In her native Ukraine, it was hard for Nastya to find a warm, permanent place to lay her head.
The 17-year-old was displaced from her orphanage soon after Russian-backed separatists began attacking Ukraine government troops in eastern Ukraine.
The instability was maddening, not just for Nastya but also for Michael and Kristy Johnson, a Cary couple who felt called to remove her from the situation. Over late night video chats, Nastya begged them to come get her.
It took months, cost the Johnsons thousands of dollars and required a miracle or two, but Nastya finally arrived in North Carolina on Jan. 21 with an education visa to attend Hopewell Academy, a private school in Cary.
On Tuesday, state lawmakers tried to make Nastya feel welcome by officially praising her from the floor of the legislature.
Nastya wore a blue blazer, her brown hair in bouncy curls, achieved through sleeping in curlers.
She sat with the Johnsons and their extended family in the state Senate gallery Tuesday afternoon as Sen. Tamara Barringer, a Republican from Cary, explained why it was an honor to have them there.
“(Nastya) escaped, ran away from her orphanage in the Ukraine as the roads were about to close, and found the assistance of a police officer who helped her avoid four checkpoints, risking her life,” she said.
Barringer said the officer drove Nastya to Odessa, “where she was able to fly to Istanbul and later to New York,” before reuniting with the Johnsons at RDU International Airport.
Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam, a Republican from Apex and friend of the Johnsons, offered similar praise from the House floor.
“The Johnson family did everything they could to get this girl out of danger and into a loving family, and I’m just so appreciative that they did that,” he said.
An instant connection
The Johnsons met Nastya in December 2013 through an orphan-hosting program. The family quickly fell in love with “Nas,” whose legal name they keep private. They wanted to help her beyond her stay in the United States. Shortly after Nastya returned to Ukraine, following her month in Cary, the Johnsons and their three children made plans to host her again.
By the time Nastya arrived in July for a second visit, the Johnsons knew they wanted to find a way to protect her from returning to her war-torn homeland, where she had little means to get by.
The couple’s worst fear was that Nastya, who has few life skills, would turn to prostitution to survive. Sixty percent of female Ukrainian orphans resort to prostitution after aging out of their orphanage, according to Ukraine Orphan Outreach, a Colorado-based nonprofit organization.
Nastya could have sought asylum as a refugee, but that would have restricted her from returning to Ukraine to see her older adult sisters.
Without proper paperwork to secure an education visa, the Johnsons lobbied local politicians for special exemption from immigration rules but were unsuccessful. Nastya returned to Ukraine in August.
In early December, Michael Johnson traveled to Ukraine in hopes of acquiring a visa for Nastya and bringing her back to the United States. He returned to Cary alone after encountering a legal system he said was difficult to navigate.
He did, however, help Nastya secure an interview with a visa officer.
Back in Cary, Michael and Kristy Johnson stayed up all night on Dec. 17, waiting for Nastya to text them about her meeting with the officer in Kiev at 2 a.m. Eastern Standard Time.
It was about 9:30 the next morning when Kristy said she received a call from the office of U.S. Rep. George Holding of Raleigh. Holding’s staff had been keeping up with Nastya’s situation, Kristy said, and contacted the U.S. Embassy in Kiev that morning.
Kristy said she burst into tears when Holding’s assistant told her the status of Nastya’s visa request: Approved.
“God is amazing, He’s so amazing,” she said repeatedly that day.
On Tuesday, state lawmakers and students from Hopewell Academy applauded as the family stood up from their seats on the second-floor balcony.
It was a field trip Hopewell Academy students had been looking forward to, said Cecilia Gabriel, head of school.
“When Mr. and Mrs. Johnson first shared their story about (Nastya) with me, I knew instantly that this was a young lady that Hopewell should help,” Gabriel said in a statement.
“Her family needed a school that would expand Nastya’s English and prepare her for a university admission,” she said. “Hopewell is small enough and flexible enough to adapt to varying family educational needs.”
Barringer thanked the Johnsons for their commitment to children.
“It’s the courage of folks like this that is so important for the children, not just in North Carolina, but of the world,” she said.
The Johnsons posed for photos with Barringer, Stam and House Speaker Tim Moore, a Republican from Kings Mountain.
The family declined to comment, stopping on the Jones Street sidewalk just long enough for Nastya to take a selfie in front of the Capitol.