Gillette family aids Ukraine as son weighs returning to fight

Jake Goodrick with the Gillette News Record, from the Wyoming News Exchange

GILLETTE — Sergey Pfeil has a passport application in one hand, his cellphone in the other and a decision to make.

He knows what awaits him on his phone. Ever since his native country was invaded less than two weeks ago, messages from friends have all told the same surreal and unfathomable story.

Every video he watches, picture he sees and post he reads alters the mental image he has of the Ukraine he once knew. A version of Ukraine lost in time just days after Russia invaded and only a few years after he was last there.

Bombs have dropped on the sidewalks of Mykolaiv he once walked. Two of his friends, soldiers for the Ukrainian military, have already lost their lives while more of his friends continue to fight. The news all funnels to him through his phone, on a nine-hour time difference from the other side of the world.

That hand holds his window into the ever-changing reality of the life he once knew.

Sitting beside his adoptive brothers and sisters in Gillette, the place that he now knows as home, the 19-year-old who lived most of his life in what is now a war zone is out of reach from front-lines himself.

Hence the passport application in his other hand.

“It’s hard to watch all of this,” he said this week. “You pray and then every time you go to bed, you just hope the next morning you can still hear (from) your friends.”

As the Russian invasion continues into its second week, Sergey plans to expedite his U.S. passport application as he weighs his decision to return to Ukraine to defend his native land alongside the friends who never left, fighting for a country that may never be the same.

His five other adoptive Ukrainian siblings share the security, frustration, anxiety and even guilt of watching the country they know best fall under siege while living safely in the United States.

But the other five do not plan to leave Gillette, all with reasons as unique as the journeys they once lived as social orphans in Ukraine.

“I see myself there,” Sergey said. “I just feel like God wanted me to do this.”

For Sergey, the clock to decide if he will trade his life once again, this time from one of an American college student to one of a Ukrainian fighter, begins ticking as soon as the application falls into the mailbox.

For his adoptive father, Robert, it has already begun. He landed in Poland on Thursday after trekking to the outside of the Ukrainian border with a team of volunteers to assess the humanitarian crisis. His goal isn’t to fight against anyone per se, but to fight for other orphans like Sergey who could be left behind.

They left without a clear plan but with a simple mission: learn how they and their organization, Host Orphans Worldwide, could help.

More than 1 million refugees have made it outside of the country since the invasion Feb. 24, while more than 50,000 Ukrainian citizens living abroad, just like Sergey, already have returned through the Lviv region to defend their home country, the New York Times reported Thursday.

Robert and his wife, Janelle, hosted the six children they went on to adopt through a program called Host Ukraine. When that program disbanded, they started one of their own, Host Orphans Worldwide.

Their volunteer-led nonprofit connects host families with children in orphanages and helps arrange visits where families can get to know the children they would like to adopt and where those children can have an idea of the family they would join if they choose to accept the adoption.

Sergey, an only child, was adopted by the Pfeils alongside five other Ukrainian children in 2019, joining the Pfeils’ seven other biological kids to round out the 13-sibling household.

They have seven more kids they hope to adopt who are in the Ukraine and 158 in all who are affiliated with their organization. Although Robert admits the chances of finding and bringing any of the kids in their organization stateside on this trip are slim, he hopes his trip will lead to more return trips to provide more aid.

While the war wages on, for now, the six Pfeils adopted from Ukraine have the safety of watching the battles from thousands of miles away, but also the guilt that comes with that same privilege.

After growing up between orphanages and troubled households, the Pfeil children have found comfort in the reliable and unconditional love of a family. As trite or obvious as that may sound, that is mostly because of how often that sense of family is taken for granted.

They appreciate the life they have found for themselves, but the range of emotions goes far beyond that.

There is a level of survivor’s guilt that comes with finding that consistency while so many others just like them never had the same chance.

Both Sergey and Sergey are brothers now.

They share the same name and the same adoptive family, but came from different Ukrainian roots and have their own stories of navigating orphanages en route to the Pfeil household in Gillette.

The older of the two is 19 and grew up as an only child. The younger Sergey, 17, made it to the U.S. with both of his biological brothers, Misha, 14, and Sasha, 10.

For the younger Sergey, part of his experience surviving in Ukraine as a child and making it to the U.S. involves the relationship he still has with his biological roots, including with his parents.

As bombs fall, tanks cross borders and death looms in Ukraine, he texts his biological mother who is amid it all.

Not everyone who winds up in an orphanage is completely without parents. The younger Sergey and his two brothers lived through enough ups and downs with their parents and made enough trips in and out of their home to know they had to find stability elsewhere.

But he still keeps in touch with his mother in Ukraine, trying to mend and maintain what’s left of their relationship.

She describes the scenes of the war to him, as hard as it is to conjure those images at times. Explosions nearby and neighbors dying. The sirens blaring and booming sounds she hears throughout the night while he worries in peace beneath the quiet Great Plains sky.

But for him, even the most horrid descriptions are better than the alternative. No matter how grim the situation becomes, every text back is an indication that his mother made it another night, that at least some part of his home country is still as it was.

Now as one of 13 siblings, he is technically the “younger” Sergey. But so much of his life has involved standing in as a parent to the two younger brothers who consider him the elder Sergey.

So while the “eldest” Sergey is seriously deciding whether to go to war, the younger one knows he has responsibilities to fulfill in his new home.

“I look at my younger siblings … I can’t just go there and die since right now I have my siblings to think about and worry about their lives,” he said.

Katya, who at 21 is the oldest of the adopted siblings, can relate. She found her way to her new home in Gillette alongside her sister, Natasha, who is 14.

Katya has followed the war that threatens to forever change her home the same as her other siblings. She watches for updates on social media, follows news and talks with friends who are still inside the country or trying to make their way out.

She isn’t in Ukraine now, but in a sincere way, she can relate to those who are. Katya has the experience of living through conflict herself. From her home in Gillette, she doesn’t need to worry about packing and leaving behind home. But she remembers a time when she did.

In 2014, fighting broke out among Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainians in her Eastern Ukrainian home of Luhansk. Katya had to leave for Odessa, a city in the southwest part of the country, removed from the separatist conflicts of the eastern Donbas region.

Her friends in Odessa are now facing the predicament she found herself in back in 2014, living in a city caught in the middle of a war.

“Now, almost the same story, Odessa is under attack and I have friends there,” she said. “Some of them, they moved to safe places, but some of them, they’re still in Odessa.”

Even from afar, she knows the scale of the ongoing war surpassed the battles she saw in her youth.

“Right now is worse,” she said. “Like 10, 20 times worse than I can even imagine. But I can know what they’re going through having to pack clothes and leave literally like right now.”

The country under attack hardly resembles the country they all left just a few years ago. But in a way, they are no longer their same selves either.

Their identities and cultural strengths remain. Their passion for defending the Ukraine is evident. But at least for the younger Sergey, he has too many other lives to live for to risk his own.

“I think if I was there, there’s no question I would go and fight,” he said. “But I’m here and thinking about protecting my siblings however I can. I care about my family.”

Each of the Ukrainians adopted into the Pfeil family have been affected by the ongoing invasion in their own ways. Even Robert and Janelle, who adopted them and have made it their work to facilitate more future adoptions in Ukraine, have felt the strain and uncertainty of the war.

Robert made it to Poland and is on the first of what could be multiple trips to aid refugees leaving the war-torn country. Meanwhile, the elder Sergey has stood by his insistence on joining the fight in Ukraine and may be the next one to board a flight east.

“I really want to,” he said about joining the fight in Ukraine. “Everybody in the world, we’re brothers and sisters, right? To take care of somebody, to me, it’s something different. It’s hard to explain but when you take care of somebody then other people can start doing the same.”

The Pfeils know all about that. Not just the parents who themselves have cared for enough kids to fill a few households, but also the kids they have cared for, who know the value of selflessness, even if it comes with the risks of war. 

Each of the Pfeil children has lives as unique as the circumstances that brought them to Gillette. And with just as much individuality, each of them will learn to cope with how the ongoing war is redefining the country they once knew.

The older Sergey does not know when he will go to Ukraine. That depends on the expediency of the U.S. Postal Service and the capriciousness of war. To the extent that time is felt while nations wage war, his time could be soon or it could be never.

Until then, he will do what he can from afar: Pray for the lives of his brothers and sisters in Ukraine alongside his brothers and sisters in Gillette.


This story was published on March 5, 2022.


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