A Maine couple trying to adopt two Ukrainian brothers is breathing a sigh of relief. The boys, and most of the children in their rural orphanage, have been safely evacuated to Poland.
But their journey out of Ukraine is just the first step in a complicated effort to bring them to the U.S.
Tracy and Nat Bell visited the orphanage in south-central Ukraine about a month ago even as Russian troops were amassing on the border. Tracy said they met the director and had a short visit with 17-year-old Vanya and 14-year-old Serogzha, whom they have gotten to know and love over two extended visits the boys made to their farm in Maine.
The Bells cleared a crucial hurdle in the adoption process while they were in Ukraine. But it wasn’t finished. And the ominous signs coming from Russia meant they had to temporarily shift their focus from adoption to finding a way to get the boys safely out of the country.
“So I actually had been preparing the boys for a couple of months and reminding them to save some of the food that I had sent to them, things like nuts and dried meat. I told them to put water, a couple of bottles of water in a bag and warm socks and hats,” Tracy said.
Tracy also advised the older brother, Vanya, to save money from his job working on a farm and hide it in the event of an invasion. When Russia began its attack, Tracy, Nat and their own two sons in Maine held their breath as Vanya and Serozgha and the 60 other kids in the orphanage looked for an escape.
“We anxiously waited for two days for a bus to pick them up. And finally the bus came and they were on a bus for a period of time, transferred to a train, took a train for several hours, transferred to another bus. And then, thankfully, they were able to cross the border together,” Tracy said.
The boys are now in Poland where Tracy said they are being well taken care of. Many of the other kids from the orphanage were also evacuated.
But Tracy said because some of them still have relatives in Ukraine or were not eligible for adoption, not every child made the trip.
What’s more, the orphanage director, a man in his 50s, was not permitted to cross the border because he may be needed to fight in the Ukrainian resistance.
So Tracy said he had to arrange documents, find other people to step in as legal guardians and navigate war-time logistics for a busload of kids.
“It’s a monumental task to facilitate getting transportation, guaranteeing gasoline and food. I mean, what if we get you know, seven hours into our trip and you can’t get gasoline and you have 100 children? So, it’s so complicated,” Tracy said.
And although the couple is relieved the boys have crossed into Poland, Nat said they still face a battle of bureaucratic red tape.
“So, currently they’re safe but they’re not eligible for a tourist visa because they’re in the adoption process. So, we can’t get them out without a judge granting us custody and we can’t get them to here because their immigration status is in the adoption line,” Nat said.
Without appearing before a Ukrainian judge, Nat said the only option is for the State Department to relax its rules.
In Israel, for example, 100 Ukrainian orphans arrived at an airport on Sunday and were greeted by the prime minister and other government officials who urged western countries to streamline the immigration process and open their doors to children and other new immigrants. Tracy said there are about 180 families in the U.S. who are in various stages of adopting children from Ukraine.
The couple is working with an adoption service provider, an attorney and with the staff of two members from Maine’s congressional delegation, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and U.S. Rep. Jared Golden.
They said they are extremely grateful for the help and for the outpouring of support they’ve received in Maine. Tracy said she’s also thinking about the orphanage director whose name she doesn’t know and who remains in Ukraine.
“I’m just so thankful that he took such good care of my kids for the years that they were in his care,” Tracy said.
He’s one of the many unsung heroes of the war, Tracy said, and now her hope is that he is safe.
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.