For Douglas residents Sarah and Tony Witbrod, bringing their children home from Ukraine has been like something out of a movie.
Bombs dropping nearby. An hours-long drive past lines of people looking to escape the country. The death of the man whose organization facilitated the adoption of the Witbrod children — killed defending his country just days after the family crossed into Poland.
But for now, it’s peaceful.
“We are safe and in Poland,” Sarah told Cowboy State Daily on Tuesday. “We hope to come home soon, we are waiting on the American embassy medical clearance for the children.”
The Witbrods adopted 2-year-old Juniper and 14-month-old Caius from an orphanage in the Odessa region of Ukraine. Both are special needs children, but the baby has severe medical issues as well.
“Caius has Arthrogryposis, or AMC,” said Sarah. “With therapy and casting he will have much more movement in his arms and legs and will likely even walk. He has what’s called joint contractors that make his arms and legs tight. He also has club feet.
He is in this shape because he lay in his crib since birth with little interaction or intervention, she said. “He is precious and perfect exactly how he is, but we know that with proper medical care his life will be even fuller.”
A year ago in the adoption process, there was no indication of the terrifying events to come.
“We went to Ukraine because it was a stable adoption country,” Sarah said, explaining that they had experienced a harrowing adoption process several years ago, when they adopted two children from the Congo.
“We literally got out of Africa right before Congo had their very first independent election, and the country shut down for six months,” she said.
Even when the Witbrods arrived in Ukraine on Feb. 20 to bring the children home, they weren’t worried about the rumblings from the East. They posted photos of outings to the Black Sea with the children, precious moments spent getting to know their new family members and letting the children become accustomed to their new parents.
Sarah and Tony went to court to finalize the adoption process on the Feb. 22, picked up their children from the orphanage on the Feb. 23 — and woke up to bombs on the 24th.
“I heard the first bomb go off,” Sarah recalled, “and because in Douglas they do a Veterans Day assembly, and every Veterans Day, they shoot off a cannon – and so it was very, very much like that sound – but much louder.”
The two weren’t sure what they had heard, although there were several explosions in a row. Because it was 3 a.m., they didn’t want to call their Ukrainian adoption facilitators, Alex and Yulia — especially since a glance outside their window showed no unusual activity.
“We didn’t want to wake Alex and Yulia up if it was just us being hysterical, because we’re looking out the window, and we can’t see anything,” Sarah said. “The street below us is just completely dead. Like, there was one person out sweeping the streets.”
But an email from the American Embassy an hour later set them in motion. Alex and Yulia arrived within hours and hustled them into a waiting vehicle, in which they spent the next 70 hours traveling through a surreal scene.
“We’re passing military vehicles,” Sarah said. “There’s all these people that are walking on the sides of the roads with suitcases, and every gas station had a line for blocks, and we were just driving along the border between Ukraine and Moldova hoping that Moldova would let us in.”
Moldova did let them in, and they stayed the first night in, of all places, a Romanian wedding chapel.
“We drove from like (9 a.m.) until midnight,” Tony said, “and stayed at this Romanian wedding chapel – just like an apartment, wedding chapel thing, and still under construction, so we’re just like, ‘This is a weird place,’ but it was nice.”
The couple that drove them the entire way, Alex and Yulia, were nothing short of guardian angels, according to Tony, dropping everything to make sure the Witbrods made it safely to Poland.
“They were amazing,” he said. “They handled everything that needed to be handled while we were in-country and when we left, all the paperwork, they took care of it — they’re just amazing people to do all they did for us.”
In a Facebook post on Monday, Sarah expressed anxiety over the fate of their friends – one of whom has now chosen to take up arms against Russia to defend Ukraine.
“My hands are shaking as I type this,” she wrote. “Our friend Alex is taking the train in the morning to Kiev to fight. I don’t even have words. I can’t even imagine what Yulia is going through. Please pray for them. Please pray protection over Alex. Please pray for peace for Yulia. Please pray for their family.”
But their adoption team has already suffered a heartbreaking loss. Serge Zevlever, a Ukrainian-American who ran an organization advocating for adoptions for medically fragile children, was reportedly the first American citizen to die in the conflict. He was shot and killed Saturday.
Sarah said through this experience, she has come to love Ukraine and its people.
“Ukraine is a beautiful country filled with strong, resilient, brave, amazing people,” she wrote on Facebook. “People like Alex, Yulia, Serge and Luda. Putin has no idea what he’s up against. Tanks, missiles, and guns aren’t enough when you’re up against people like that. People who are rightly proud of their country. A country with its own language, culture, cuisine, and history. Ukraine is not Russia.”
The family is currently in Poland, waiting on the American Embassy to approve the children’s visas so they can go home to Douglas. There they will be welcomed by the couple’s six other children, three of whom have also been adopted from other countries.
The communities in Converse County have been incredibly supportive of their efforts, according to Tony.
“The town of Douglas and all the people there that, every time Sarah posts something, it’s like 200 people are just cheering us on,” he said. “There’s the most outpouring of love from all our family around the country and all of our friends, everyone back home in our town. It’s been a pretty wild and awesome experience.”
A fundraising site has been set up to help offset the costs of the adoptions, as well as the unexpected rise in airfare since the conflict began.
“We have blown through our money paying tolls in Moldova and Romania and paying our people to taxi us that far,” Sarah posted. “Plus plane tickets are INSANE. We had to pay $1,000 a person, when tickets are normally less than a hundred to fly out of Romania. Plus we think tickets home are going to be triple what they were.
“But I would do all of it again,” she continued. “They are so worth it. I think they are the last babies to make it out.”