Former State Representative Matt Shea helps rescue 62 orphans from a now bomb-ravaged Ukrainian town, but some question Shea’s actions and the children’s future

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KAZIMIERZ DOLNY, Poland — As bombs fell in Mariupol, a city in eastern Ukraine ravaged by Russian bombardment, Spokane pastor and former lawmaker Matt Shea joined a rescue mission for 62 orphans. In a March 8 video and Facebook post, Shea said he could hear machine guns firing in the background as he talked to his “potential girls.”

Shea traveled to Poland and Ukraine and helped these children, along with two caretakers, travel more than 800 miles by bus through the war-torn country. Now these children are staying in a hotel run by the Association of Polish Journalists in Kazimierz Dolny, a picturesque little town in central-eastern Poland.

Shea, who has not responded to multiple requests for comment, is staying with the children and initially refused on Sunday to allow Polish volunteers or doctors to see them, according to two local volunteers. This has raised concerns among some in Poland, and the situation is now being monitored by the US State Department, according to an email provided to The Spokesman-Review.

“We still don’t know why he’s here,” said Joanna Stefańska, a Polish cancer therapist who has helped Ukrainian refugees pour into Poland.

Since that initial refusal, however, Shea has allowed a group including the town’s mayor to check on the children later on Sunday. Separately, an American doctor representing a non-profit health association, MedGlobal, also checked the children. Both groups reported that the children appeared to be well cared for.

Stefańska and Weonika Ziarnicka were initially concerned after Shea’s initial refusal on Sunday.

The two women run a foundation that finances various initiatives and events for children in Kazmierz Dolny. They began to hear complaints from other Polish volunteers that an American pastor named Matt Shea did not allow Polish volunteers or doctors to visit Ukrainian children.

Ziarnicka, who also works in the city’s mayor’s office, said the mayor asked her to check on the hotel and the kids. On Sunday, she went to the hotel accompanied by the local police. Shea was angry that she brought the police, she said. And when she asked to speak to the children’s legal guardians, he refused.

“The conversation wasn’t very pleasant, to be honest,” she said.

Ziarnicka, who later returned with the mayor and was able to visit the children, also said that as far as she can tell the children are healthy and well taken care of. The children are in an idyllic setting. Kazmierz Dolny is a quiet town along the Vistula; the narrow paved road leading to the hotel is shaded and peaceful.

However, his concern is what happens to them next.

This worry only deepened when she researched Shea’s past. In particular, she was alarmed by her manifesto “Biblical Basis for War” which describes the Christian god as a “warrior”, details the composition and strategies of a “Holy Army”, and condemns abortion and same-sex marriage. Shea is a former Spokane Valley State Rep who was kicked out of the state’s Republican caucus after investigators determined his role in the 2016 armed takeover of an Oregon wildlife refuge amounted to to “an act of domestic terrorism against the United States”.

“After reading his manifesto, what will happen to the children in a few weeks, months or years?” asked Ziarnicka. “Why does he need these children? What are they going to do in the United States?

Shea denied the allegations of intending to take the children to the United States or harm them, calling the criticism Russian propaganda. He addressed the controversy on a Polish church YouTube channel “Against the Tide TV”, which was founded by far-right Polish pastor Paweł Chojecki. Shea has appeared on the show in the past.

“There are lies and rumors that somehow we want to sell these children. The most outrageous, I think, was that we wanted to sell them for organ harvesting or something,” he said on a March 10 broadcast. “It’s Russian-style propaganda and only Russian-style propaganda could turn an orphan rescue mission into a resort with basketball hoops and a football field. We even coordinate equine therapy for trauma. He also has medical care, psychological care. Only Russian-style propaganda could turn something so good into something so bad.”

The rumours, Shea said on the show, have discouraged other Ukrainian orphanages from sending children to Poland.

During that same March 10 broadcast, Shea said that a third of the children had been nearly adopted in the United States and were just awaiting approval from Ukrainian courts. Shea said he works with a nonprofit group called Loving Families and Homes for Orphans, which he described on that same show as an “organization that welcomes Ukrainian orphans to America with Ukrainian families with the intention that this will ultimately lead to adoption”.

Afterwards, Shea said the children would not leave Poland.

The nonprofit group registered with the Texas Secretary of State in July 2018 with three members: Nadezhda and Alexsey Kostenko of Fort Worth and Irina Sipko of Spokane. Phone calls to Nadezhda Kostenko and Sipko, on phone numbers available through tax filings or the organization’s website, which appeared to be down Wednesday afternoon, went straight to voicemail.

A request for comment emailed to the organization’s account was not immediately returned on Wednesday.

In its 2018 filing, the charity states that its purpose is “to house, serve and provide physical, mental, spiritual and social care to orphans around the world with the ultimate goal of restoration and family”.

In August 2019, Sipko donated $100 to Shea’s campaign for the state House of Representatives, according to financial documents filed with the Washington Public Disclosure Commission. Later that fall, the report was released accusing the lawmaker of domestic terrorism. Shea did not seek re-election in the spring of 2020.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government has ordered no orphans to leave Poland until the end of the war, according to a State Department press release. Ukrainian children can travel to neighboring European countries from Ukraine with their legal guardian if other criteria are met, including approval from the local military-civilian administration.

Whether or not the Mariupol children received this permission is unclear, and efforts to reach the orphanage director were unsuccessful. The orphanage is located near the city center.

Mariupol, a city of 430,000 inhabitants located in the south-east of Ukraine, on the shores of the Sea of ​​Azov, was devastated by Russian bombardments. The Associated Press reported that the missile strikes and shelling killed more than 2,300 people and the population struggled for food, water, heat and medical care. Among the places that were hit were a maternity hospital and, on Wednesday, a theater that was used by hundreds of people as a bomb shelter.

John Kahler, a Chicago pediatrician who works for health nonprofit MedGlobal, has been working with the orphans for the past few days and met Shea on Tuesday. According to Kahler, everything seemed legit and Shea told him he had papers from the Ukrainian and Polish governments, although Kahler said he had not seen those papers.

“The children are all well taken care of,” he said.

The concerns raised by the volunteers are being reviewed by the US State Department’s Bureau of Children’s Issues, according to an email provided to The Spokesman-Review.

Stefańska, the Polish therapist, said the State Department told her that Shea himself had started the process of adopting two Ukrainian orphans.

“We would like to pursue this issue further and inform others who may be able to take action,” wrote Stefanie Eye, head of adoption oversight at the State Department. “We will also alert the US Embassy in Warsaw.”

Eye wrote that the State Department is monitoring concerns about individuals and organizations trying to bring children to the United States outside of the adoption process, whether for fostering or other short stays. duration due to the current crisis in Ukraine.

“We deeply appreciate you bringing this to our attention,” Eye wrote. “We share your concerns about the safety of children.”

Nearly 2 million Ukrainians have fled the country since the start of the war. The United Nations estimates that more than 700,000 children have become refugees, raising concerns about child trafficking. In response to these concerns, the Polish government raised the minimum sentence for human trafficking from three to 10 years and the maximum prison sentence for child sex trafficking from 10 to 25 years.

Both Stefańska and Ziarnicka are grateful that the children were rescued from Mariupol. But they don’t trust Shea’s motives and wonder why he isolated the children, especially the Polish volunteers who fed and housed the approximately 1,000 refugees who temporarily moved to Kazimierz Dolny. Meanwhile, the Polish government is paying for housing and food for the 62 orphans, Ziarnicka said.

Given the upheaval and concerns about trafficking, Stefańska urges volunteers to be direct.

“The only thing you can do now is be clear,” she said. “Clear with your motivations. Your intentions. Your documents.

Journal spokesperson reporter Eli Francovich is in Eastern Europe covering stories related to Spokane. Francovich’s articles will appear throughout the week. His trip was funded largely by Spokesman-Review readers who donated to the Community Journalism Fund and through the newspaper’s Northwest Passages series of events. To help support this trip and similar newsroom efforts, contributions can be made at www.spokesman.com/thanks. These stories may be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. He can be reached at (509) 459-5508 or [email protected]

Journalist Kip Hill contributed to this report.

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