KYIV, Ukraine — When Katie-Jo and Christian Page decided last winter to host a Ukrainian orphan in their home through the nonprofit Host Orphans Worldwide, adoption wasn't actually on their minds.
"We decided it wasn't something that we were going to be able to do just based on the travel aspects and financial reasons," 30-year-old Katie-Jo Page, from Snohomish, Wash., says.
But then they met Mykyta — an 11-year-old with blond hair and lively hazel eyes from the Zaporizhzhia region in southeastern Ukraine. Page describes him as fun, joyful and a "good older brother" to their three young daughters.
The family started the process to adopt Mykyta on the second day of his stay.
"We just felt like he was a part of the family and he was meant to be in our family, so we knew we'd do whatever it took to make it official," she says.
Mykyta went back to Ukraine in January. The initial plan was for him to return to the United States in June for another visit, then they would go to Ukraine and finalize his adoption.
Ukraine had become the leading country from which Americans adopted children, surpassing China in 2020, according to U.S. State Department figures. But then Russia invaded in February, and the Ukrainian government halted all foreign adoptions. That left dozens of American families, such as the Pages, in limbo without a timeline on when they would get to finalize the adoptions and bring the children home.
"That was heartbreaking; there was so much unknown," Page recalls. She says at the beginning, Mykyta had "a lot of questions and he was asking when he was coming home."
A little like summer camp
Mykyta and the over 100 other children in his orphanage fled on a bus in early March to eastern Poland, where they now live in a fenced-in facility made up of a series of trailers.
The families interviewed for this story asked NPR not to name the organization caring for the orphans for the protection of the children. The organization has not responded to NPR's interview requests.
Page has visited Mykyta there three times since he was evacuated — twice as a volunteer and once as a visitor along with two of her daughters.
"We are very thankful for the location that they're at," she says. "And Poland has been very accommodating, but it's not their home."
Jennifer Kelly-Rogers, another American woman who comes to visit and volunteer, says the place is a little like summer camp. NPR spoke to Kelly-Rogers while she was on her third visit to see Maksym, a 14-year-old from southern Ukraine whom her family was in the process of adopting when Russia invaded. Her family temporarily hosted Maksym in their home in Honeoye, N.Y., also through Host Orphans Worldwide, a U.S.-based Christian nonprofit.
The kids perform daily lessons and activities, Kelly-Rogers, 49, says. They also eat together, play games and celebrate birthdays. But, she says, it's generally an "uncomfortable situation."
"They just can't get the schooling they need and most of the kids there are crying because they want their families," Kelly-Rogers says.
Meanwhile, she says, the facility is struggling financially and the organizers are unsure whether they will be able to afford food and heating; the upcoming winter is particularly concerning.
"It's stressful for everyone and they all need a break," she says.
Daniel Stevens, the executive director of the upstate New York adoption agency Family Connections Inc., works with nearly 30 families who have had their adoption procedures halted by the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
He says six of those families — including Kelly-Rogers and Page — had already finalized their paperwork required by the U.S. government and were ready to submit the necessary documents to Ukraine's central adoption authority. Had the Ukrainian government been processing adoptions, the families would have then been officially matched with the children and the Ukrainian side of the adoption process would have begun.
"So we have families in the United States who have relationships with these kids; these kids feel safe with these families," Stevens tells NPR. "And now they don't really have a caregiver in the sense of someone they can love and trust to tell them it's going to be OK."
He says some families, including Page and Kelly-Rogers, have asked the Ukrainian government for the children to be released to their American would-be parents.
"These families are willing to pay for the costs of the travel, of providing for these kids, and when it is deemed safe for these children to return to Ukraine, these families would return these kids and then finish the adoption process," he says.
They've asked members of Congress for help, Stevens says, but even though 75 lawmakers signed a letter urging movement on the issue, the State Department says adoptions should not proceed amid the war.
Before the conflict, hundreds of children were adopted from Ukraine into the U.S. annually, according to State Department statistics.
Michelle Bernier-Toth, the special adviser for children's issues in the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the State Department, which handles intercountry adoptions, says it is normal for countries to stop adoptions during times like this.
"When there is a crisis, be it a war, an invasion or a natural disaster, that is not a time to initiate intercountry adoptions or even domestic adoptions," she says. "Because you don't know if the children who have been separated from family members, do they have parents, do they have families that are looking for them?"
However, Bernier-Toth noted that the department has been working with its Ukrainian counterparts to complete the adoptions that had already been approved by both countries before the war began.
Adoptions will resume when the war ends
Ukraine's Ministry of Social Policy declined an interview with NPR for this story.
Daria Herasymchuk, an adviser to the Ukrainian president on children and child rehabilitation, says Ukraine cannot allow children to go to families it hasn't properly vetted.
"We cannot transfer a child from one dangerous situation to another. We must comply with the entire procedure and do it with caution," she says, noting that orphans evacuated from the country — such as Mykyta and Maksym — are not refugees and still citizens of Ukraine.
"These children will be returned to the territory of Ukraine ... and the [adoption] procedure will take place here so we can monitor it," Herasymchuk says. "We cannot just send Ukrainian children to the families now and not be able to control it."
She assures anxious families that they will not have to start the adoption process over from scratch, but that intercountry adoptions will only resume when the war ends.
For now, parents must wait.
Katie-Jo Page and her family talk to Mykyta three times a day. She says their bond and trust have grown strong over the months.
"He knows that I am working towards getting him home and will do everything I can," she says.
Page is headed back to Poland soon. She says the thousands of dollars and loads of hours she's spent so far on these trips to see Mykyta are worth it.
"I can't imagine not going when I have the opportunity because I don't want Mykyta to lose hope and know how loved he is," she says. "And that we won't give up on him."