June 17, 2022

‘You’re the dad I never dared to dream of’

Faith, a couple’s love and extended family help guide a Ukrainian to his true home

After a harrowing journey from Ukraine to the United States, Anton Bezborodov is in his true home in Indianapolis with Beth and Thomas Wright, members of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

After a harrowing journey from Ukraine to the United States, Anton Bezborodov is in his true home in Indianapolis with Beth and Thomas Wright, members of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

The phone call was a parent’s nightmare, waking Thomas Wright at three in the morning in Indianapolis.

As Wright heard the fear in the voice of the young person calling from Ukraine—someone he regards as a son—he also heard the sound of explosions in the background as the Russians began their invasion of the country in February.

“I’m in a panic because there’s nothing you can do,” recalls Thomas about that phone call from then-19-year-old Anton Bezborodov. “It’s the most helpless feeling in the world.”

Yet that helpless feeling soon turned into a plan of action for Thomas and his wife Beth.

Members of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis, they immediately sent a request for prayers for Anton’s safety to their friends and to the extended family that they have created by hosting 44 foreign exchange students for the past 23 years—a worldwide network that includes families from Brazil, China, France, Germany, Hungary, Japan, Scotland, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Vietnam and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

As the prayers poured forth, so did the offers to do whatever could be done to help Anton escape the war and make it to the one place he has considered as his true home—with the Wrights in Indianapolis.

What happened to Anton during the course of the next two, tension-filled months still brings Thomas to tears and Beth to the depth of emotion that a mother has for a child.

Yet it’s more than a story of trying to bring a loved one home safely from a war. It’s a story of the unexpected ways that God connects people into a family, a story that begins with the unexpected way that Anton became part of the Wright’s family.

‘Oh, Jesus, this is our boy’

Growing up in an orphanage in Ukraine, Anton had never had anyone he could truly count on in life. But that all changed when, at the age of 15, he spent four weeks during the Christmas season in 2017 with the Wrights in their Indianapolis home—all part of an international program to give orphans in Ukraine an opportunity to spend the holidays with an American family.

When Beth first saw a photograph of Anton before his arrival, it melted her heart so much that she thought, “Oh, Jesus, this is our boy.” And during the four weeks with the Wrights, Anton had such a feeling of being at home that he started calling them Mom and Dad.

The immediate connection reflected the approach that the Wrights have always had toward all of their foreign exchange students.

“We pray about the kids that we’re going to accept as exchange students,” Thomas says. “God puts them in our house, and we soon become aware of why they’re here and why God chose them to be with us. We’re interacting with them on a deeper family level, and we’re helping them to understand God better. We look at it as a way we do ministry.”

Beth nods and adds, “This is exactly what the Catholic Church is teaching, that we are cooperating with God through his work. God doesn’t need our work, but he wants us to participate with him in this work.”

For the Wrights, doing God’s work includes building a family with the young people they invite into their homes.

Still, there was something different about their relationship with Anton.

“The exchange students have biological parents in their home country. They’re well-taken care of,” Thomas says as tears begin to fill his eyes. “Anton comes in, and he calls you Dad. I’m the only person on Earth that he calls Dad. I did not expect it would have that powerful of an effect on me.”

The power of that connection was so strong that the Wrights wanted to adopt Anton, but Ukrainian law prevented that possibility because of Anton’s age, Thomas says. So the Wrights have spent the past five years supporting Anton economically and emotionally as he continued his life in Ukraine, paying for his college expenses and phoning him on a regular basis.

Then came that early morning phone call with Anton asking for help against a background of explosions in the capital city of Ukraine, Kyiv.

‘You’re the dad I never dared to dream of’

Thomas’ voice fills with emotion again as he recalls that February call.

“They’re reporting explosions on the east side of Kyiv,” Thomas says. “I know he lives on the east side of the river. I told him he needs to get to the west side of the city.”

As the Wrights sent a request around the world for prayers for Anton’s safety, they also received numerous offers to help him escape.

A parishioner from St. John shared that she has family in Poland, and if he could make it to that country, he could stay with them. And the foreign exchange students from Europe who had stayed with the Wrights told them that Anton could come to their homes.

The problem was getting out of Ukraine. Anton tried buses. He tried trains. Days passed without success, the worry growing for him and the Wrights. Every night, they sent him a message, “Are you safe?” Every night, the last thing they did was pray, “May God bless you and keep you.”

In desperation, after a few weeks, Anton joined a group of about 10 others in making an all-night hike through a forest and across a frozen river, the cold seeping into his body as they crossed the Romanian border.

From there, the parent of an exchange student in Hungary met Anton and brought him to the family’s home in that country. By then, it was late March, a time when Thomas was on spring break from his job as an orchestra teacher at Southport High School.

“I said, ‘Son, do you need me to come there?’ ” Thomas recalls. “He said, ‘I want you here.’ He wanted Dad there. I told Beth I had to go.”

During that time together in Hungary, the family that had welcomed Anton into their home recommended that he would be safer in Germany, so Anton and Thomas traveled there to stay with the family of another exchange student who had lived with the Wrights in 2021.

“There was a brief, distant hope I could bring him home with me,” Thomas says about unsuccessful efforts to get help from the U.S. embassy there. “It hurt to leave him.”

Staying behind in Germany, Anton sent Thomas a text that read, “You’re the dad that I never dared to dream of. I didn’t think there’d be a dad that would love me this much.”

And that’s where the journey seemed to be ending for Anton until Thomas heard about another possibility—a possibility that he believes shows “how the body of Christ works.”

‘Those were the best words I ever heard’

“I’m in a Bible study at Southport High School,” Thomas recalls. “One of my colleagues in the Bible study tells me his best man from his wedding knows a guy from this Lutheran ministry who knows a guy in San Diego who is helping Ukrainians come through the Mexican border.”

Thomas obtained the information and sent it to Anton. On Easter Sunday, Anton messaged Thomas saying, “I want to go to Mexico now!” The Wrights arranged a flight for him. Anton arrived in Mexico on the Thursday after Easter and by that Friday morning, he was going through the immigration process at the United States border with his request for “humanitarian parole.”

When he was asked if he knew anyone living in the United States, Anton wrote, “Thomas Wright.” When he was asked his relationship to Thomas, he wrote, “Host dad.” A short time later, he phoned Thomas, who was teaching a class.

“I saw it was Anton calling,” Thomas recalls, the emotion overwhelming him again. “My whole class is living through all this with me. They got so quiet. Anton said, ‘Hi, Dad, I’m in America, and I want to come home.’

“Those were the best words I ever heard. My students started applauding. They were so happy.”

Anton boarded a plane from San Diego that arrived in Indianapolis at 10 p.m. on Friday, April 22.

“I see him coming toward us,” Thomas says. “We’re shouting, ‘Anton! Anton!’ We gave him a big hug.”

Anton says, “I was excited to see my family. I felt like I was finally home.”

‘God has plans beyond our own’

Thomas’ tears turn to laughter when he recalls that within 10 minutes of Anton walking into their home, Anton was opening the refrigerator, looking for something to eat. It was a sign that the fear of that February phone call had faded, replaced by a feeling of comfort, security and joy.

That feeling continues on this spring evening as Beth, Thomas and Anton sit together at a table in their home. With a lasagna baking in the oven, they all look back in wonder at everything that has happened since February. And they also look forward in hope.

Anton’s entry into the United States on humanitarian parole grants him at least a year in this country—time in which they all hope an immigration lawyer will be able to find a way for Anton to stay permanently.

In the meantime, the Wrights—who will celebrate 25 years of marriage in December—are planning on adopting Anton, even if it’s more from a symbolic standpoint.

“I think it’s very powerful that he knows we love him, and we are his parents,” Thomas says. “It doesn’t change his immigration status. We have a little time to see what our government does. Possibly, we’ll apply for asylum for him.”

Right now, as Father’s Day approaches, the focus is on the gifts that they cherish even more this year—the strong bonds of faith and the close bonds of a family that extend around the world.

“I was really impressed that I could go anywhere and people were willing to help me and take me in,” Anton says.

Beth looks at Anton and says, “What we wanted was to never send him back in the first place. But God has plans beyond our own. God works in ways we don’t necessarily expect, but he’s always working. He builds our family, and that absolutely impacted how this all worked out.”

Thomas nods and recalls how he wrote to a friend in Hungary after Anton was home in Indianapolis. In that letter, Thomas wrote that he had never experienced the blessings and the impact “of the body of Christ as much as I had in the past couple of months.”

That intense feeling of family and faith continues for him, for all of them.

“Every day, Christians all over the world were praying for us to bring him home,” Thomas says, looking at Anton. “Christians opened up their homes for him. These were the connections that only the Holy Spirit makes possible through the body of Christ.” †

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