On the 12th floor of the Wake County Courthouse, the clock reads 9 a.m. and 19-year-old Ana Katruk fidgets, anxious to get on with the proceedings. Family and friends have packed the small courtroom to witness the hard-fought adoption of the Ukrainian orphan by Mike and Kristy Johnson of Cary.
Kristy steadies her emotions and plucks several tissues from the box in front of her. Mike whispers to Ana, who rewards him with a broad grin.
The short ceremony is largely a formality. When the clerk signs the adoption decree, the room erupts in applause. Through tears, Kristy faces her new daughter and reads prepared remarks: “We’re here today because God has a plan for Anastasia Joy Johnson. We love you.”
This Easter Sunday, as they celebrate the foundation of Christianity, the Johnsons will worship together, a family born of deep faith and abundant love.
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The Johnsons had no intention of making Ana a permanent part of their family when they hosted the teen through the nonprofit group Marina’s Kids in December 2013. Because of her age, Ana (then known as Nastya) was deemed unadoptable, and that was fine with Kristy. “It was, ‘Whew, we don’t have to worry about that.’
“I’m glad we were naive.”
The family, which includes three other children, bonded with Ana almost instantly. Ana said Kristy reminded her of her late mother.
Ana was 8 when she and a younger brother were removed from their mother’s home. The Johnsons have been told of alcoholism and neglect. The baby was quickly adopted, and Ana was placed in a series of state-run orphanages that lacked even the basics. For the first four years, there was no running water at the cold and dirty facility. In her teen years, Ana was repeatedly assaulted.
In the summer of 2014, the Johnsons again hosted Ana, and Mike and Kristy began searching for a way to keep her in the United States. They reached out to politicians, lawyers and Ukrainian contacts to no avail. In August, they bought Ana an iPhone and said tearful goodbyes.
But that was not the end of Ana’s unlikely journey to become the sixth member of the Johnson family. She would soon make a daring escape from her war-torn homeland and work to overcome cultural and learning barriers, all while putting her trust in God.
After Ana’s return to Ukraine in 2014, the Johnsons became increasingly concerned for her safety. She had lived her life in the eastern part of the country in a city overtaken by Russian militants.
Mike traveled to Ukraine to try to facilitate an interview for an education visa. “The intent was merely to help and give her some relief from her current situation, hoping it would calm down.”
Ana was granted an interview. Remarkably, her visa was approved.
“It’s crazy that she got a visa the first time,” Kristy said. “That’s not typical for orphans because of the fear that they won’t return.”
But the plan for her to travel to the United States on her new visa was thwarted when an orphanage director purposely took a group of children, including Ana, back into the war zone to keep her from leaving.
‘You know you did it. Nobody else. That time, God he was with me.’
Ana Johnson, describing her exit from Ukraine
With help from Ukrainian citizens, a plan was hatched to help Ana escape the bullets flying past her window and the bombs the Johnsons heard exploding when talking to her on the phone they had bought her.
On the designated day, Ana slipped away from her friends and into the car of a waiting taxi driver, the Johnsons said. Two unmarked cars escorted them out of the village, and the driver pushed through checkpoints armed with cash supplied by the Johnsons. Two days after she escaped the war region, the Johnsons heard reports that the bridges Ana had crossed were blown up.
Once on a plane from Ukraine to Turkey, Ana was on her own. “It was scary,” she says. “But when you’re talking about it or thinking about it, it’s so exciting. And you know you did it. Nobody else. That time, God he was with me.”
In January 2015, 17-year-old Ana arrived on a flight from Turkey to New York’s JFK International Airport holding her ticket, but unable to speak much English and feeling very alone.
“I came to huge airport,” Ana says. “I was crying like a little baby. I have no idea where I have to go.” A man tried to charge her $50 to show her the way.
Eventually, she found her gate and boarded the final flight. “I ate two packages of cookies. I was so hungry,” she remembers. “I didn’t cry for two hours. I was so excited.
“Then, yay, North Carolina! I see Mommy. And I saw Daddy.”
‘My second chance’
Since she began living with the Johnsons in 2015, Ana has worked hard to learn English. “She would go to school for seven hours and then go to Wake Tech at night for English class,” Kristy says.
She is active at Apex Baptist Church and talks openly of her faith. Not long ago, she was baptized in Jordan Lake.
Finding her place among her American peers has been a challenge. Her first school was not a good fit, and Mike and Kristy took turns having lunch with her every day to ease the loneliness.
Finding her place among her American peers has been a challenge. Her first school was not a good fit, and Mike and Kristy took turns having lunch with her every day to ease the loneliness. When Wake Christian Academy completed the required legwork to accept students with education visas, the Johnsons were thrilled. The school is Kristy’s alma mater and is attended by their daughters Holly, 14, and Corrie Beth, 9.
But even at Wake Christian, Ana was not welcomed by the girls in her class, in part because of the language barrier. She begged Kristy to bring cupcakes to school “so the girls will like me.”
A concerned teacher arranged for Ana to share her story at a senior girls’ Bible study, and the tide shifted. She spoke and the girls were given a written copy in case they could not understand her English. By the time she finished, most were in tears and each stopped to hug her.
The next week, Ana was nominated to the homecoming court. In her speech to the student body, she said “I don’t love Wake Christian because of a good education or because it has really good sports teams. I love Wake Christian because it’s part of my second chance.”
On a Friday night in October, the orphan girl from Ukraine was crowned queen.
Days later, the school notified the Johnsons that an anonymous benefactor had paid the year’s tuition for all three of their girls, a gift amounting to approximately $16,000. Stunned, the Johnsons were unsure how best to use the money that they had earmarked for that expense.
In January, Mike was laid off from his job of more than 20 years, and the gift became a lifeline.
“God always had a plan,” Kristy says.
A new name
There is rarely a legal reason to pursue an adult adoption. The March 6 decree will not grant Ana automatic citizenship.
“The only real thing the adoption does is make her an official member of this family,” Kristy says.
For Ana, it’s all about the name. She was born Anastasia and in previous newspaper accounts she was known as Nastya. She grew frustrated with the perplexed looks when she was introduced and longed for an American name. “I went to Wake Tech, and we were reading a story about Anna,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘Oh, that’s easy to say.’ I’m so excited because they can’t pronounce my name,” she says.
Kelly Dempsey, who practices adoption and immigration law in Charlotte, became acquainted with the Johnsons when contacted by a reporter in 2014 for information about the immigration process.
We obeyed the rules. We are not in fear of her being deported.
Kristy Johnson of Cary
“This case took several unusual and unanticipated turns,” Dempsey says. “Ana came in on a student visa because there was not a path to permanency for her. When she entered, this was a short-term solution to a long-term problem. She had no path to remaining in the country permanently.”
Because of Ana’s difficult living situation and the unrest in Ukraine, it became clear that she should not return. The Johnsons reached out to Dempsey, who pursued Special Immigrant Juvenile Status for Ana. SIJS is an option for youth up to age 21 already in the United States to become legal permanent residents.
Kristy says she bristles when people ask whether she is worried about Ana’s status under President Donald Trump’s administration. “We obeyed the rules. We are not in fear of her being deported.”
‘A family again’
What Ana loves most about America has little to do with the abundance of material comforts and everything to do with family. “God give me a family again,” she says. “I enjoy spending time with my family. Playing games.” Her favorite is the card game Uno. “I like staying at home.”
Likewise, it is the people she misses most about her homeland. She has two older half-sisters who live in extreme poverty. “I think I miss my sisters so much. My nephew. My niece. I miss my friends.”
Ana longs for good borscht and insists the ice cream is far superior in Ukraine. But she is adapting.
While visiting New York City, Kristy and Mike scoured the Russian section for some favorite goodies to ease the homesickness. Ana longs for good borscht and insists the ice cream is far superior in Ukraine. But she is adapting. “I like hot buffalo wings. And I like steak.” She has visited The Angus Barn with her family, where owner Van Eure whisked her off to show her behind the scenes.
She giggles when asked how she likes being a big sister to Holly, Corrie Beth and 4-year-old Andy. “I knew you would ask about being a big sister. We can fight, but not really big fights. It’s a little difficult for me. I’m still learning.
“I want to give them what I didn’t have with my sisters.”
Despite the progress Ana has made, she struggles with life skills and simple academics. The Johnsons wonder about developmental delays.
“Was it fetal alcohol syndrome?” Kristy says. “Was it the five head traumas or the institutional life? Was it the lack of education in her early years? And can any of that be helped at age 19?”
To have her evaluated would cost thousands of dollars that they don’t have.
“There’s so much we will never know,” Mike says. “Our job with her is the same as with the other kids. We have to get them to the point where they’re productive members of society when they leave this house.
“Every kid is different and her purpose is going to be different from the others. … She could turn into a public speaker and tell her story like nobody else. She’s come a long way.”
For now, Ana is soaking up the unconditional love of her forever family. At her adoption ceremony, she turns to address the gallery. “I’m happy because it’s happening,” she says with tears streaming down her cheeks. “I love you all. It’s the best day ever in my life.”
She uses her fingers to form a heart and exclaims, “We did it!”
Cindy Schaefer: firstname.lastname@example.org
The story so far
The News & Observer began reporting on Ana (who then went by the name Nastya) in the summer of 2014, when she was a 16-year-old Ukrainian orphan visiting Mike and Kristy Johnson of Cary for the second time. They had hoped to be be able to adopt her then, but they were stymied by the laws of both Ukraine and the U.S.
She had to return to Ukraine at the end of that summer. But the Johnsons didn’t give up, with Mike even traveling to Ukraine to help facilitate her exit. She finally was able to leave Ukraine in January 2015. She has been with the Johnsons since then, blending in with a new family, learning English and growing accustomed to life in this country.