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Murray Journal

Ukraine conflict strikes close to Murray

Apr 03, 2022 05:07PM ● By Shaun Delliskave

Serge Zevlever, the head of a facilitation team for adoptions in Ukraine, who helped Chris and Kecia Cox adopt a daughter, was killed in the Ukrainian conflict. (Photo courtesy of Kecia Cox)

By Shaun Delliskave | [email protected]

Even though it is a hemisphere away, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has rattled Murray’s considerable ties to the country. For example, Murray is home to European Tastees (4700 S. 900 East), a grocery store that sells Russian and Ukrainian foods. Most recently, the Murray City Council (including City Councilor Garry Hrechkosy, who is of Ukrainian descent) passed a resolution supporting the Ukrainian people.

Murray is also home to a sizable population of young Ukrainian immigrants adopted from orphanages there. Kris and Kecia Cox adopted two children, one in Kyiv in 2016 and one in Donetsk in 2011. The Coxes had to live in Ukraine for over a month to adopt. While there, they worked with Serge Zevlever, the head of a facilitation team for adoptions in Ukraine.

He helped the Coxes adopt a Noah, a boy with Down syndrome. Zevlever was killed by a sniper in the war while trying to help others to safety. Days before he died, he was getting newly adopted orphans and their families safely out of Ukraine. He personally helped over 4,000 orphans find homes.

“Serge worked tirelessly for the orphans with special needs. He gave them a voice when they had none. He was larger than life. He loved Ukraine, and he loved the children he fought for until the end,” Kecia Cox said.

Noah was adopted through the nonprofit Racing for Orphans with Down Syndrome (RODS Heroes), which was working with Zevlever. The Coxes keep in touch with Noah’s Ukrainian birth mother. She finally decided it was time to flee and took her 17-year-old son and left everything behind, including her husband, and escaped to Poland.

Murray is also headquarters for the Save a Child foundation, which helped facilitate the adoption of Ukrainian orphans. Founded by Vern and Nanette Garrett in 2005, their program brought groups of approximately 30-45 children to Utah and boarded them with families interested in possibly adopting the children.

According to the Garretts, in 2005, there were approximately 120 orphanages in Ukraine alone. The population of the orphanage schools would range from 70-80 children to as high as 300-400 children. The majority were boarding orphanages where children permanently lived and attended school. Children entered such schools at varying ages. 

“We started our nonprofit and worked specifically with the orphaned children in Ukraine because of these two adoptions,” Vern Garrett said. “Our nonprofit organized flights, paperwork, finding interested families, and creating organized group activities during the two- to three-week timeframe the children spent here.”

Following their stay, they were all legally obligated to return to Ukraine, and then individual families pursued the adoption process if they chose to do so. However, that process could take from six months to two years, depending on the child or children being adopted, and circumstances were often beyond the adopting family’s control.  

The Garretts themselves adopted three Ukrainian orphans—Emily, Elizabeth and Andrew.

“All three have been affected differently because of the current conflict in Ukraine,” Vern Garrett said. “All three have expressed their gratitude lately for our efforts to bring them to America, knowing what they would be experiencing currently. Elizabeth has had deep feelings of sadness for her relatives, currently living in a Russian-occupied area north of Sumy. They had very little materially, to begin with, and have had a lot of fear and anxiety because of their current environment. They have a potato cellar, which they have spent a fair amount of time hiding in. A family from their village attempted to travel outside the village and lost their lives.”

There were 130 children adopted to American families through Save a Child. Some of the families that adopted children have acted and been successful in helping certain extended family members in Ukraine get over the border to Poland.

Not making Garrett’s three Ukrainian adopted children’s lives any less complex is that Vern and Nanette have a Russian daughter-in-law. However, according to Vern Garrett, they are all very empathic toward each other and the current circumstances.

“Christina (their daughter-in-law) has overwhelming sadness with her mom and dad that currently live in Russia. They have always been very close, and when she has spoken to them lately, they are convinced that Europe and the USA are the aggressors, and Putin is protecting Ukraine from the NATO allies. This has been a lot of the propaganda being spread by government-controlled media in Russia, and when Christina tries to share her view of what’s happening, it has caused a lot of contention, and that has been very perplexing for her,” Vern Garrett said.

Seeing the destruction occurring in that country is especially heartbreaking to the Garretts. Each year, they would travel to Ukraine and visit different orphanages to arrange for the program’s children to travel.

“We have spent a fair amount of time on those streets and seen many of the buildings being destroyed. These people are wonderful, just like ourselves, and are being subjected to horrific circumstances,” Vern Garrett said. “We’ve never had a war affect us this way, mostly because of our relationship with the people in that area.”