It ended with a lost connection.
The video chat stream was never clear. But for a few brief moments Saturday morning, Mike and Kristy Johnson could see Nastya, the 16-year-old Ukrainian girl who stayed in their Cary home for seven weeks this summer.
It was the first time the family had seen or heard from the skinny blond girl since she walked onto a jet bridge at Virginia’s Dulles International Airport on Thursday afternoon.
Nastya was using Skype to contact the family from a boarding school in her war-torn homeland.
Relief set in at first sight for the Cary couple, then quickly gave way to deep concern. Nastya seemed distraught.
“It is no good,” Nastya said. “It is yucky here.”
Before long, the screen froze. The Johnsons were virtually helpless.
In the hours since Nastya’s departure, they keep replaying the whole summer in their head.
Could they have done more? Could local politicians have done more?
“It’s easy to think we’ve failed,” Mike said.
The couple have three kids, but felt like God was nudging them toward adoption last fall. They found Nastya through Marina’s Kids, a nonprofit organization that matches Ukrainian orphans with host families in the U.S.
Within days of her first visit in December, the Johnsons knew “Nas” was a fit with the family.
Nastya is from the eastern part of Ukraine now effectively run by Russian militants. So when she returned to the United States in July, the couple tried everything they could think of to keep her here.
Too old for visa
They tried to adopt her. But at 16, Nastya – whose last name isn’t disclosed by Marina’s Kids – was too old for an orphan visa. They knew she might have to return to Ukraine but were hoping to find a way to enable her to stay.
With help from Wake Tech Community College, they tried to acquire an education visa. But Nastya didn’t have the correct paperwork.
Nastya could have sought asylum as a refugee, Kristy said, but that would have barred her from ever returning to Ukraine to see her two sisters.
“She has repeatedly said she would like the ability to see them again,” Kristy said.
Sensing Nastya might need help from someone more powerful to beat or navigate the system, the family reached out to Sen. Richard Burr and Rep. George Holding.
Burr’s staff contacted U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and then referred the family to the department’s website, Kristy said.
Holding’s staff put her in touch with an immigration lawyer in Charlotte and kept in touch through email.
“Our role will be to speak with USCIS (if she applies to extend/change her status) or the US Embassy (if she decides to return and apply for a visa abroad),” Carol Armstrong, an assistant to Holding, wrote to Kristy in an email on Aug. 8.
“Before you file anything or initiate a process, please let us know so that Rep. Holding can provide a letter of support,” she wrote.
‘Not good enough’
The Johnsons were disappointed by the response.
“That’s not good enough,” Kristy said. “I don’t need their options. I need someone to call an ambassador. I need someone to call the embassy. Why is Burr not calling Ukraine? A U.S. senator has no weight in this whatsoever?”
The Johnsons said they haven’t heard from representatives for Burr or Holding in weeks.
Representatives for Burr and Holding declined to comment for this story, saying they don’t discuss inquiries from constituents in order to protect their privacy.
A longtime Republican and active campaigner, Kristy said she didn’t reach out to Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan.
“This is hard to swallow when you’ve ... gone to fundraisers, put up signs and had bumper stickers,” she said.
Kristy also reached out to her doctor, Greg Brannon, who campaigned with high-profile Republican senators earlier this year during an unsuccessful bid in North Carolina for the party’s nomination for Senate.
“He Facebooked me and said, ‘I can’t get anybody to do anything,’” she said.
Brannon often asks for updates, Kristy said. But it’s unclear what lies ahead for Nastya.
Too old to return to an orphanage, she expects to be assigned to a trade school. No one knows when it will happen, or where the school will be.
She might get help from Scott Keller, a Holly Springs man who contacted the Johnsons after reading about their situation in The News & Observer.
“Their story really touched my heart,” he said.
Keller, who adopted two kids from Ukraine in 2004, also has business ties to the region.
“We have some possible solutions as far as schools that can help out,” he said.
Keller said he’s also working with contacts at a church in Ukraine to try to find Nastya “a home with some structure and guidance.”
“Otherwise, she’ll be a statistic,” he said, referring to data compiled by the Ukraine Orphan Outreach. According to the group, 60 percent of girls who age out of the orphanages turn to prostitution to survive.
Looking to help
Kristy checks her phone often for text messages from Nastya. The Johnsons await word on how they can continue to help.
In the meantime, they hope and pray that Nastya stays safe. Devout Christians, they point to their past as evidence prayer works.
In 2006, Kristy was diagnosed with skin cancer while going through the in vitro fertilization process to have their second child.
Six years later, while she was pregnant with their third child, doctors discovered that Mike had a leak in his spinal cord. He was hospitalized for weeks at a time on three different occasions.
Both are now physically healthy. It’s the emotional trauma that’s tough.
“Without our faith, I don’t know how we’d get through this,” Mike said. “We think she’ll eventually get here.”