(EyeonCleveland.com founder John Kerezy wrote this story)
STRONGSVILLE – “Wake Up! Get Out!”
That was what Natasha Skorobogatova heard on her phone on the morning of February 24. Living in Kiev with her husband Alex and their 10-year-old daughter, the family hadn’t heard yet about Russia’s invasion of their country.
But Crystal Bedford had. A friend of the family, Bedford was in the U.S., watching live reports on social media of Russian missiles landing on the Ukrainian capital. And she was pleading with her friend via cell phone.
“I would say that 99 percent of Ukrainians did not believe that the invasion would happen,” Natasha recalls. “Crystal (and her husband Jonathan) had been encouraging us to pack up and be ready just in case, but we didn’t prepare.”
Eventually Natasha did get out, along with her sister Inna Konstantinova and her two children. The two women and a third, friend Svetlana Karagenova, are now living in Fredericksburg, Tex. with the Bedford family. Combined, the four families have an “Eight is Enough Times Two” living situation with five adults and 11 children.
Right now, the Bedford family and the three Ukrainian families are in Strongsville, visiting Jonathan Bedford’s parents. For Inna and Natasha, the flight from their homes was a perilous one. “It took us 40 hours to drive from Kiev to the Poland border. Normally the trip is eight hours, but the roads were jammed with refugees. The gas stations were empty. For a while we thought we might not make it.”
FRIENDSHIP FROM SERVICE TO HELP ORPHANS
The Bedfords got to know Natasha and Alex from their mutual interest in Open Hearts and Homes for Children (OHHC). It is a non-profit Christian organization dedicated to improving the lives of Eastern European Orphan children. They met at an OHHC event in North Carolina in 2017. One of the non-profit’s activities is to bring groups of orphaned children to America for 4-5 weeks to live with host families. Ukrainian law requires a chaperone couple to accompany the orphans, and Natasha and Alex served in this role.
Crystal and Jonathan went to the next step with OHHC, adopting Ukrainian orphans and bringing them to their home in Texas. Eventually the Bedfords ended up with seven children, four of them adopted. “We have a huge heart for the people of Ukraine,” Crystal says. “When the Russians invaded, I didn’t sleep for two or three days. I changed my phone to the time in Kiev. I didn’t want to miss anything that might be happening, especially with my friend Natasha and her sister.”
Natasha is an attorney, and she also assists with legal paperwork in handling international adoptions. That is how she became friends with Svetlana, another attorney, based in Odesa, who specializes in adoption legal work. Svetlana learned of Russia’s invasion while in a group chat. She stayed the first day and night of the invasion in a center room of her home with her 11-year-old daughter Lesia.
“I was worried that I might miss school work when the war began,” Lesia recalls. “I instant messaged my friends, and we devised some messaging signs for us all. When I first heard the explosions from the bombs in Odesa, I messaged all my friends.”
Eventually Svetlana chose to flee also. She and Lesia drove to neighboring Moldova, where she found refuge in an art gallery for about a month. “There were displaced people like us all together in one big room, with mattresses all over the floor,” she says. “I kept in touch with Natasha and eventually Lesia and I made our way from Moldova to Poland.”
At the same time, Natasha’s American friends were looking for ways they could be as helpful as possible. “Crystal and Jonathan were asking us if there was anyone else (refugees) they could help, so we introduced them by phone to Svetlana,” Natasha says.
CONGRESSIONAL AND GODLY HELP
On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, more than 6,000 miles away, Crystal and Jonathan decided that they wouldn’t be passive bystanders. “There never was any question what we would do,” Crystal explains.
As Natasha and her sister Inna sat in a refugee camp with their children, the Bedfords got busy. “We contacted our Congressman, Chip Roy, and asked for his help,” Crystal explained. “They (Congressman Roy’s staff) went out of their way to get the necessary visa and paperwork for us.”
It wasn’t a simple process. Inna and her child did not have U.S. visas. Svetlana was unable to obtain temporary protected status from the State Department, and therefore couldn’t fly into the U.S. But she was able to get to Mexico City.
Soon the Bedfords were jetting from Texas to far-flung places. Crystal flew to Poland to help Inna and Natasha get to the U.S. safely. Jonathan flew to Mexico City, to help Svetlana and Lesia travel first to Mexicali, then across the border there into south central California.
“My husband had the harder time,” Crystal recalls. “Congressman Roy actually arranged for us to obtain tourist visas for Svetlana and Lesia, but Jonathan doesn’t know Spanish. So I was on the phone with Jonathan and talking with the Mexican authorities and Immigrations and Customs officials, translating as necessary to help them across the border properly.”
Natasha was overjoyed at seeing Crystal in Poland, and then benefitted from her help in getting her, her sister, and their children into the U.S. “Having seven children, it was just amazing that they sacrificed so much time and resources for us,” she recalls. “We can see God’s hand in this every single day, and we’re so thankful, We’re praying also for those who had to stay behind.”
STILL IN HARM’S WAY
All men in Ukraine under the age of 60 are under martial law to stay in the country and to be available for military service. So Alex Skorobogatova and Inna’s husband, Sasha, are still in Kiev. (Svetlana does not have a husband.)
Alex and Sasha are part of the Territorial Defense Forces, but they’ve not been called yet to military duty. That means both Inna and Natasha are on pins and needles whenever a number from Ukraine appears on their phones.
“It is difficult for the guys, but they’re adjusting to the situation,” Natasha says. “They’re sleeping with air raid sirens blaring almost every night.”
Alex and Sasha are now delivery drivers, taking medical supplies and food to displaced person centers in safer areas of Ukraine.
“Alex made a delivery with a minibus to a refugee center in Nikolaev, in southern Ukraine,” Natasha recollects. “The center director came out quickly to the bus, and instructed Alex to unload everything super fast and to take cover. The last minibus which had arrived with relief caregiver came under attack from the Russians, and all the passengers were killed.”
Inna and Natasha have vivid recollections of the last time they saw their husbands. “It was so hard. It was dark and cold at the end of February, the night they gave us that last hug,” Inna says. “We don’t know if we’re ever going to see them again.”
Svetlana’s keeping in touch with her mother and father, who still live in the Odesa area. “We’re blessed to be here,” she says. “God’s given us hope, and the Bedfords and other people who have helped us made us feel loved and appreciated.”
CONTACT NOTE: These three Ukrainian families will be with Crystal and Jonathan Bedford in Northeast Ohio now through June 7. They are planning to be worshipping at Slavic Full Gospel Church, 5851 E. Wallings Road in Broadview Hts., on Sunday (June 5), then attending the Cleveland Guardians vs. Texas Rangers game at Progressive Field on Monday, June 6. If you want to interview them, contact Crystal or Jonathan Bedford at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about Open Hearts and Homes: http://openheartsandhomes.org/
To support the Ukrainian relief and rescue efforts of Slavic Full Gospel Church: www.sfg.church