgot to let Irka know. After hearing all of this, I said, ‘Irka, has no one ever told you that you have always been wanted and loved and that you are a gift?’ From her reaction, I could tell that she had never heard anyone say something like that to her. It was then that I understood that we have something that others do not. ‘I am You who makes me.’ We have a level of self-awareness, the certainty that we are wanted and loved, that allows us to see this also reflected in others.”

Even that is not something that we “know from birth.” Elena had to experience solitude in order to discover this for herself. A few years after the Memores house opened in Kharkiv, she was living there by herself. “I felt miserable. I would ask myself what I was still doing there. I had to understand what was keeping me going. Was it a perfect community or an orderly house? Around that time, I heard Carrón say, ‘We are in the Father’s arms. We verify this. What else would we need to live if this is the truth about our lives?’ I felt this even when institutions were in a precarious state or absent, even in the middle of the pandemic.”

However, Irka and the other girls have such a deeply rooted belief that everyone will betray them and are convinced that nothing lasts forever. Each of them is suffering unimaginable pain. “They have already lived through another kind of war. They have already experienced great violence firsthand,” continued Elena. For instance, when Emmaus began in January to look for a safe place for Irka and her friends, Irka said, “I know that you will go back to Italy and leave us here.” But that did not happen. Elena and her colleagues did everything in their power to protect these Ukrainian citizens, who are the most vulnerable among the defenseless. When Putin’s troops began to move into Ukraine (and Kharkiv was one of the first objectives), most of the young people involved at Emmaus were no longer in the city. Some had already made it to Italy and the rest were with Elena in Lviv.

A few days after they had left Ukraine, Irka said to Elena, “What I feared most during the first days of the war is that you would say to me, ‘Therefore, God does not exist.’” “At that moment,” said Elena, “I understood she had come to a certainty about being loved that did not come from me. In the midst of war, she was scared that we would lose our faith.”

Elena is often reminded that during the period of utter uncertainty before the war began it was the loving gaze born from faith that allowed her and her friends and collaborators in Emmaus to take initiative in a timely way to bring the kids to safety. “Prudence and realism were our guiding stars. These are what helps someone interpret the factors that make up reality in a more intuitive way. Even when the Russian invasion seemed to us the worst-case scenario or unlikely to happen.”

Lately, Elena has been receiving many messages from people she knows in Ukraine asking for help. One of the first was her cleaning lady, Anastasia, who has now joined her in Italy. In her free time when she is not feeding her baby, she is constantly on the computer organizing buses to get people to the border.

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Elena also receives phone calls and messages from those who want to host refugees. “In Italy people still have not fully grasped the gravity of the situation and the trauma experienced by the people of Ukraine, so I am blown away by people’s willingness to help in a truly Christian form of hospitality. However, sometimes we risk having an abstract way of looking at relationships; meanwhile, the people that are arriving are deeply traumatized, even though it may not appear that way on the surface. We need to pay attention to the real concrete individual in front of us, to listen and look at them. As the pope would say, we need to step outside of ourselves and not be afraid to feel their pain and cry with them. For me, it is worth it.” Your reward is “to love selflessly, the only thing that fulfills us. We must learn to love as Christ does. It makes you understand better; it makes you more intuitive and more human.” More human in what way? “For me, during these days, it has been important not to pretend that everything is fine. I have seen beautiful things with my own eyes. The people who have welcomed us and who stay with us are a miracle in the most concrete sense of the word. The three young women who just left the orphanage last October and are now here with us had never before set foot outside of the orphanage; they saw Kharkiv for the first time with us… They knew nothing about the outside world. And I see them being loved, the fact that they are a gift to us and to the world, and I ask myself, Why them? They are truly preferred by God. But it is impossible for me to conceal that I am not well, for the violence perpetrated against us is unbearable. We were forced to escape without taking anything with us. Our homes were destroyed. Many of our friends and people we know are living in fear and are being bombed. Maxim, a friend of mine, whose parents and son are in Mariupol, went 10 days without knowing whether or not they were still alive. Rebellion and rage are churning inside of me. At the same time, this is also an opportunity to grow closer to Christ, the one who died on the cross for me. Through this pain, I want to learn to love as He does, to bear all this pain as He does, because this introduces something new into the world. Something both concrete and also in opposition to the power of war. I understand now that virginity is not ‘to love and to be selfless’ but comes from accepting the drama and solitude that I experience and that is experienced by those around me and by recognizing over and over again the One who responds to this drama. And I see that this widens my horizon.”