For a teenager not accustomed to unconditional love, the homecoming is nearly overwhelming.
Nastya, an orphan from Ukraine, has made this trip before. But with a cheering crowd assembled in the driveway, she has to be coaxed from the van. Minutes into the celebration and still clutching a stuffed dog, she falls into her host mother’s arms and buries her face.
It is a bittersweet reunion. Though this Cary family calls her one of its own, Nastya likely will not be allowed to stay in the United States, stymied by the laws of two countries. And with her Ukrainian homeland at war, her future is even more uncertain.
Mike and Kristy Johnson of Cary were busy parents of three last fall when they felt called to pursue adoption. But with their youngest still a toddler, there was no urgency.
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Not long after, Kristy was scrolling through Facebook and saw a posting by Marina’s Kids, a nonprofit group that matches Ukrainian orphans with host families in the United States. “I thought, ‘I could do that. It’s only for four weeks.’ When I showed it to Michael, he was all in.”
Approved host families select a child through photographs and a short bio they view online. Within two weeks, the Johnsons had raised the required $2,900 and were looking through the pictures when they happened upon one of a girl in a field of flowers.
“She looked so angelic that we picked her,” Kristy said. Her name was Anastasia, but she was called Nastya. Her last name, her orphanage and her Ukranian hometown aren’t released under Marina’s Kids rules.
At that first short visit last December, Nastya clung to Kristy from the start, eventually admitting that she reminded Nastya of her late mother. “When she got off the plane, she burst into tears and hugged and hugged and hugged me,” Kristy said. “She rode home with her head in my lap.”
Nastya quickly found her place in the family routine, and the Johnsons were faced with a stark reality: In a matter of days, they had fallen head over heels in love with a child they could never adopt.
“It just felt right from early on,” Mike said. “She fit with our family.”
There was no question that they would host Nastya again this summer.
Marina’s Kids encourages a continued relationship between host families and children after they go back to Ukraine.
“They know that someone in this world cares about them, cares whether they live or die and cares how they live,” said Marina James, founder of Marina’s Kids. “They have a lot better chance to have a future than if they were never hosted at all.”
James said the program gives children a taste of a life they have never experienced. “During the trip they eat enough to gain weight, sleep enough to grow, are loved enough to build self-confidence and see enough to imagine a new future.”
At age 16, Nastya will return to Ukraine on Aug. 28 as an adult, too old to remain at the orphanage. The slight girl with the stuffed toy will be assigned to a trade school of the government’s choosing. If she refuses school, the streets are her only option.
Ukrainian trade schools bear little resemblance to the idyllic college campus familiar to Americans. Poverty and desperation are a breeding ground for unspeakable horrors. For Nastya, who has few life skills, the future is bleak. The Johnsons worry what will happen with little supervision or adult assistance.
“My greatest fear is that she will be a statistic, and my greatest hope is that she will be a Johnson,” Kristy said.
Mike, especially, is torn. “I’m asking a lot of practical questions. Will you have money? How are you going to eat? She knows none of the answers to these. She doesn’t know how it’s going to work. ... I’m spending time figuring out how to equip her.”
An uphill quest
The Johnsons have been researching ways to keep Nastya with them indefinitely, safe from the war and poverty that await her in Ukraine. Conversations with the office of U.S. Rep. George Holding, a Raleigh Republican, and lawyers in both countries have yielded few answers. U.S. Sen. Richard Burr’s staff is looking into the case.
Under U.S. law, only children ages 15 and younger are eligible for an orphan visa, said Kelly Dempsey, an international adoption lawyer in Charlotte. Even if the Johnsons were to adopt Nastya in Ukraine, she would not be allowed to enter the United States with the family.
“It will be uphill every step of the way,” Dempsey said of the quest to give Nastya a permanent home. “And that’s a tragedy. When children have an opportunity to enter a family, we should be doing everything we can to make that happen and instead we are creating a roadblock.”
In the days before Nastya’s arrival July 11, Kristy wrestled with conflicting feelings about the visit. “I so hope I can stay in the moment and soak it all up,” she said. “But I fear I will be hearing the clock tick so loud as the moments slip away.”
Unable to adopt their “Nas,” the Johnsons are doing what comes naturally: modeling a healthy family in hopes that Nastya might change expectations of herself.
The odds are not good. With limited education and minimal support, an estimated 60 percent of girls who age out of orphanages in Ukraine turn to prostitution to survive, according to Marina’s Kids.
When Kristy shared this statistic with Nastya, the girl’s eyes grew wide, and she insisted that she would never sell herself. Kristy’s response was frank: “You make different decisions when you’re hungry.”
Series of orphanages
Nastya was 8 when she and her half-brother were taken from their mother’s home. The Johnsons were told that her mother, an alcoholic, had left the care of her baby boy to little Nastya. The baby was quickly adopted, while Nastya was moved to the first of a series of state-run orphanages in eastern Ukraine.
Before her death when Nastya was 14, her mother drifted in and out of her life. Nastya stays in contact with two adult half-sisters but has never known a father.
The orphanage, dirty and cold, lacked even the basics. For the first four years, there was no running water, and the children did not have access to a toothbrush or toothpaste. A Cary dentist has donated his time to repair Nastya’s neglected teeth.
For all of the hardships, the thought of permanently leaving the only life she knows weighs on Nastya. Two years ago, when she was still young enough to meet the orphan visa requirements, a family from another state wanted to adopt her. She declined, believing she could eventually live with her sisters.
“That was her life plan,” Mike said. “It was obvious to us that was her dream, and the reality of the situation hadn’t hit her.” He said the level of poverty in which her sisters live leaves no room for Nastya.
Between visits, the Johnsons kept in contact through weekly phone calls. They became increasingly concerned about Nastya’s safety amid reports of pro-Russian separatists terrorizing her town. Nastya told them bombs had destroyed her school.
In June, Nastya was among 500 orphans rescued from the war-torn region and taken by train to a camp in the western part of the country.
She arrived in the U.S. last month with only a small purse and the clothes she was wearing. That first night, 11-year-old Holly Johnson lent her pajamas. The clothes the Johnsons had sent back with her in January didn’t return with her for this trip.
Nastya speaks little English, and the Johnsons keep iPhones with a translation app close at hand; they say her comprehension has improved by leaps and bounds. Lisa-Gray Vick, a friend of the Johnsons who has hosted in the past, said the language barrier doesn’t matter. “I always say not to let the language thing hold you back from hosting, because it all works out.”
‘Realize the need’
In many ways, Nastya is a typical teenager. Her first weeks in Cary, she spent hours on VK, the Russian equivalent of Facebook. She delights in shoe shopping, demands attention and tunes out when a conversation turns to difficult subjects; she doesn’t want to talk about summer’s end.
But reminders of a lifetime of deprivation are evident. On a trip to the State Farmers Market, she begs for fresh vegetables. When showering, she runs the water so hot that her skin turns red. She flings herself into Mike’s arms when he returns from work at the end of the day.
Nastya’s impact on the Johnson children, especially Holly and 6-year-old Corrie Beth, is apparent – the girls treat her as their sister.
“We are trying to prepare them that life isn’t just like it is at our house,” Kristy said. “With or without adoption, if that hadn’t been part of the story, my kids’ viewpoint would have been improved. They know these kids exist.”
Mike, who recently joined the board of Marina’s Kids, wants to educate others. “It’s about Nastya, but in general, people don’t realize how the rest of the world looks. It’s so easy to help them. It’s not expensive to make a big difference in these kids’ lives. All we have to do is realize the need is there.”
In Cary, Nastya holds tightly to a childhood about to be cut short. “She is scared,” Mike said. The crash site of the Malaysian airliner shot down in July is just a 15-minute walk from where her sisters live.
No matter the outcome, Nastya has changed the Johnsons’ lives. “We’ve been bitten by a bug,” Kristy said. “Once we were led to adopt and were obedient to God, the rest is neither here nor there. He loves her and whoever else more than us. He’s got her best interest at heart.
“God’s plan may not be America for her. Regardless, we will be in her life forever.”