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The City Journals

South Jordan family at the Ukrainian border

May 02, 2022 08:30PM ● By Colin Leonard

By Collin Leonard | [email protected]

Medyka shrank in the rearview mirror of the rented passenger van, along with crowds of displaced families and aid tents.

Bonnie and Brett Hilton were transporting as many families as they could fit to Krakow, two and a half hours away from the Poland-Ukraine border. Most were fast asleep in the back, and no wonder. The journey was long and exhausting; each was able to bring with them only what could fit in their arms. Their destinations (if they had any) were spread across Europe; Dusseldorf, Berlin, Vienna, even Paris. At first, the bus reminded the Hiltons of one they rented years ago on a past trip to a very different Ukraine.

Bonnie and Brett flew to Ukraine for the first time in December 2003, at the tail end of a lengthy international adoption process. The Hiltons had been approved as viable adoptive parents and invited to visit various orphanages, but they had no idea who they were going to meet. At the end of their stay, if all went well, they would be taking two children home with them to Pennsylvania - and they did. After staying through Christmas and New Years, they were able to bring back two little girls, biological sisters, 2 and 4 years old.

During that process, they connected with families through The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and remained in contact through the years. In 2015, the Hiltons began planning a return to Ukraine in search of the girls’ biological family. Their close friend, a Ukrainian who had married and moved to Idaho, happened to be visiting family during the same period, and agreed to act as translator. All they had to work with was an address found on the adoption paperwork.

The team rented a Matryoshka (a small bus) and drove to a village in the middle of nowhere. It was a town where everyone knew each other, so even though they were disappointed to learn the family no longer lived at the residence in the file, people from the town piled into the Matryoshka to show them to another. At the fourth address they tried, with a van full of family and hospitable strangers from the previous three houses, the Hiltons found their daughters’ biological mother.

After that experience, the family’s commitment to Ukraine grew even more. Bonnie, working through an international adoption organization, spearheaded efforts to build relationships with orphanages in Kiev, Zaporizhzhia, Odessa and more. Brett and Bonnie are now co-founders of Deliver, a nonprofit working to rescue at-risk children. As the invasion unfolded before their eyes, the family knew they had to take some kind of action. Phoning the same friend who translated on their last big trip, a team was organized to provide support to displaced families who had gathered at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints church in Krakow.

When the team got to the church, a space on the third floor of a building in a central commercial district, they found the families had moved on. Forced to change their strategy, the Hiltons rented a van to bring suitcases and bags to those gathering at the border.

What struck Bonnie the most was the crowds of hundreds mulling around waiting for their turn to show their documents and cross outside Medyka. On each side of large fences, NGOs pitched tents to distribute food, water, clothing, diapers and medical supplies. Though one might imagine families being served just beans and rice, the World Central Kitchen was stationed at the crossing, distributing what Bonnie described as "killer goulash and  amazing banana breads." As temperatures dropped and freezing rain pelted cold families, ponchos became a hot commodity.

A majority of the refugees the Hiltons witnessed were women and children. Many feared taking offers of transportation from strangers, as human traffickers were reported prowling major crossings. Tearful goodbyes were common; Ukrainian men dropped their families off before heading back to defend their country. One family made it to the border just as their village was attacked, and they learned of family and friends killed while fleeing on a civilian train.

Bonnie and Brett have returned from their trip, and are working to connect Utahn and Ukrainian families for support. They are also plugged into a network of brave individuals risking their lives to transport resources to orphanages and hospitals in the country. Bonnie, reflecting on the powerful trip, said “You feel a natural affection for them. A familiarity. I felt like these women were my sisters. It is a privilege and an honor to help them.”

Right now there are 65,000 orphans still in Ukraine. To learn more you can visit the Hilton’s organization website at www.deliverprojects.org.