Ukraine: Lessons in Liberty and Compassion, Part 1

This post was originally published in 2014, shortly after Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution. Emily’s reflections and application are still timely today.

From Emily: As my kids are solidly in the middle of Medieval History in our home schooling, they haven’t had many opportunities to hear the the words, “Cold War.”  But with the events unfolding over the past week in Ukraine, I have had to fill them in somewhat on the history of Russian’s communist history and how it relates to American values. 

Which values in particular?  Freedom of the press, for instance, is already being squelched in Ukraine, with Russian forces shutting down local TV stations and replacing them with Russian state run news.  And then there are all the assassinations of political enemies, puppet leaders, and the latest–a referendum in Crimea run “democratically” by occupying Russian soldiers.  (Is that how you’d like to cast your vote?  With a gun to your head?)

As I’ve talked about these events over the breakfast table, it’s been a crash course for my kids.  In order to help deepen their understanding, I have asked my compatriots at RR to pitch in.  Next week sometime, we’ll post a list of books that we think will be bombshells for kids–novels that awaken their understanding about the difference between freedom and totalitarianism, as well as Ukrainian folk tales to help younger kids understand the culture and pray for the people in it.

While we’re still putting that list together, though, I asked Hayley to share some of her experience visiting Ukraine last year.  Here’s what she had to say:

*Accompanying photographs and captions were updated in 2022, but musings are from 2014.

Kryvyi Rih: birthplace to Ukraine’s President Zelensky

There are some times in life that are unquestionably God-orchestrated, and my trip to Ukraine last March was just that.  Through an adoption ministry, I heard about an American family in the process of adopting two little girls in Ukraine.  They needed a traveling companion to help bring them home: someone with a passport who could travel immediately.  We had mutual friends, and I fit the qualifications.

So, with 24 hours notice, I found myself on a plane headed toward Ukraine.  It was a dream come true.  In the past two years, I had become very interested in Ukraine.  This interest started as I learned more about the international orphan crisis.

Of the estimated 143 million orphans in the world, about 100,000 of them live in Ukraine with 30,000 of these orphans being raised in institutional settings. The future for orphans in Ukraine is bleak.  Statistics show that after leaving the orphanage at age 16, the majority of girls will join the sex industry, and the majority of boys will become involved in criminal activity.  Only 1% of orphan graduates will attain a university education, but within 2 years of leaving the orphanage, 15% of orphan graduates in Eastern Europe will commit suicide.  In countries such as Ukraine, orphans with special needs have even less of a future.  These are the weak, the least of these, and for many –without adoption– their future is life in a mental institution.

For some readers, all of this information is known.  I did not know, but once I learned this, two years ago, I knew that someday I would go to Ukraine.

On March 13, 2013, I arrived in Kyiv and took an overnight train to a city in Eastern Ukraine.  In the following weeks, I was able to see two sides of Ukraine, a Russian-influenced industrial city and Western-influenced Kyiv.

Cobblestone streets in Kyiv

Former Soviet rule and fragile economic infrastructure are grim realities in Ukraine.  They can be seen everywhere: in the blocks of identical Soviet-era apartment buildings, in the packs of feral dogs roaming the streets, in the cracked pavements and highways rife with potholes.

Walking around Kryvyi Rih

 In Ukraine, people do not smile at strangers.  Instead, they walk about their business maintaining an expressionless exterior.

Outdoor market in Kryvyi Rih

The irony is that beneath the surface of these unsmiling people, lies an ebullient personality.  Years of oppressive rule have bottled and suppressed this personality, but as the Orange Revolution of 2004 and recent events have shown, the Ukrainian people are not afraid to speak!

Independence Square: The Maidan, was an easy 10 minute walk down the street from our Kyiv apartment.

Only in children do you often see smiles.  They have not yet learned to contain that emotion.  I visited one orphanage in our Ukrainian city.  We brought toys and candy and told the children, through an interpreter, a little about ourselves.

. . . while we talked, the group on the ground was shifting.  At first the children were sitting in groups, the little ones in the front near us, the bigger ones hanging back, ranging all the way to the back of the room, some still sitting at tables.  But, the longer we talked, the more the group moved, shifting, moving closer and closer.  By the time we were finished talking, most of the children were sitting in tight rows, as close to us as possible.

At one point, I realized that one of the little girls in the front was asking if Amanda had a Yorkshire Terrier.  I nodded to show I understood and mimed that they were little.  She smiled and nodded.  I can’t remember what was said next, but the little girl pointed to herself and said her name.  Then the girl next to her introduced herself in flawless English!   A little boy to the right pointed to himself and said his name, behind him another piped up.  Suddenly there was a murmur of introductions as child after child told me their name.  It was only for a few moments, and then the questions swept back and it was gone, but I won’t forget it.  They each have a name, a story, they are fearfully and wonderfully made, they just want to be known.  [excerpt from my blog]

During our visit with orphans

The two weeks I spent in Ukraine were life-changing.  Equally life-changing for my family has been hosting a Ukrainian orphan.  While too old to be adopted, he has become a long-distance family member. We have hosted him twice and will, Lord-willing, host him again this summer.

Fun fact: Kryvyi Rih is the longest city in Europe.

As Ukraine covers the headlines and Crimea is once again drawn into history, please keep the people of Ukraine in your prayers. If you’d like, you can follow one Christian voice from Ukraine in this blog, Beauty from the Ashes. Or just pray in particular for the 100,000 orphans who remain among the most vulnerable, especially now with the country’s political upheaval.

The American flags I brought were popular: I love this photo memory of one of the boys.

To learn more about orphan ministry opportunities in Ukraine as well as other countries, here are some wonderful resources:

  • New Horizons For Children (Since Russia’s invasion, New Horizons has been working closely with the Ukrainian government to help keep Ukraine’s orphans safe.)

Thanks, Hayley, for filling us in on what you saw during your trip. It is really sobering to think of the children you saw and the uncertainty they face right now. But we can pray!

And for those of you who want your kids to dig deeper, stay tuned next week for some book ideas.* In the meantime, you might consider using some editorial cartoons like these at or these at NPR to get your kids interested.  Kids are often very visual, so the cartoons give a sort of picture book summary you can unpack for them.

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Hayley Morell

Born in a library and raised by books, or rather, raised by a book-loving family, Hayley loves talking and writing about books. She lives in the middle of Wisconsin and works with children as well as with words.

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  1. Miriam Tucker on March 7, 2014 at 8:28 am

    I recently attended a wedding at our church in Louisville and found myself sitting by a pretty young girl who is a new member. We chatted like old friends about the beautiful music selected by the groom (our fantastic music director). I found out that she likes to play the piano (she’s quite conversant on classical repertoire), likes to travel and is studying at Boyce college. Even though I’m a middle aged lady with grown children she was charming, unassuming and comfortable in her conversation. I can quite understand how she would make the perfect oversees traveler and so loved seeing this article about her trip to the Ukraine and her concern for the Ukrainian people.

  2. Hayley S. on March 7, 2014 at 1:20 pm

    Thank you so much for your kind comment, Miriam! It was such a pleasure to meet you and your husband at the wedding, and I look forward to getting to know you more!

  3. Betsy Farquhar on March 7, 2014 at 1:27 pm

    Thanks for this, Hayley! We have a good friend who’s with MTW in Ukraine right now, and I’ve been following his tweets with interest!

  4. Megan on March 7, 2014 at 4:13 pm

    Thank you for making the crisis personal and reminding us of the vulnerable who need our prayers !

  5. Melinda Speece on March 10, 2014 at 6:44 am

    I visited Ukraine with a group called HopeHouse International (out of Nashville) who build houses all over Ukraine for Christian families who are willing to adopt two or more orphans. A great book (for adults or older teens) is The Grace Effect by Larry Taunton. It is a detailed account of the Taunton’s family adoption of Sasha, who was an Ukrainian orphan. It gives a historical and present-day view of Ukraine.

    I know RR has reviewed/mentioned both Breaking Stalin’s Nose and Between Shades of Gray, which pull up the iron curtain.

  6. emily on March 11, 2014 at 1:58 pm

    Thanks for the suggestions, Melinda. We will add them in the mix! And HopeHouse sounds like a great place to start if my kids want to dig deeper into ministries nearby. Thanks for the tip.

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