Dozens of orphans and foster families arrived in Kiev, eager to find out where their temporary residences would be. Evacuated from the eastern town of Mariupol near the Russian border, they were the latest group to arrive as part of a growing effort to remove at-risk orphans from a region that has attempted to declare independence from Ukraine.
Ukrainians had hoped the election of a new president, billionaire candy tycoon Petro Poroshenko, will usher in a new era of stability and end the separatist takeover of Donetsk and Luhansk, two crucial regions in the east. So far, Moscow has not given orders to annex the regions as it did with Crimea in March. But should the standoff between Russian separatists and Ukraine's military continue in the east, NGOs and local churches are armed with a plan to protect orphans from a Russian system that has shunned American adoptions.
The endeavor has been both challenging and dangerous for Alex Gowen, director of The Fisherman, a nonprofit based in Raleigh, N.C.: "If I show my face in the eastern regions, I'm supposed to be killed on the spot." Gowen—whose organization provides for the medical needs and general well-being of orphans around the world—said he has been targeted for being part of the team that is making it possible to move children legally out of the east and into homes and churches in western Ukraine. The separatists, he says, claim the orphans are Russian not Ukrainian. Pro-Russian rebels declared victory during an illegal referendum on May 11, despite polls showing that at least 70 percent want to remain with Ukraine.
There are approximately 40,000 orphans in the eastern Donbass region but less than 8,000 are legally orphans. The rest have parents in the area who cannot care for them but still have parental rights. Further complicating the situation, government orphanages have not approved the transfer of children to other regions, limiting the evacuation at this point to nongovernment orphanages and foster care families.
The Fisherman is working closely with The Alliance for Ukraine without Orphans based in Kiev, and Gowen says they've faced difficultly getting their national emergency response plan approved. "It's sad, but governments by and large don't care. It's at the bottom of their priority list, and that's especially true when faced with the possibility of being invaded by Russia."
Interim President Oleksandr Turchynov, a Baptist minister, eventually approved a plan to return as many children as possible to parents who were willing and capable of providing care, place some children in foster care, and relocate the rest to western regions where 3,200 churches have offered transportation and housing.
Unfortunately, they arrived on the scene too late to help in Crimea. "In Crimea, [orphans] are completely cut off. You cannot adopt them. You cannot support them. They are totally at the mercy of the Russian system," Gowen said. Americans have adopted 11,000 Ukrainian children over the years, and there has been an uptick since a 2012 law halted American adoptions in Russia.
Alliance for Ukraine without Orphans board member Ruslan Maliuta says Crimea was the top summer camp destination for orphanage children, so they are currently looking for alternative camps in western regions. Americans can help by financially supporting orphan refugee relocation efforts and participating in summer hosting programs that bring Ukrainian orphanage children to the United States to experience family life for several weeks, he added. Many of these host families bond with the children and pursue adoption.
Adoptions have continued in Ukraine despite unrest that many say is localized and primarily in the east. One adoption facilitator I spoke with is expecting the arrival of two families in early June, and Maliuta knows of a third family on their way. He doesn't recommend adopting in Donetsk or Luhansk regions, he said, where there is no guarantee of safety, but families arriving in Kiev for their appointment with the State Department of Adoptions are able to view the files of children referred and make an educated decision based on their locations.
Russian separatists continue to control key roads and government buildings in a number of eastern cities, and on May 23 armed rebels tore down the Donetsk prayer tent that had served as a pillar of hope for almost three months. The men threw the tent in the river, stole the speakers and electronic equipment, and beat pastor Sergey Kosyak. "Prayers will continue," Kosyak told me.
Ukrainians say the election of their new president with 54 percent of the vote has the potential to stabilize the situation in the east where only 20 percent of polling stations were open after separatists threatened election officials and smashed ballot boxes. Nationwide, voter turnout reached 60 percent with long lines reported in the pro-Western capital of Kiev.
The day after his election victory, Poroshenko—nicknamed the "Chocolate King" and lauded as a pragmatist—swiftly approved military air strikes against separatists who had taken over Donetsk International Airport, killing dozens of insurgents. The new leader says he plans to pursue strong ties with Europe while mending relations with Russia and returning stability to the east.
But Maliuta said the thousands of Russian separatists with machine guns are unlikely to go away any time soon and vowed to continue pursuing rescue efforts of the remaining children in government orphanages. Russian President Vladimir Putin says Russia will respect the results of Ukraine's election, but many fear Moscow is behind a covert campaign to destabilize the east.
Gowen—who has also worked on programs to alleviate human trafficking—says the odds are against these kids if they aren't adopted before they age out of Ukraine's orphanage system at age 16 or 17. "Those traders are just standing out there waiting for these kids to come out, and usually they know exactly who is going to be released on certain days," Gowen said. "So the more we can do here to support these children, the better."