The Johnson family and residents living at their homes for children and adults with disabilities in Ukraine. (Courtesy/Johnson Family)
When Jed Johnson went home to Ukraine for the first time as a refugee, it dawned on him that it might be just safe enough to move back.
He and his wife Kim have called Ukraine home since leaving Salem in 2013. Their family has lived at the “Homestead,” the land they bought to operate three homes for children and adults with disabilities through their nonprofit Wide Awake International.
Now, after four months in exile in Germany, they’re planning to return home later this month. Though the war is still raging, Johnson said fighting has moved further from their home about two hours west of the capital Kyiv.
The Johnsons and their group of around three dozen – residents, employees and family – have spent the months since Russia’s invasion living in a small church in Germany, with one bathroom and one shower for all.
The arrangement was increasingly becoming a struggle for the adults they work with, a reminder of the institutions they were cast away to as children, Johnson said.
After a two-week stay in Salem, they will fly to Germany July 19 and plan on moving back to Ukraine within five days.
Twelve days after Russian troops invaded Ukraine in February, the Johnsons became refugees overnight. They fled March 7 to Germany by car with their six kids, a caravan taking another three dozen people, and a few of their team also going by car — all meeting in Kaufbeuren, a town of about 44,000 in Bavaria.
Johnson went back four times to Ukraine to help members of their team who stayed, bearing gifts for their friends. Using an electric cargo bike he brought from Germany, he delivered humanitarian aid to families with disabilities in their village.
“Every time I would go back, it’s very militarized there. You feel it everywhere. But when we’re on our homestead, it’s like home. It’s peaceful, and it’s like you feel like everything is going to be okay, and so it kind of plays with your head,” he said.
Russian troops were 50 miles from the Johnsons’ house when they left, with around 70,000 artillery shells hitting Ukraine every day.
“The rockets were much more random, and it was about fear and messing with the people,” he said of that time
Troops are now over 400 miles away, with most of the active fighting occuring in the east of the country.
The rockets hitting their region are specific to military targets such as fuel depots and training facilities, Johnson said.
“There are missiles falling in our area, but the chance of them hitting us is really unlikely,” he said. He’s felt the group could return safely for months but wanted the team to come to a consensus.
Johnson reported back to their team about what he saw on his return trips, keeping his own opinion to himself.
“We come to decisions together because we’re all in this, and I’d never want them to feel like I coerced them into something they didn’t feel okay with,” he said. “I want them to feel agency as much as possible, because we’ve lost so much agency.”
He said the adults and children they care for eventually started to nonverbally show they wanted to go home and regress individually — self-harming, acting more aggressively, or turning their bodies inward and becoming less social.
At the Homestead, they all had their own space. “Now we’re all like jammed together, and so it’s triggering to them to be back in an institutional-type living. Even if it’s much safer and they have enough food and they’re surrounded by people that love them, they still feel those institutional kinds of feelings,” he said.
While in Germany, Johnson said they enjoyed the local beer, food and their view of the Alps. But their stay was made difficult by Germany’s institutionalized processes for refugees, which he said is focused on integrating them into society long-term.
“We didn’t come to Germany to become German. We didn’t want to live there,” he said. “So you have all these people that are traumatized, just leaving the war. They’ve lost everything … And they’re told, ‘You need to learn German language, you need to be in this class.’”
“We don’t have time to go learn German, we’re caring for all these people with disabilities, like just stop all this. Just let us be here on pause, let us try to get our brains wrapped around this reality. But they just wouldn’t,” he continued. “We’re just here until the bombs stop, and then we’re gonna go back.”
Since they left Ukraine, Jed said he’s learned to largely not plan beyond 24 hours. “I just turned everything off other than today,” he said. “It was hard, but it was the only way to survive it.”
Their team recently discussed how much they had lost, deciding to make a list every night of things they are grateful for no matter how small.
When Jed and Kim took a brief getaway to Italy in June to celebrate their 20th anniversary, Johnson recalled feeling “hopeless about everything” one day at at a Church named after Saint Elizabeth — the mother of John the Baptist, who he said was known for spreading hope for a better future.
“I just need a little hope,” he recalled thinking as he looked at an icon of Elizabeth. “I just felt like I got this little tiny drop of hope.”
Johnson prayed that the war stop and their boys could go home. It was then, he said, that he realized how many thousands of people had likely walked into that church and said the same prayer.
“I just felt this sense of solidarity, that there’s always been war, and we’re nothing special. This isn’t like, ‘God, why are you doing this to me?’ No, war is just a reality. It’s always been and always will be,” he said. “There’s always been war going on, but it hasn’t necessarily directly affected us as much. You can forget about it.”
Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.
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