Salem family in Ukraine takes in dozens as refugees flee from Russian invasion

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

Jed Johnson on Thursday felt his family’s house shake after hearing the first missile hit an airfield 20 minutes away from their home two hours west of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital.

Five days into Russia’s invasion, he can now differentiate the sounds of drones, cruise missiles and multi-engine jets.

“Immediately my mind is thinking, ‘Okay, is there going to be an explosion? How loud is it going to be? How are my kids going to be affected?,” said Johnson, who moved from Salem to Ukraine in 2013 with his wife, Kim Johnson. “My emotions kind of took a pause for the most part since this all started.”

Around 660,000 refugees have fled Ukraine since the invasion, most heading for Poland, Hungary, Moldova, Romania and Slovakia, according to a statement Tuesday from the United Nations Refugee Agency.

The UN also said Tuesday that at least 136 civilians have been killed across Ukraine since Feb. 24, including 13 children.

The Johnsons run a nonprofit, Wide Awake International, through which they operate homes for children and adults with disabilities. 

Johnson spent Tuesday with others in their village, building a barricade made of cement blocks with holes for shooting, stacked on top of each other and weighed down by sandbags. Residents have been taking turns checking documents for anybody not from the village.

He said he has been up 20 hours a day since Russian troops invaded, sleeping from around 1 a.m. to 5 a.m.

Tuesday night, he heard a beeping noise and marched frantically around their house trying to find out if it was coming from inside or outside. The noise, it turned out, was their dishwasher malfunctioning.

“I’ve lost my bandwidth for extra noise,” he said.

Since hearing the first missile hit, he and his wife, Kim Johnson, have taken in people with disabilities and their single mothers who stayed with them. 

Johnson said he got a call Friday from a friend, a professor at Kyiv University who said he knew 15 students who were moving west and needed a place to stay as “skirmishes” were happening around the city.

The students arrived Saturday at the Homestead, the land the Johnsons bought to operate three homes, crying and in shock, he said.

The Johnsons fed them, sang songs to help calm them down, prayed with them and sent them to bed. Until the students left Monday, they helped them process their trauma and introduced them to people with disabilities, many of whom in Ukraine are “hidden away” and live in institutions, he said.

They currently have 45 people at the Homestead.

A young girl and her parents stayed Friday night after leaving Kyiv. She’d had surgery following a biopsy and needed the bandage on her wound changed, but was left at the hospital without care as all supplies were taken to those fighting around the city. Kim Johnson, a nurse, changed her bandage and they left the next morning.

A family with three children also stayed briefly with them after their apartment in Kyiv was bombed. 

“It was great because our kids all played together,” Jed Johnson said. “In times of crisis, you develop really good friendships with people when you keep yourself open,” he said.

They threw a surprise birthday party for a girl in that family, with homemade cake and a Ukrainian tradition of going around and offering best wishes for the next year. “And then dancing, lots of dancing. It’s a dance party every day,” he said.

The well from which they get water recently ran dry, leaving them to set bath schedules and portion water and food, with help from families who stay with them. 

“If we’re in survival mode,” he said, “I bet we could get three weeks out of what we have. Everybody’s gonna be hungry, but at least we’re going to have food in our bellies.”

One of their drivers had to flee elsewhere with her family, so Johnson said he has been teaching his 16-year-old son how to drive so he could use one of their cars to help them get west if it becomes too unsafe to stay.

“We can go to Germany anytime we want. But we just feel like we’re supposed to be here,” he said.

In their daily email update, Kim Johnson wrote Wednesday around 4:30 p.m. Ukraine time, “Last night was a scary one. Scary not only in our city but all over Ukraine. But, Kyiv still stands. Our government still stands. Our brave army still fights. Ukraine will not give up. Ever.”


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

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

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