Nastya’s vow not to cry dissolved with the first goodbye. Tears flowed, and unwelcome emotions bubbled to the surface Wednesday, prompting her to retreat to an out-of-sight corner.
The 16-year-old orphan from Ukraine will return to her homeland Thursday, despite a Cary family’s desire to give her a permanent home.
Mike and Kristy Johnson of Cary met Nastya in December when they signed up through the nonprofit organization Marina’s Kids to be her hosts for a three-week visit.
Nastya, whose last name isn’t released under Marina’s Kids rules, quickly became a part of their family. She came back in July for a seven-week stay. The weeks since have been spent searching for a way to keep her in the United States.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
Her return is complicated by the unrest in Ukraine. Nastya has lived her life in the eastern part of the country in a city now effectively run by Russian militants. The government’s plan for her to attend a trade school there is no longer an option.
On Thursday afternoon, Nastya and eight other orphans will board a plane in Washington, bound for Kiev, by way of Frankfurt, Germany. Neither Nastya nor the Johnsons know where she will go beyond that.
“It’s too much uncertainty for me,” Mike said. “Someone, somewhere in Ukraine has to have more of a plan. It’s going to be a bad day.”
Nastya’s half-sister and her family are now living in a tent in a refugee camp. Another half-sister cannot be located.
“She does not like the idea of not knowing where she is going,” Mike said. “It almost doesn’t matter what the solution is if she knew what to expect.”
Under the Ukrainian system, Nastya needs the director of her orphanage to formally release her before she can be placed at a safe location. That director cannot be found. “It’s possible she has gone to Russia, because people are being told it’s safer there,” Mike said.
The Johnsons are doing what they can to stay connected to their host daughter. They bought her an iPhone and have given her specific instructions to buy a SIM card as soon as she gets to Ukraine. “All the conveniences we take for granted are even more spotty than normal because of what’s going on there,” Mike said.
Appeals, but no success
“We thought we were close to having her stay extended,” Kristy said. The Johnsons reached out to politicians, lawyers and Ukrainian contacts. Under U.S. law, only children ages 15 and younger are eligible for an orphan visa, meaning that even if the Johnsons were to adopt her in Ukraine, Nastya would not be allowed to enter the United States with the family.
“We got a lot of lip service,” Mike said. “There have been very few genuine efforts. Somebody could have done something.”
At some point during the past weeks, Nastya began referring to Cary as her home. “She has been more verbal about wanting to be here,” Kristy said. “As doors would close, she would say ‘me, America, 18?’ She was trying to find resolve in her own head.”
Her summer visit included a trip to the beach, but what Nastya wanted most was to stay close to the security of the Johnson home.
“She loves to shop,” Kristy said, noting that Nastya was happiest trying on clothes at the mall and taking a picture. “She didn’t have to buy anything.”
On her last day in Cary, Mike surprised her with a phone case and socks, both emblazoned with a Superman logo. Nastya threw her arms around him and showered him with kisses before donning the socks and running through the house mimicking the superhero. “It doesn’t take much,” Mike said.
Nastya looks decidedly American with new pink highlights in her hair. Her English has improved dramatically in the past seven weeks. The Johnsons no longer rely on an iPhone translation app to communicate with her.
Her frustration showed when it came time to finalize packing for her trip. When she arrived in Cary in July, she had only a small purse and one outfit. On Wednesday, decisions had to be made on what could go and what had to be left behind.
‘She is family now’
Mike brought a scale and weighed her suitcase, filled with winter clothes, shampoo, toothpaste and other necessities. It was nearly 20 pounds over the weight limit. Some items were moved to a carry-on bag, while others will stay in Cary.
“She asked me if we were going to love her forever,” Kristy said. “I told her that she is family now and that we will love her in America and in Ukraine. That made her very happy.”
On Saturday, the Johnson family will leave for a trip to Disney World. They had hoped Nastya would go with them.