Mike and Kristy Johnson are used to staying up late, so they weren’t bothered by the knock at their door after 11 p.m. Tuesday.
Their three kids were asleep. But the Cary couple were happy to greet Keasha Hennessey, a friend who brought them a notarized letter from a local math tutor.
The Johnsons hope the tutor’s letter, along with several other letters of support, will help them secure an education visa for Nastya, a 16-year-old Ukrainian orphan who has become like family to them over the past year.
Mike squeezed the letter into a purple folder full of important legal documents, including a letter from Hopewell Academy in Cary, the night before he left for Ukraine to try to bring her back to the United States.
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Nas, as the Johnsons call her, will need all the help she can get when she applies for an education visa at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine next week.
Since Nastya’s first visit last December, the Johnsons have been waiting to provide Nastya with a better life than the one she has in her war-torn homeland. And they’re willing to go to considerable lengths, and expense, to make that happen.
The couple’s worst fear is that Nastya, who has few life skills, could turn to prostitution to survive. It’s a lifestyle that 60 percent of female Ukrainian orphans turn to after aging out of their orphanage, according to Ukraine Orphan Outreach, a Colorado-based nonprofit organization.
That’s why Kristy hunted down more letters early Wednesday, on her oldest daughter’s 12th birthday, before dropping Mike off at RDU International Airport that afternoon.
“Why wouldn’t we save her from becoming a statistic?” Kristy said. “So we could have more money for nicer clothes? Better food? More vacations?”
The family met Nastya, whose legal name is Anastasia, through Marina’s Kids, a Pennsylvania-based organization that matches Ukrainian orphans with host families in the United States. Her last name, her orphanage and her Ukrainian hometown aren’t released under Marina’s Kids rules.
The Johnsons felt called to adopt but wanted to host someone before making a decision.
But at 16, Nastya was too old to be adopted. Still, the family quickly became attached to her.
The feeling was mutual. Nastya told Kristy she reminds her of her mother, who is deceased. Kristy has described Nastya as “angelic,” a quirky and sweet teenager who’s eager to please.
An instant connection
When Nastya arrived last December, she walked off the jetbridge and into Kristy’s arms like a long-lost daughter.
Nastya stayed with the Johnsons for about a month last winter and then seven more weeks over the summer. They took her to the mountains and the beach. They introduced her to family, friends and members of their church, Apex Baptist.
Nastya is from the eastern part of Ukraine now run by separatists. She and others had to abandon their orphanage. The Johnsons tried everything they could to keep her from having to return to Ukraine in late August.
Nastya could have sought asylum as a refugee, but that would have restricted her from returning to Ukraine to see her older adult sisters. They tried to get an education visa but didn’t have the proper paperwork. They lobbied local politicians for special exemption from immigration rules but were unsuccessful.
But they’re prepared now, as much as they can be.
The Johnsons have texted, messaged or called Nastya every day since she returned to eastern Europe.
“Papa will give you a hug for me,” Kristy told Nastya on the phone late Tuesday night.
“OK. Love you, Kristy,” Nastya said, whispering so she wouldn’t wake up other orphans sleeping in her room.
For Mike and Kristy, the situation has been difficult. They can barely stand to recall the nights when Nastya, who has been sick for much of fall, called them from a “yucky” hospital begging to come back to Cary.
The couple’s three children, meanwhile, still talk about her as if she’s living in one of their rooms upstairs.
Their 2-year-old son, Andy, has learned to pronounce “Nas” correctly since she left. Corrie Beth, 6, said she looks forward to playing dressup with her. And 12-year-old Holly, the oldest Johnson child, likes to imagine Nas as a fun big sister.
“They help you do your hair, play with you and watch movies with you,” Holly said. “I don’t think God would make us go through this and then not let her come here.”
A complicated process
Tuesday night, the night before Mike’s trip, the family of five sat huddled together on the floor of their front hallway. The children prayed for Mike and Nastya and sang “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” before going to bed.
“He’s got the mommies and the daddies in his hands,” Kristy sang, patting Mike on the leg. “He’s got all the orphans in his hands.”
Mike and Kristy are convinced that whatever happens is God’s plan. But they don’t know what to expect.
Securing an education visa isn’t a sure thing and requires an array of legal documents. Hopewell Academy, a private school in Cary, is willing to enroll Nastya. Mike has taken a letter written by the school’s president as part of Nastya’s visa application.
They face other hurdles, too. Mike and Nastya also need to produce supporting documents from someone at Nastya’s orphanage before next week’s hearing. The visa officer needs to see paperwork signed by Nastya’s legal guardian. But she has been inaccessible to sign the papers, Kristy said.
Once Nastya produces the proper paperwork, her future in the United States hinges on an interview with a visa officer who’s likely to ask the teen specific questions about her education, long-term ambitions and plans to return to Ukraine.
Kristy said she knows of another couple who tried to help a Ukrainian orphan whose visa request was rejected three times.
Nastya’s English is limited, and she has a speech impediment when communicating in Russian, the language of many in the part of Ukraine where she lives. So the Johnsons are paying for a family friend who speaks Russian to travel to Ukraine with Mike to help prepare Nastya for the interview.
“She’ll just be in there with him by herself,” Mike said Tuesday. “My biggest fear is that she’ll get in there and say, ‘I don’t know.’ ”
Praying for the best
The Johnsons are cautiously optimistic. They decided not to hang a Christmas stocking for Nastya on their fireplace mantel.
They also haven’t bought her plane ticket yet. Mike hopes to buy one for her to fly home with him on Dec. 12 if Nastya is granted the visa.
The whole trip is expected to cost about $6,000, including train tickets from Kiev to Nastya’s orphanage and back. The Johnsons are in the process of refinancing their home to help pay for ongoing expenses. They also started a fundraiser on gofundme.com, which raised almost $4,400 in two weeks.
Mike packed his luggage – clothes, batteries, documents, granola bars – in two carry-on bags. On Wednesday, he lifted them from the family’s silver minivan and set them on the curb outside the airport terminal.
Kristy got out of the car and threw her arms over his shoulders. The tall man with a dark beard pulled her close, rubbing her back as they said goodbye. He kissed her and walked inside the terminal, beginning his journey to a country he’s never been to.
Back in the car, Holly, who was celebrating her birthday, reached over the driver’s seat and wiped tears off her mother’s cheek.
“I know God has a plan whether Nas gets to come back or not,” Kristy said. “My prayer is, ‘Lord, I’ll do whatever you want just please don’t let it hurt.’ ”
Photographer Jill Knight contributed to this report.