(NEW YORK) — Matthew and Christy Johnson describe watching Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as “heartbreaking.”
The Johnsons, of Littleton, Colorado, are among hundreds of families in the United States who were in the process of adopting a Ukrainian child when the conflict broke out.
“It’s like living in a nightmare,” Matthew Johnson told “Good Morning America.” “She’s not legally our daughter, but for all intents and purposes, we feel like our daughter is out there with bombs flying around her, and all we can do is pray. .”
The Johnsons, parents of five biological children, first met the child they hope to adopt, an 8-year-old girl named Margarita, this summer when they took her in for several weeks through Host Orphans. Worldwide, a non-profit organization that matches foster families in the United States with Ukrainian children.
Margarita returned to Colorado in December to spend the holidays with the Johnsons and returned to Ukraine on January 15.
The Johnsons said they received one of the last documents needed for the adoption process just days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine began.
Now they said they wait daily to hear about the safety of Margarita, who lives in southeastern Ukraine.
“For the past few months we’ve been able to video chat or send him messages and packages, but we haven’t heard anything. [from her] for the last week,” Christy Johnson said. “So it’s been really heartbreaking.”
The Johnsons said they have heard from other families in the United States that the institution where Margarita is staying is safe, but they have no idea what awaits the young girl they describe as “funny and lovely” and a member of their family.
“When she left in January, we were telling her, ‘We’ll come. We’ll see you in the spring,'” Matthew Johnson said. “Now it’s devastating. We can’t keep that promise anymore.”
While more than 1.2 million people have been forced to flee Ukraine since Russian forces invaded on February 24, millions more remain in the country, including children.
Before the war, about 100,000 children in Ukraine were raised in institutions, according to government statistics, a United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, a spokesperson told ABC News.
Many institutions are located in hotspots, according to the spokesperson, who added that many children in institutions, such as boarding schools and orphanages, have disabilities.
These institutions are evacuated without adequate monitoring of the situation of children, according to UNICEF.
Hannah and Brent Romero, of Villa Platte, Louisiana, said they submitted final paperwork to adopt a 15-year-old Ukrainian boy on January 17, just weeks before the war started.
The boy, whose name they asked not to use, has type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease in which a person’s body no longer makes insulin.
“We ask him about it every day and he says he’s fine,” Brent Romero said. “But I think he’s not telling us the whole truth because he doesn’t want us to worry any more than we already worry about his health.”
The Romeros said they can keep in touch with the boy – whom they have known since 2019, when they housed him for nearly eight weeks in Louisiana – through text messages, mostly while he is away. houses on site in Lviv, a city in western Ukraine.
“We stay up until he’s awake to see if we can catch him before we go to bed,” Hannah Romero said. “He said to me yesterday, ‘I didn’t sleep well…because the air raid sirens kept going off and we had to go to the basement.'”
Hannah Romero, a high school English teacher, and Brent Romero, a pastor, fly from Louisiana to Poland on Friday to join a group of Americans who have gathered there to help children who make it out of Ukraine. .
Hannah Romero said she planned to stay in Poland for two weeks, while Brent Romero said he planned to stay indefinitely, until he could bring the 15-year-old boy home. The couple, who are already parents to two boys, said they also hoped to welcome the boy’s 11-year-old sister, whom they have never met.
“We are not asking permission to adopt them at this time,” Hannah Romero said. “We are asking permission to bring them here temporarily, just to keep them safe and until everything else can be figured out.”
She continued, “It may take years to figure out everything else, but that’s okay. We need them to be safe right now.”
Hundreds of miles from Romeros, Florida, Kelly Lee, a mother of five including four adopted children, works to help a 16-year-old girl she’s in the process of adopting get to the states safely. -United.
Lee, from Oviedo, Florida, and her husband, Kevin, are now applying for tourist visas for the girl and her 7-year-old sister and nephew, who were all able to escape to Hungary.
“The totality [adoption] the process is on hold, and it’s really a safety issue, that’s what’s important,” Lee said. “Our first attempt is to apply for these tourist visas.
Lee said she saw what she describes as an “army of moms” working together in the United States to help children in Ukraine, connecting on social media and helping each other overcome language barriers and dire circumstances. of the war.
“We’re getting messages from families saying, ‘We need help. We have this child that we need,'” Lee said. “So it’s a joke that it’s like an army of mothers have come together to try and have their children. They’re doing research in a country where they can’t even read the websites, but they try to understand buses and trains.
In Oregon, Jennifer Mitchell is one of the mothers leading the charge.
Mitchell, a mother of eight, including three children adopted from Ukraine, is one of the founders of Host Orphans Worldwide, the organization that connects foster families in the United States with Ukrainian children.
Although Host Orphans Worldwide does not facilitate adoptions, about 75% of children in its program end up being adopted by people in the United States, according to Mitchell. She said Ukraine has a high number of adoptions from the United States because it has both one of the shortest wait times for international adoption and one of the largest populations of children. children in need.
Mitchell’s husband traveled to Poland this week to help a field team supporting refugees, while Mitchell is at home in Oregon coordinating families in the United States and orphanage directors in Ukraine.
“We gave them money to buy food because they were short, and we helped with bus transport and train tickets to get the children out of Ukraine,” he said. she stated. “We have a few orphanages in the east of the country that are surrounded and it’s safer for them to stay there than to move. It’s a dire situation.”
Mitchell said at one such orphanage was a 12-year-old girl she and her husband were in the process of adopting, noting that they hadn’t spoken to her in over a week.
“There are probably over 100 children in this orphanage,” she said. “Even evacuating them puts a target on their backs.”
With no end in sight to the conflict with Russia, Mitchell said she fears the end result for children in Ukraine.
“The orphan crisis in Ukraine was already severe and this is just going to be a humanitarian emergency,” she said. “It’s horrible.”
ABC News’ Zoe Magee contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.