Salem couple in Ukraine prepares to take in families as Russian troops mass near border

The Johnson family and residents living at their homes for children and adults with disabilities in Ukraine. (Courtesy/Johnson Family)

Jed Johnson got a call from an employee of the U.S. State Department Friday around 9:45 p.m. asking him and his family to leave Ukraine.

“They contacted us and asked, ‘Please leave. It’s going to be too hard to get out,’” Johnson said.

The call came as tensions are worsening in the region with concerns of Russian military forces invading eastern Ukraine. U.S. President Joe Biden has pledged to aid Ukraine with weapons, and has increased U.S. troop deployments in central and eastern Europe in response.

Since moving to Ukraine from Salem in 2013, Johnson and his wife, Kim Johnson, have operated homes for children and adults with disabilities about two hours west of the capital, Kyiv, through their organization Wide Awake International.

Now, he said, they have no intention of leaving unless food or fuel in their region run out.

Ukraine is 5,800 miles from Salem, but Johnson said everybody in the Willamette Valley, a region “full” of people from Russia and Ukraine, should care about the rising tensions in the region.

As of 2019, nearly 2,000 Salem residents reported having Russian ancestry, and about 1,000 reported Ukrainian ancestry, according to Census Reporter data.

“It’s going to affect the economy, it’s going to affect food supplies, it’s going to affect energy,” he said. 

Russia is the world’s third-largest producer of oil, and while they export largely to Europe, disruptions to the supply would have global impacts.

“Any whisper one way or another and you see oil prices dancing,” Johnson said.

Jed and Kim met in Salem after she moved from Corvallis in high school, and he moved from Montana to study journalism at Chemeketa Community College. He was a social worker at Family Building Blocks when they started reading about the lack of services for children with disabilities in Ukraine, many of whom are abandoned by their parents.

As of 2015, more than 40% of children living in Ukraine who were registered with disabilities lived in institutions, according to UNICEF, a United Nations agency that supports disadvantaged children and teens.

The Johnsons traveled to Ukraine in 2012 without having learned the language yet, visited orphanages and decided they had to help.

“Something about brain development is, early on, if people don’t interact or talk to you, you shut off that whole need for other humans,” Johnson said. “So mostly, it’s people just sitting in corners rocking, covered in wounds, malnourished … as bad as you can let your imagination go. Every type of abuse, I used to see all the signs of it.”

By fall 2016, they bought a piece of land where they now operate three homes for people with disabilities. One of them is their family home, an old farm house built during Soviet times that they remodeled.

Two days before they got the call urging them to evacuate, Kim posted on their blog letting readers know they were safe. Meanwhile, she wrote, Jed was on the phone with their operations staff planning a route to pick up families in the city and bring them back to the “Homestead,” the land they bought for three of their homes, if Russian troops invaded.

They bought supplies earlier in the week including 120 kilograms of potatoes, 60 kilograms each of beets and carrots, 50 kilograms each of buckwheat, rice and oats, 10 kilograms of sugar and five kilograms of garlic. They also filled all their cars with diesel and bought three generators, one for each home.

120 kilograms of potatoes were among the supplies Jed and Kim Johnson purchased in mid-February to supply the homes they operate for people with disabilities in Ukraine as conflict with Russia escalates (Courtesy/Johnson family)

Their children’s school had just written to parents, saying they were ramping up emergency drills for students.

“You’re sitting here trying to just fight for basic human rights for people,” he said. “Now, we have to figure out how to plan because some other country wants our land.”

If internet and cell service in their region are shut down, or warning sirens go off, Johnson said they have a plan to run routes within three hours to pick up staff, children with disabilities and their families in the city.

They would bring them back to the Homestead in the village, where they have generators and a month’s supply of dry foods stored away.

“We feel like preppers now,” he said, laughing.

Johnson said if they had to flee because of a lack of food or other essentials, they would move west to Poland or Germany.

Still, the couple are doing their best to continue their normal routine despite their concerns of a Russian invasion.

“We are as ready as we can be, and I have to tell you we feel at peace. We really don’t feel afraid,” Kim Johnson wrote on their blog. “We know we are exactly where we are supposed to be, and we will stay here as long as God has us here. We aren’t being hyper-spiritual about it, but also, we are not going to panic. Moving our huge group is too much of an undertaking to do it just for rumors.” 

The U.S. on Friday estimated that Russia had up to 190,000 military personnel in and near Ukraine, nearly double the presence at the end of January, marking the largest military mobilization in Europe since World War II, according to a statement by Michael Carpenter, U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Russia and Ukraine have been at war since February 2014 over the regions of Crimea and the Donbas in Ukraine. 

By April 2021, Russia was massing troops near the Ukrainian border.

On Monday, Russian President Vladmir Putin said his government would recognize the independence of two separatist, pro-Russian regions in eastern Ukraine.

The Kremlin later ordered Russia’s defense ministry to deploy troops for “peacekeeping functions” in those regions, according to reporting from The New York Times.

“In essence he just declared war by signing an agreement to view the Donetsk and Luhansk region as independent,” Johnson said in an email following Putin’s speech, referring to the pro-Russian regions in the country’s east. “Now a lot of people are going to die. This is so, so sad.”

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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