Central Kitsap attorney and businessman John Wesley Johnson is a lot like the performer with 10 plates spinning at the same time. A multitasker extraordinaire, he’s been one busy guy his entire life.
Johnson practiced law with Sherrard McGonagle, Green & Johnson in Poulsbo and Bainbridge Island, specializing in business and real estate affairs. On the side and on his own dime, Johnson has worked as a human rights lawyer with an organization called Advocates International in Washington, D.C., after taking a two-year sabbatical from his law firm to go to the Eastern European nation of Albania as general counsel of the nonprofit organization.
In that newly developing country still emerging from the iron grip of Communist rule, he helped Albania’s Supreme Court through its growing pains toward becoming a valued and trusted government institution.
But it wasn’t until war broke out in Ukraine that the self-effacing Johnson made a spur-of-the-moment decision toward making a difference in that nation in crisis. When his church, Peninsula Bible Fellowship, raised $30,000 as an Easter offering for the relief organization Convoy of Hope’s work in Ukraine, Johnson — a self-described “missionary kid” who grew up in South Africa during its apartheid years — decided to give himself a 65th-year-old birthday present: a trip to the war-torn nation so he could make a difference by helping refugees.
“I’ve been really interested in what has been happening in Ukraine because of the experiences I’ve had in Eastern Europe,” Johnson said during a Saturday interview at his Silverdale law firm’s office. “The Ukrainians have been really struggling to be free and to not be controlled by corruption.”
The businessman and philanthropist said he’s always had a sense of wanderlust and an interest in helping others. He was inspired partly by Ukraine’s Maidan — or “Orange” — Revolution in 2014 in which at least 200 people died during that nation’s struggle to free itself from Moscow’s political control, a fight that lasted about 90 days.
“Their courage and determination to look to Europe as a beacon of freedom and to get away from the grip of the Soviet Union and Russia was inspiring,” he said. “Before I left, I had the impression that [the Ukrainians] are willing to fight. They are not going to give up, with or without the support of the European Union (EU). For those reasons, I really wanted to get over there.”
Uncertain as to how he would contribute in his own way, Johnson contacted an old friend from his days serving as general counsel for Advocates International. That’s when the wheels of this journey began to spin.
Johnson’s journey into Odesa
“I flew into Sofia [Bulgaria] on March 17 and spent a couple of days working at a refugee center packing up clothes and food, then putting the bags into microbuses for the drive through Romania and into Ukraine,” he said. “I met a refugee family there and spent some time with them. That’s when I began to understand what those refugees faced.”
While there are about 5 million Ukrainians who have left their native land for safer environs, about 10 million still in Ukraine have been displaced from their familiar surroundings.
With the help of a local student who spoke fluent Russian and Bulgarian, Johnson drove to Moldova, a poor country on the Ukrainian border whose people nonetheless have opened their homes to those displaced by war. It was then that Johnson decided to load up his rental car with medical supplies bought in Moldova’s capital of Chisinau, about two hours from the border, and drive to a big refugee center.
“It’s amazing how many people were volunteering to help throughout Eastern Europe,” he said. “They see Ukraine as fighting for them. They’re thinking, ‘We’re not getting shot at, bombed or killed, but whatever we can do to help, we’re gonna do it.’”
Johnson said he didn’t know if an opportunity to go into Ukraine would be available to him. But with connections he was able to make through his driver, a man named Alexi living in the Ukrainian port city of Odesa offered to help deliver supplies there with his fleet of microbuses. Alexi has been driving to the devastated eastern Ukraine port city of Mariupol to ferry civilians out from that bombarded area.
But then a proverbial, fortuitous bolt of lightning struck.
“Alexi called the next morning to say he had found a driver with a big semi-trailer truck,” he said. “We loaded up the truck trailer — then had to wait seven hours to get through the border.”
Johnson’s small team of helpers, including employees from Metro, an Eastern European version of Costco, loaded up more than $40,000 of supplies — about 100 tons — paid for by Johnson and destined for an undisclosed military warehouse in the Odesa region. Over the course of five days and nights, the semi-truck was met again and again at the border and escorted by the Ukrainian military to deliver supplies, stored for civilians in case Odesa was to be put under siege by the Russians.
While Odesa, a beautiful, historic city having what’s considered to be the world’s third greatest opera house in the world, has not yet been subjected to the fierce bombardment some cities in eastern Ukraine have endured, it has had its share of random missile attacks. On the first night Johnson spent in Odesa as the only guest of the city’s London Hotel, Russian troops fired missiles from occupied Crimea and ships at sea, destroying an oil depot at the port.
As air raid sirens sounded that night, Johnson headed to the hotel basement, which served as a bomb shelter.
“We got a total of six containers into Odesa and into the military command’s warehouse,” he said. “The supplies are not for the military but for civilians should the city be cut off by a siege. That’s why it was so important to get those supplies in.”
Mariupol wasn’t so lucky in that regard.
Finding housing in Odesa
In between delivering supplies, Johnson said he was able to meet with a group of 26 orphans being taken care of by a woman, her husband and their extended family, formerly from Mariupol but now living on the ground floor of a vacated university building in Odesa. Seeking a more secure and comfortable setting for the group, Johnson’s group traveled outside of Odesa to a location where the university owns five partially restored houses.
“We took one of the houses and bought beds, a refrigerator, stove and microwave, then moved in two families totaling 19 people. We also got two iPads for the kids to use for school. We want to get them in a place where they can start learning and live a more normal life.”
In the meantime, his cadre of helpers is trying to pry loose a university-owned hotel with 142 furnished rooms to take in more refugees.
His time talking with the refugees was heartbreaking.
“One lady who was among 20 of us 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 continuing struggle
Johnson makes no pretenses about the struggle that’s ahead for the Ukrainians:
“They are a very warm and hospitable people who have a really strong desire to see democracy take hold. They’re looking to the U.S. as a model and are so determined to sacrifice whatever they have for their children and grandchildren in the future.
“There’s a sense that if they’re not successful at this point in history, they may not have this opportunity again … these are guys who are getting their wives and kids to the train station, and they are going to the front lines. They are not afraid of the rockets and are not intimidated by the specter of the use of nuclear weapons — they are in it for the long haul.
“I felt in the grand scheme of things, what I did was almost nothing — but it was something.”
People in Kitsap County who wish to help financially can contribute through Peninsula Bible Fellowship’s connection with Convoy of Hope, or do so directly at tinyurl.com/5n9632jk.