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ROME – When the Russian forces began bombing Ukraine, an Italian lay woman named Donatella Rafanelli, was asleep in her Kyiv Focolare residence, one of the new movements in the Catholic Church. She and her fellow Focolarini, as members of the movement are known in Italian, were awakened by a phone call saying the bombs were 35 miles away and they had to find refuge.
“Prayers are very much needed, because only a miracle can save us here,” she told Crux. “It seems that things are getting worse and worse. Prayer is indispensable and important.”
Once the decision to leave Kiev was made – “it made no sense to remain under the bombings,” Rafanelli said – their first instinct was to get train tickets to head west, but they were already sold out. The airport was closed. They eventually decided to move by car with the help of a priest, who offered to take them to a parish where they could be safe. The ride took 29 hours.
Though they sought safety, they have no plans to leave Ukraine: “We want to live and stay in this country,” she said.
The war, she told an Italian news outlet earlier in the week, “is pure madness.” Ukrainians had sacrificed to buy a house, put aside some savings, but the war “blew up any plans for the future, too many dreams were shattered.”
Roads out of Kiev were blocked. On the road, tanks could be seen along the way, as well as people hitchhiking to catch a ride. In the car, phones were constantly going off, providing updates about those who were planning on staying, those who were leaving, and those who needed help. This hasn’t changed: One of the key things Rafanelli has been doing since relocating is to help put people who want to leave, fleeing either the cities under strongest attack or Ukraine all together, in touch with members of the Focolare community who live in the cities or countries where people want to go.
“What we feared, but didn’t actually expect, has happened,” Rafanelli told Crux from an undisclosed location in western Ukraine.
During the days ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s order to bomb Ukraine, many had spoken about the possibility of an attack on Kyiv. “When it happened, the first thing we did was to look each other in the eyes. We said: ‘This is it, we’re at war.’ And so we prayed … It was all we could do.”
Born in a small city in Italy’s Tuscan region, this lay member of the movement founded by Chiara Lubich after the second world war is planning on staying in Ukraine.
“I spoke with a journalist maybe on Tuesday [two days before the attack began], and he told me ‘No, they will not reach Kyiv; it is not possible, because it would generate an insurrection on the part of Europe’,” she said. “We did not imagine that an attack of this magnitude was possible, we hoped it would not happen.”
Rafanelli moved to Ukraine when the Focolare opened a house in Kyiv in Sept. 2019. She came from Moscow, where she spent 25 years. Coming into Ukraine, she knew the country was a hotspot with an ongoing war in the eastern region. However, it seemed like it was all very far away from the capital – Donbass, for instance, where a declaration of autonomy by two breakaway republics loyal to Moscow triggered the present conflict, is 500 miles from Kyi0v.
“I did not expect a war of these dimensions,” Rafanelli said. “I knew that there was already a war between Russia and Ukraine. I knew that the situation was difficult, and I experienced it, because coming from Russia, many people told me that it was difficult to have a dialogue with Russia.”
“Yet even on the days leading up to the escalation, we did not expect something like this,” she said. “No one began preparing for an imminent attack on Wednesday. We all had hopes that the dialogue efforts would lead to peace, not to this.”
Reflecting the sense of surprise, Rafanelli said, humanitarian efforts from NGOs on the ground have been organized largely on the fly. From Caritas to the many religious orders and movements present in the country, no one had prepared for what came.
Despite the dire situation, many of those who are left, remain in good spirits. Rafanelli said the people she knows “love this country. They haven’t given in and won’t give up, because they love Ukraine. This is a people with an incredible courage, who are welcoming and hospitable, which is something I can attest to personally.”
Among those who welcomed her when she first arrived, she said, is a woman by the name of Galia. She’s 75 today, and has decided to remain in Kyiv. During a moment of prayer via Zoom held with Focolarini from other countries, including Italy, Poland, and Hungary, Galia spoke of what those who are still in the capital are going through.
“The strength with which she spoke, it seemed like she was speaking of somebody else, almost as if it wasn’t her who spent her nights in a bomb shelter, then going home to rest when the sirens were off, who is trying to cook for those who have no food in between the sirens,” she said. “And I have an endless list of examples and stories such as this one.”
Despite valiant efforts by the Ukrainian army and peace talks being held, it is hard to know what the future will bring, Rafanelli said.
“It is very difficult to plan ahead,” she admitted. “I have a project, which is to stay here, to continue to help. And I have a dream: To return to Kyiv. It is a big dream, I know, because it means that things will get better. If I am being realistic, this is a dream no one can truly expect. But well, I believe in miracles.”