One man’s mission to help Ukrainians
Central Kitsap lawyer and businessman John Wesley Johnson looks a lot like the performer with 10 plates spinning at once. An extraordinary multi-tasker, he has been a busy man all his life.
Johnson practiced law with Sherrard McGonagle, Green & Johnson in Poulsbo and Bainbridge Island, specializing in commercial and real estate matters. Concurrently and at his own expense, Johnson worked as a human rights attorney with an organization called Advocates International in Washington, D.C., after taking a two-year sabbatical from his law firm to go to Albania, a country in Eastern Europe, as a general. council of the non-profit association.
In this newly developing country still emerging from the iron grip of the communist regime, he helped the Supreme Court of Albania through its growing difficulties to become a valued and trusted government institution.
But it wasn’t until war broke out in Ukraine that the self-effacing Johnson made an impulsive decision to make a difference in the troubled country. When his church, the Peninsula Bible Fellowship, raised $30,000 as an Easter offering for the work of the humanitarian organization Convoy of Hope in Ukraine, Johnson – a self-described “child missionary” who grew up in South Africa during the years apartheid – decided to give himself a 65th birthday present: a trip to this war-torn country so he could make a difference by helping refugees.
“I was really interested in what happened in Ukraine because of my experiences in Eastern Europe,” Johnson said in an interview Saturday at his law firm’s office. Silverdale. “Ukrainians really fought to be free and not to be controlled by corruption.”
The businessman and philanthropist said he had always had a wanderlust and an interest in helping others. It was partly inspired by Ukraine’s Maidan – or “orange” – revolution in 2014, in which at least 200 people died during that country’s struggle to break free from Moscow’s political control, a struggle that lasted about 90 days.
“Their courage and determination to see Europe as a beacon of freedom and to escape the grip of the Soviet Union and Russia was inspiring,” he said. “Before leaving, I had the impression that [the Ukrainians] are ready to fight. They are not going to give up, with or without the support of the European Union (EU). For these reasons, I really wanted to go.
Unsure how he would contribute in his own way, Johnson reached out to an old friend from when he was general counsel for Advocates International. That’s when the wheels of this journey began to turn.
Johnson’s trip to Odessa
“I flew to Sofia [Bulgaria] on March 17 and spent a few days working in a refugee center packing clothes and food, then putting the bags in microbuses to cross Romania and Ukraine,” he said. “I met a refugee family there and spent time with them. It was then that I began to understand what these refugees were facing.
While there are around 5 million Ukrainians who have left their native land for a safer environment, around 10 million still in Ukraine have been displaced from their familiar surroundings.
With the help of a local student who was fluent in Russian and Bulgarian, Johnson traveled to Moldova, a poor country bordering Ukraine whose residents have nevertheless opened their homes to people displaced by war. It was then that Johnson decided to load up his rental car with medical supplies purchased in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau, about two hours from the border, and drive to a large refugee center.
“It’s amazing how many people have volunteered to help across Eastern Europe,” he said. “They see Ukraine fighting for them. They think, ‘We’re not going to get shot, bombed or killed, but anything we can do to help, we’ll do.’ »
Johnson said he didn’t know if he would be offered an opportunity to go to Ukraine. But thanks to connections he was able to make through his driver, a man named Alexi living in the Ukrainian port city of Odessa offered to help deliver supplies there with his fleet of microbuses. Alexi drove to the devastated port city of Mariupol in eastern Ukraine to ferry civilians out of the bombed area.
But then, a proverbial and fortuitous lightning struck.
“Alexi called the next morning to say he had found a driver with a big tractor-trailer truck,” he said. “We loaded the truck trailer – then had to wait seven hours to cross the border.”
Johnson’s small team of helpers, including employees of Metro, an Eastern European version of Costco, loaded more than $40,000 worth of supplies – around 100 tons – paid for by Johnson and destined for a military warehouse undisclosed in the Odessa region. For five days and five nights, the tractor-trailer was met again and again at the border and escorted by the Ukrainian army to deliver supplies, stockpiled for civilians in case Odessa was besieged by the Russians.
While Odessa, a beautiful historic city with what is considered the third largest opera house in the world, has not yet been subjected to the ferocious bombardment that some cities in eastern Ukraine have endured, it has had its share of random missile attacks. On the first night Johnson spent in Odessa as the only guest at the city’s London Hotel, Russian troops fired missiles from occupied Crimea and ships at sea, destroying an oil depot in the port.
As the air raid sirens sounded that night, Johnson headed for the basement of the hotel, which served as a bomb shelter.
“We sent a total of six containers to Odessa and to the military command warehouse,” he said. “Supplies are not intended for the military but for civilians if the city is cut off by a siege. That’s why it was so important to get those supplies.
Mariupol was not so lucky in this regard.
Find accommodation in Odessa
Between two deliveries of supplies, Johnson said he was able to meet a group of 26 orphans cared for by a woman, her husband and their extended family, formerly from Mariupol but now living on the ground floor of a building. vacant university in Odessa. . Seeking a safer and more comfortable setting for the group, Johnson’s group traveled outside Odessa to a location where the university has five partially restored houses.
“We took one of the houses and bought beds, a fridge, a stove and a microwave, and then we moved in with two families totaling 19 people. We also have two iPads for the kids to use for school. We want to bring them to a place where they can start learning and live a more normal life.
In the meantime, his group of aides is trying to free up a university-owned hotel with 142 furnished rooms to accommodate more refugees.
His time talking with the refugees was heartbreaking.
“A lady who was among us 20 in a hotel room couldn’t stop crying during the hour I was there. Her experience in Mariupol was so traumatic for her,” he said.
Ukraine’s ongoing struggle
Johnson makes no pretense about the struggle ahead of the Ukrainians:
“They are a very warm and hospitable people who have a very strong desire to see democracy take hold. They look to the United States as a role model and are so determined to sacrifice everything they have for their children and grandchildren in the future.
“You get the feeling that if they don’t make it at this point in the story, they might not have that opportunity anymore…these are guys who take their wives and kids to the station, and they They go to the front line. They are not afraid of rockets and are not intimidated by the specter of the use of nuclear weapons – they are in it for the long haul.
“I felt like I was in the grand scheme of things, what I was doing was next to nothing – but it was something.”
Individuals in Kitsap County who wish to help financially can contribute through the Peninsula Bible Fellowship’s connection with Convoy of Hope, or do so directly at tinyurl.com/5n9632jk.