‘He died as he lived, a hero in every sense of the word.’: Ukrainian-American man dies defending Kyiv from Russian attacks after lifetime of uniting forgotten kids with loving adoptive families

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“When Kyle and I began our adoption journey, Ukraine was the place we swore we would never go to.

There were too many unknowns: the time required in-country, the variance in court timelines and procedures by region, the well-known issues with children’s files and paperwork.

We wanted our adoptions to be straightforward, to come with a clear plan from beginning to end.

As the saying goes, man plans and God laughs.

2012 ended with the stroke of Putin’s pen and a screeching halt to our plan to bring home two more tiny little Russians from Charlotte’s orphanage to complete our family.

Crushed and broken, we sat on our completed dossier for months.

Then I saw a single photograph of a chubby-cheeked, thoroughly grumpified baby in a pink sleeper.

She was ours from the moment we saw that photo—and we agreed to travel to the place we swore we would avoid.


We arrived in the country exhausted, excited, and more than a little apprehensive about all the unknowns; we would be learning the ins and outs of a new country, working with a different team of adoption professionals, and trying to bond with an understandably frightened infant.

Add in some feelings of ‘this is not how this is supposed to go’ and a healthy serving of guilt that we were leaving our Russians behind.

Enter Serge Zevlever.

If I’m being honest, working with him was one of the things that I stressed about most.

Not because I had concerns about his abilities, but because, well, his reputation preceded him.

Rumor had it that he was gruff, tough, and utterly no-nonsense.

Rumor had it that he was a bulldog or a shark, depending on who you asked.

Rumor had it that he was the Ukrainian equivalent of a mob boss in the adoption world, not to be crossed.

It took about five minutes of sitting with him in the DAP office to learn that most of the rumors held some grains of truth.

And it took five more to learn that underneath that world-weary, hardened exterior beat the heart of a man who loved his job and the children and families he served.

These babies and children that most of the world ignored were his mission.

I was amazed as he effortlessly held three conversations regarding multiple children and families at once, not missing a step or a detail.

He expected perfection because he understood the cost.

He knew what being adopted (or not being adopted) meant for these souls entrusted to him.

And when that meeting I worried about so much was over—he took us to lunch, taught us about country-specific differences in making borscht (European soup), and looked through pictures of Josie and Annie, reassuring us that he knew we would go back for them the moment we could.

Several weeks and a few hiccups later, Louisa was ours.

He scooped her into his arms when we met in Kyiv—and the smile on his face was priceless.

Seeing children in families clearly was his greatest joy and reward.

man giving baby girl a kiss who he cared for
Courtesy of Kelly Dirkes

Fast forward to 2015.

He and his team walked with us while we did it all over again with Margaret and Grace.

Serge not only helped us complete our family—he helped us fall in love with Ukraine and its people.

The place we swore we would never go…

Our experience wasn’t unique.

He brought thousands of children into families and transformed the lives of thousands more with his dedication to improving orphanages and access to hosting programs and medical care.

Ukraine and its children were his life.

Serge was shot and killed on Saturday while helping to defend Kyiv from Putin’s Russian forces, reportedly the first American casualty of the war.

He didn’t have to be there.

As a dual citizen, he could have chosen safety.

But he acted exactly the way all who knew him expected him to act; he stood up for those who could not protect themselves.

He died as he lived, a hero in every sense of the word.

Rest well, dear Serge.

May the angels carry you home to your well-deserved reward, and may the children you loved and have gone ahead run to meet you.

Your legacy will live on in the thousands of families you had a hand in bringing together.

Glory to Ukraine.”

man looking lovingly at the baby girl he cared for
Courtesy of Kelly Dirkes

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Kelly Dirkes. You can follow her journey on Facebook. Submit your own story hereand be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

Read more from Kelly here:

‘Today I went looking for the photo of your casket. In the middle of this storm, I found it. Proof you were loved.’: Mom urges ‘hug your babies’ after outliving daughter

‘Dear woman in Target, I’ve heard it before. That I ‘spoil’ her. That she’ll never learn to be ‘independent.’ If only you knew.’: Mom urges ‘spoiling her is the most important job I’ll ever have’ after taking in abused orphan

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