When We Get Out of Ukraine, I Will Return Your Childhood': How 167 Orphans Escaped to Poland
When Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Roman Kornijko from the Otchiy Dim (Father's House) orphanage in Kyiv faced a terrible choice: Uproot 167 children from their home and risk the dangers of the open road or remain in the capital and pray that the coming bombs would somehow spare them.
After much thought, he chose the road. And so, around 10 p.m. on Feb. 24, the group prepared to flee.
"We had about three hours to gather together our things," Kornijko tells PEOPLE. "We tried to get a regular touring bus, but 10 companies basically couldn't serve us. Then someone called me late at night and said, 'I've heard that you have children.' "
Within hours, Kornijko says, he, 30 care workers and their wards — all between 3 and 18 years old — were driving west toward the Polish border in four 60-seater buses. With Russian forces in the process of invading by both land and air, however, their evacuation would prove to be far from easy.
"The kids were extremely emotional. Just all curled up. We just wanted to get as far as we could as fast as we could," says Kornijko, adding that each member of the group "wrote their blood type on their backpacks in case of emergency."
"On the highway going west they were bombing on this one section," he continues, "I said to [the kids] that 'if we are bombed, you need to get out of the bus but don't scream and panic. But if you see someone that is injured or wounded, make sure you tell everyone.' "
The group had to grow up quickly.
"I also told the children that they needed to think as if they were 10 years older and take responsibility. That if somebody needs help, they had to take care of that person instead of fighting or quarreling," Kornijko says.
"I said that 'when we get out of Ukraine, I will return your childhood to you, but right now you need to be like adults.' "
Those instructions would prove invaluable. Having covered 220 miles without stopping, the small convoy finally bowed to the inevitable and pulled in at a gas station near the town of Rivne — maybe 115 miles from the border — for a comfort break.
Just as the children stepped off the buses, however, a number of apparent Russian bombs exploded within earshot.
"Everyone ran back into the buses, and we left," says Kornijko. "We turned off the headlights. It was late at night, so we couldn't show ourselves. So we were driving fast with no headlights."
They weren't alone for long, says Kornijko: The local police then came to the aid of the orphans by turning on their headlamps and patrol lights to illuminate a safe path for the buses and — crucially — draw the attention of any Russian forces in the area.
"It was like a sacrifice," Kornijko tells PEOPLE now. "The police turned their lights and sirens on to distract any possible shelling on the buses, as they would only be seeing the police. That was like God's grace of distracting light away from us and onto the policemen."
The officers remained alongside the convoy all the way to the Polish border, where a vast traffic jam of Ukrainian refugees had built up. Rather than leaving the group to its fate, however, the patrol cars once again put on their lights and escorted the buses down the alternate side of the highway until they reached the border post.
The hazardous journey had taken three and a half days total. But, finally, Kornijko, the workers and the children of Otchiy Dim were safe in Poland, joining an estimated 3 million other refugees who have fled Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion, according to the United Nations.
Kornijko says that, following a brief rest, the kids moved on to the town of Freiberg in Germany, where they're currently housed in four different refugee camps.
Their aim is to now find a location where the entire group can be safely housed together once again and enjoy a period of some much needed calm and consistency. As the war continues, their numbers are only increasing.
"A couple of [Kornijko's] friends who are also leaders of orphanages brought children out of Kyiv too," says Steve Weber, a missionary from Montana who has worked in Ukraine for 30 years and is heavily involved with Otchiy Dim. "So we're in Germany now looking for a place which can accommodate about 200 children."
"In some respects, it's not over," Weber continues. "The evacuation is over, but the kids have had trauma by losing their parents, they've had trauma living in an orphanage and now they've had the trauma of evacuation under bombing — and they're in a new place. It's not easy for anyone. All the adults are exhausted."
"We cry, and we pray," says Kornijko. "We have peace where we are right now in Germany but every day children are being killed in Ukraine."