INDIANAPOLIS (CNS) — The phone call was a parent’s nightmare, waking Thomas Wright at 3 a.m. 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 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,” Wright recalled 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 from a dozen countries over the past 23 years.
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.
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 age 15, he spent four weeks over Christmas 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.
“We pray about the kids that we’re going to accept as exchange students,” Thomas told The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. “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 nodded and added, “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 power of that connection was so strong that the Wrights wanted to adopt him, but Ukrainian law prevented that possibility because of Anton’s age, Thomas said.
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 Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.
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 there, 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, all without success. 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 into Romania.
From there, the parent of an exchange student in Hungary met Anton and brought him to the family’s home there. 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 recalled. “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 advised 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 said about unsuccessful efforts to get help from the U.S. Embassy there. “It hurt to leave him.”
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.”
“I’m in a Bible study at Southport High,” Thomas said. “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 said, 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,” Thomas said. “My students started applauding. They were so happy.”
Anton boarded a plane from San Diego that arrived in Indianapolis April 22.
“I was really impressed that I could go anywhere and people were willing to help me and take me in,” Anton said.
Beth looked at Anton and remarked: “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.”
“Every day, Christians all over the world were praying for us to bring him home,” Thomas said, 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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Shaughnessy is assistant editor at The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.