Roman Jenkins (in the USA sweater) poses with his classmates at the orphanage in Ukraine. He was adopted by onetime Topeka residents Lisa and Don Jenkins. (Lisa Jenkins)
The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Linda Ditch has been a freelance writer for two decades.
For the past week, Facebook’s memory feature reminded me about a significant family event taking place eight years ago. My sister-in-law and her husband, Lisa and Don Jenkins, were stuck in Kyiv, Ukraine. They had just adopted four children, three teenage girls and a young boy, on Feb. 6, 2014, and were trying to obtain their passports to leave the country. At the same time, mass protests were happening in the city to force out a pro-Russian president who refused to establish ties with the European Union.
I remember phone calls from Don, talking about protestors filling the streets outside their Kyiv hotel. He also told stories about their visits to the kids’ orphanages.
In Pantaivka, he played soccer with the friends of his new daughters — Angela, Tatiana, and Natalie — and craved the eclairs sold at a local bakery. His new 8-year-old son, Roman, was in Znamenka at an orphanage for special-needs children. He has microcephaly, which means he was born with a head much smaller than is typical and remains smaller as he grows. Since he was the biological brother of Tatiana and Natalie, they all had to be adopted together.
Roman’s orphanage didn’t know how to fill out the adoption paperwork. They rarely had children adopted. Lisa described his classmates holding onto the heating pipes in the room for extra warmth, and most of them being skilled at drawing, origami and bead art because those were cheap forms of entertainment. When they left for the evening, the children would watch them go through the window.
“We were told when Americans are around we are something to see … like rock stars,” Lisa remembered.
After the adoption was finalized, the family waited another month before leaving Kyiv. Many days, the events outside kept them in their rooms for safety. Every morning, Roman would wake up and put his arms out like an airplane to ask if they were leaving. Even though the answer was always no, he still asked first thing each day.
The kids’ passports finally arrived with help from Sen. Pat Roberts, Rep. Lynn Jenkins, and then-Secretary of State John Kerry, along with local Topeka news media outlets that told their story. On the morning they were to leave, Roman put on his coat, slung his backpack over his shoulders, and sat by the door waiting, even though the taxi wouldn’t arrive for three hours. No one was going anywhere without him.
The family made it back to Topeka on March 8, 2014.
The protesters in Ukraine achieved their goal, but Russia would annex the peninsula of Crimea and support separatist factions in eastern Ukraine.
Fast forward eight years. The girls graduated from Seaman High School. Angela and Tatiana are raising families of their own, and Natalie will graduate next year from Washburn University with a business degree. Roman now lives with Don and Lisa in Florida, where he attends high school.
And Russia has invaded Ukraine.
Lisa wrote me in a text message: “I know when we witnessed the unrest first hand there eight years ago, it made us uncomfortable. Looking back, that seems minimal compared to what is happening there today. I cannot imagine the current fear of the people of Ukraine as many of them contemplate what to do and how to protect their families. I am especially concerned for our Ukrainian children’s family members that are still there and the uncertainty of what may happen.”
Natalie and Tatiana have two sisters in the town of Poltava. Natalie said they hadn’t heard any explosions there yet.
When I asked her how she was feeling, she said: “Well, obviously, I’m terrified of what’s going on over there. My family is there, and I’m worried about them. I feel thankful that I’m not there, but at the same time, I’m worried.”
Having Natalie, Tatiana, Angelia, and Roman in my life makes the Russian attack on Ukraine feel personal. I know a part of their hearts will always see Ukraine as home. Natalie is clear about what she wants the United States to do. She said, “Biden should send the troops out to Ukraine and do everything he can to help.”
Will the United States send our military into the fight? I don’t think the public has the stomach for our government to do so yet. For now, all we have are a lot of questions: Will sanctions work? Will we let Putin take over Ukraine? If we do, then what? What is the tipping point?
Social media posts are making comparisons between Putin and Hitler. Russia and Nazi Germany. But the real question is: Will world leaders be like Neville Chamberlain with Hitler and let Putin have his way?
Or will leaders be like Winston Churchill when he said, “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
To me, the crucial question is this: Does the United States care what happens to Ukraine?
I asked Natalie what she’d like us to know about the Ukrainian people. She answered, “Ukraine is not a part of Russia and will never be.”
That spirit sounds like Churchill to me.
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