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Maine missionaries help Ukrainian teens escape Russian war

"It's devastating to see just the people of Ukraine having to go through what they're going through."

SCARBOROUGH, Maine — A husband and wife from Gorham are in Romania helping Ukrainian refugees seek asylum after leaving behind years of work to help teens who age out of orphanages in the country.

Bonnie and Greg Harrison got involved with the teens eight years ago, when they started hosting Ukrainian kids living in orphanages at their Maine home for summer and winter breaks. Soon after, they adopted three siblings from Ukraine and eventually adopted a fourth, but they still felt they had more work to do.

"Mostly we just felt really bad for the kids we had to leave behind over the years," Bonnie Harrison said over a video interview from Romania. 

In 2018, the Harrisons moved to Ukraine as missionaries and built a transitional home for kids who age out of the orphanages. It began their ministry, Hearts of Hope Ukraine.

Danny Patterson is the ministry's board chair and a pastor at the Second Parish Presbyterian Orthodox Church in Scarborough, where the Harrisons have been members for more than 30 years.

"It's in the trade school after kids have aged out that they are most vulnerable: the girls to being trafficked, the boys to becoming involved in organized crime," said Patterson. "Many if not all of their documentation includes identifying them as orphans which immediately in the eyes of Ukrainian culture puts them at a disadvantage for getting jobs. It's kind of a moniker, a title that follows them around, often for the rest of their lives."

At their transitional home for these teens, the Harrisons teach basic life skills, including cooking, following a budget, and sticking to a schedule, so they can ease into adult society.

"Many of these kids in the orphanage will never be adopted, and then they will be sort of launched out into society at significant disadvantages," Patterson said.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin approved troops to start invading Ukraine, the Harrisons had to leave, packing up their belongings and the teens in their care. They are now at a rental home in Romania, safe from the violence, and welcoming Ukrainian refugees to help them get asylum documentation and find a place to stay.

"They are loving their neighbors, their Ukrainian neighbors, these orphans as they would love themselves so it is faith in action in ways that you can't doubt," Patterson said.

"They're poor people, and they work really hard for everything they get, and then you have this. It just completely devastates them," Harrison said. "It's devastating to see just the people of Ukraine having to go through what they're going through."

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