A Maine family's struggle to evacuate and adopt two Ukrainian brothers
If you would like to help Ukrainian families and children, here are a few verified charities: World Central Kitchen, International Rescue Committee, Save the Children.
A few weeks ago, against the State Department's wishes, a Maine couple traveled to Ukraine to take legal steps to adopt two teenage brothers. They returned home, expecting to complete the adoption sometime this month. Then Russia invaded and the couple's dream was shattered. And they're now trying to get the boys, and nearly 60 other kids in their orphanage, safely out of the country.
Tracy Blake-Bell recalls the moment two years ago that she fell in love... not with her husband Nat — they've been together for more than two decades — but with the two Ukrainian boys she had just picked up from the airport. The youngest was extremely ill, unable to keep anything down on the long car ride home.
"And his older brother was wiping his face for him and trying to help him feel better and when I saw that love and compassion and connection between those two boys, I think that's when I adopted them in my heart," Tracy said.
The two boys, Vanya and Serogzha, were 14 and 12. They were coming to the Bells' farm in Leeds for a three-week visit as part of a program called Host Orphans Worldwide. And by the time that was over, they'd made a lasting impression on Tracy, Nat and their two sons who are about the same age.
"You don't find a lot of kids that are willing to like, go work out in the fields and like farm with us, and go play in the woods," said Nathaniel Bell, now 17.
Despite a language barrier, Nathaniel said the two boys fit in so well that he spoke to his mom about adopting them.
"I said something along the lines of, 'They're pretty much perfect for us,'" he said.
Tracy and her husband, Nat, thought so, too. "They're good kids," Nat said.
"They're kind, compassionate. They love each other like you've never seen. They're devoted to each other," Tracy said.
The boys returned to Ukraine at the end of the three-week visit but because of the pandemic, they were not able to come back to the U.S. for 18 months. So Tracy used Google Translate to communicate with them every day. She regularly sent them boxes of food and supplies. Food security has been a challenge for the orphanage, Tracy said, and conditions there are stark. Last summer the boys finally came back to Maine for what Tracy describes as "three glorious months."
"This is Vanya and Serozgha's bedroom. And this is all of their legos and shin guards and toothbrushes waiting for them to come back," Tracy said, pointing to their possessions.
During the summer the boys played soccer on a local team, took a shine to a cow named Jiffy, helped out around the farm and tried to leave behind what Tracy and Nat will only say was a traumatizing upbringing. The Bells began the adoption process but it got bogged down for months. Then came the threat of a Russian invasion. So, in January, despite the danger, Tracy and Nat made a calculated decision to go to Ukraine for a required adoption appointment, leaving their two sons at home.
"And I was in this living room with my two teenage biological teenage sons, and I said 'I'm so sorry that I'm putting you through this but if we don't go to this SDA appointment, we will not be able to adopt the boys,'" Tracy said.
The couple managed to get in and out of Ukraine with no major problems. They signed some necessary paperwork and planned to return to the country this month to complete the complicated adoption process. But a week after they got home, Russia invaded. Nat says that quickly put their priorities in focus to "trying to figure out a way to get our kids to safety, get our kids here and protect the other kids."
The boys' rural orphanage is home to about 60 kids. At 17, Vanya is the oldest. He should have been released last year, but the Bells said they are grateful to the director for allowing him to stay on with his younger brother. Throughout Ukraine, there are an estimated 100,000 orphans like Vanya and Serogzha. Not all of them are up for adoption, but Nat said safely evacuating them to another country could make the process more difficult.
"If they get processed in a certain way, they may not be Ukrainian orphans anymore and the hosting organizations, the people that bring to America may not be able to do that," he said.
That's why Tracy has been spending 16 hours a day on her computer and phone, connecting with anyone who might advise her what she will need to bring the boys home once and for all. In the meantime, she's also in touch with the boys. She said they are safe for now but conditions in Ukraine are changing every minute and she's worried about the next few days.
"The second to last time I talked to my oldest boy in Ukraine, I told him he has to stay with his brother at all cost. You help the director and chaperones and every adult so that we can transport all the kids safely," Tracy said.
Vanya responded that he would protect all the little kids and the girls and his brother. Tracy and Nat Bell said they know he'll keep his word.