Living in Ellicott City last summer, Sasha, 16, an orphan from Ukraine, experienced what it was like to have a family. For 10 weeks, the teen went swimming, played games, had access to food anytime he wanted and discovered what it meant to have parents and younger siblings who cared.
Jennifer and Matt Ruff hosted Sasha in their home and hoped to adopt the boy, but after Russia attacked Ukraine last month, the process became far more complicated.
In February, the Ruffs traveled to Ukraine for a court-related adoption proceeding. With the invasion of the country ongoing, the second visit, scheduled for this month, cannot take place.
Sasha remains at an orphanage in eastern Ukraine. His calls to the Ruffs have become sporadic.
“We have a referral and a copy of his birth certificate, so there is paperwork linking us,” Jennifer Ruff said. “We don’t have a court decree. We have no legal rights to him. The plan was, in mid-March, to bring him home for good. It’s been quite a shift.”
Jennifer Ruff recalled the night of Feb. 24, with concerned calls from family and friends “blowing up her phone” and then, finally, hearing from Sasha himself.
“He’s trying to protect us, to a degree, from how he feels,” Jennifer Ruff said. “Some days, he’s very upset, and other days he puts up a wall.
“He is an amazing kid with a huge heart. He’s our son, just not on paper.”
Jennifer Ruff said that when Sasha lived with them, he “excelled in the role as older brother,” to her children Abigail, 6, and Gabriel, 8.
“There was no fighting between them, truly. No issues. It was really seamless,” she said.
The Ruffs hosted Sasha through Host Orphans Worldwide, a Wyoming-based nonprofit organization they discovered after several unsuccessful years of trying to adopt a baby domestically. While not an adoption agency, Host Orphans Worldwide gives orphans a chance to experience life with a family in another country.
“This is an opportunity,” said Jill Krenzer, public relations specialist for Host Orphans Worldwide. “Even if they are not adopted, a lot of people stay in touch with their host kids and provide financial help.”
About 80% of the youth who participate in the program are adopted by their host families or someone they met while abroad, Krenzer said.
Though he knew little English when they picked him up at the airport, Sasha and the Ruffs were soon like family, Jennifer Ruff said.
Sasha’s orphanage is one of 12 that Host Orphans Worldwide works with in Ukraine, Krenzer said. Its location in southeast Ukraine “is a real bad area.”
Host Orphans Worldwide has teams in surrounding countries to assist children who are being evacuated, Krenzer said. Ideally, the nonprofit would like the children who had stayed with host families in the United States to return until the situation in Ukraine improves. The Ukraine government, however, does not want the youth to leave Europe, Krenzer said.
“There are new organizations popping up all over the place, and they are not sure if they are legitimate or meant to traffic,” Krenzer said. “The hope at this point is [that] Ukraine allows these kids to come to established hosting organizations with clean records of returning kids and documents on file. Get kids here on temporary visas and safe until this is all sorted out and then send them back.”
Daniel Nehrbass, president of Nightlife Christian Adoptions, the nonprofit company overseeing Sasha’s adoption, said there are several scenarios for getting Sasha and other orphans out of Ukraine, but adoption is not one of them right now.
“Adoptions did not get easier from Ukraine, they got harder,” Nehrbass said. “They have to come to the U.S. in some other manner than adoption.”
Many American families choose to adopt from another country because they have a “higher likelihood of reaching success,” Nehrbass said, but there are risks, including governments closing all adoptions or even collapsing.
“Every international adoption feels like a battle,” Nehrbass said.
Nightlight Christian’s host families in Poland and Lithuania are taking in orphans and the organization is accepting donations to support them. Nehrbass has asked families waiting on the status of their adoption to voice concerns to their government representatives in the U.S.
“It is a real dark period for adoptions right now,” Jennifer Ruff said. “There has been very little progress or none. Our first goal is to get these kids evacuated.”
At the Ruff home, the family does its best to carry on with daily life. They used to hear from Sasha regularly, but not now. He was able to contact them recently to wish Gabriel a happy birthday.
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Sasha’s one blood relative – his brother, Vlad, 19 – aged out of the orphanage and is too old to be adopted. The Ruffs said they plan to bring Vlad to the U.S. to live as well and have been helping him both financially and emotionally. No information has been made available about how Sasha and his brother came to be orphaned.
“They have witnessed the war out their windows,” Jennifer Ruff said. “It’s hard.”
The last time Sasha was in the U.S. was for four weeks during the holiday season. While the increase in COVID-19 cases at the time scaled back the family’s celebrations, Sasha was able to embrace the season, covering his bedroom walls from floor to ceiling with holiday gift wrap and stringing garland and Christmas lights.
“He taught all of us what resilience looks like,” Jennifer Ruff said. “With the experiences and traumas he has lived, you wouldn’t expect a kid to be so joyful and loving and open. He still has hope.”
Now, a Ukrainian flag hangs in the Ruffs’ yard, and blue and yellow bows are on their porch.
The Ruff family has hope, too.
“I am fundraising for the hosting orphan agency and have been in touch with Sen. Chris Van Hollen,” Jennifer Ruff said. “I am getting the story out to make people aware and more elected officials aware to get emergency visas for kids. This is something tangible we can do.”