ST. LOUIS — Serge Zevlever was often known as a protector.
He took on the role when he fled with his family to the St. Louis area from the Soviet Union some 30 years ago to become a U.S. citizen. He did it again when he worked long hours as a taxi driver and pizza delivery man here to bring even more relatives to the U.S.
Zevlever would protect even more in his decadeslong work as a central figure in adoptions of the neediest Ukrainian children to U.S. families. He would split his time between the St. Louis area and Ukraine, helping hundreds of children with medical needs out of orphanages and into welcoming homes.
And on Feb. 26, two days after Russian forces launched an invasion of Ukraine, Zevlever, 62, was again a protector when he volunteered to check on commotion outside of a Kyiv bomb shelter during the assault.
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He was shot in the chest and killed by a sniper fighting for Russia as family members looked on, his daughters, who both remain in the St. Louis area, told the Post-Dispatch this week.
“He was not in a scuffle, he was not on the front lines,” his eldest daughter Alisa Sander said. “He went outside to see if it was safe for everyone else, but they were aiming their guns right at the place where these people were sheltering.”
A U.S. State Department spokesman confirmed the death of a U.S. citizen in the conflict that day, without naming Zevlever, and offered condolences to his family.
To many, Zevlever appeared gruff with his Ukrainian accent, shaved head, stocky build and in-charge persona, but that covered an often playful and compassionate man with a soft spot for those in need, his younger daughter Nicole Zevlever said.
“People were drawn to my dad,” she said. “But they thought: ‘You don’t want to mess with that man,’ until they’d see he was the biggest teddy bear in the world who loved children and animals. He was a hero to us.”
A free life
Serge Zevlever fled Ukraine in the years before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
“It was a wish of his mother that he get out and find a better, free life for his family,” Nicole Zevlever said.
Zevlever fled as a refugee to Italy with his first daughter, Alisa, and her mother. Initially, the family was not allowed into the U.S., so Zevlever organized a hunger strike of refugees in Italy to push authorities to granting them visas, his family said.
They were eventually approved and Zevlever arrived in St. Louis.
Once in the country, he had a second daughter, Nicole, and worked a series of jobs as he learned English and adapted to the country, including a short time as a co-owner of an eastern European restaurant in St. Louis County.
“He was the best cook,” Nicole Zevlever said. “He’d say: ‘Nika, it’s time for breakfast’ and I’d come down and he’d have a whole steak for me.”
Serge Zevlever soon earned enough to fund his sister, her husband and their children to join his family in the U.S.
He would discover his life’s work in the late 1990s, when his friends Viacheslav Platonov and Yelena Kogan founded the Small World agency focused on international adoptions from eastern Europe.
“My job is to take care of the parents while they’re overseas,” Zevlever told the Post-Dispatch in a 1999 story on the company.
Parents adopting from Ukraine would often have to spend weeks to months in the country navigating a complicated patchwork of requirements from orphanages and local governments.
Zevlever soon became an expert on the system, rattling off regulations and knowing who to call and push to get things done, said Nancy Thornell, who worked with Zevlever for more than 10 years on the U.S. side of his business.
The two met when Zevlever facilitated Thornell’s adoption of her first child at age 6 from Ukraine in 2010. Before they met, Zevlever voluntarily paid for the little girl to get hip surgery.
“He didn’t have to do that,” Thornell said. “But I think he thought there was a better chance she would get out and find a family with the surgery.”
Thornell said she and Zevlever worked with a variety of adoption organizations, sometimes using the name Hand of Help in Adoption. His team oversaw adoptions for 40 to 50 families from Ukraine per year, with many parents adopting multiple children at once, she said.
The need for international adoptions in Ukraine centers on children with medical needs and older children and teens.
The adoption business kept Zevlever constantly busy and traveling often. He eventually remarried and his wife, Marina Zevlever, and their son Valentin soon helped run the business in Ukraine.
“His wife had to put his phone away on Saturday and Sunday just so he would stop work,” his daughter, Sander, said. “But he loved what he did.”
Kelly Dirkes and her husband met Zevlever in 2012 when they met Louisa, the first of three children with Down syndrome they would adopt with help from Zevlever from Ukraine.
“He is the man who gave so many people their families and, for this group of children, the chance to pass on being loved and mattering to someone,” she said. “I can’t thank him enough.”
Carla Dobrovits, an attorney from northwest Indiana, and her husband adopted four children from Ukraine with Zevlever’s help in 2011 and 2013.
The couple first adopted a baby boy with a rare genetic condition, Larsen’s syndrome, which can cause cardiovascular problems and abnormalities in joints, Dobrovits said.
They agreed to adopt him, despite significant medical needs that eventually led to the boy’s death in November 2012. Before then, the family was dedicated to getting him the best medical care available.
“It broke my heart to think we might not be able to adopt from Ukraine again, but Serge fought for us,” Dobrovits said. “He said: ‘You did everything you could for that boy, you should not be penalized for what happened to him.’”
With Zevlever’s help, the couple eventually adopted three siblings, ages 1, 3 and 11, from Ukraine in 2013.
Dobrovits said in her time with him, she learned that he would deliver food to the orphanages, throw the kids parties, pay for utilities and often visit the children.
“He would pick up the kids and tote them around like a big bear,” she said. “You could tell it was more than business for him and they loved him.”
Today, Dobrovits serves on the board of Reece’s Rainbow, an organization supporting international adoptions of children with disabilities that often collaborated with Zevlever.
“Everybody knew Serge in the Ukrainian adoption world,” she said. “So today I’m just heartbroken about the personal loss, but also what it means for all the children who he might have helped.”
‘Too old to be scared’
When news of Russian troops lining the borders of Ukraine began to spread in February, Zevlever tried not to worry his daughter and friends.
“He was not without any fear or blind to what was going on in the world,” Sander said. “But nobody thought this would happen and he said: ‘I’m not leaving until I’m made to leave.’”
His co-worker, Thornell, said he was joking even at the beginning of the invasion.
“The last time I talked to him, he said he was too old to be scared, being scared was something for the young,” she said.
Nicole Zevlever remembers speaking to her dad over the phone after Russians began their assault and he encouraged her to work hard on her studies to finish paramedic school.
“He was trying not to show any panic,” she said. “He said: ‘Do not worry. I love you, sunshine, everything is OK. I’ll let you know if anything bad happens. Go to work, go to work.’”
A few hours later, Nicole sent her dad a text joking about a Cat Cafe that stayed open in Kyiv during the invasion.
“I knew he would think it was funny, but he never replied,” she said. “I thought right away that was weird.”
Soon Nicole got a text from her cousin: “I need to see you right now.”
He told her that her dad had been killed.
The family would later learn, they say, that a group of Chechen snipers rented an apartment in her father’s building and one shot Zevlever. Ukrainian friends and family told them the snipers were later caught by local fighters.
“At the time, they thought no one was attacking civilians,” Sander said. “But this is not true. It was just the most incredible injustice. My dad was such a beautiful human, so the injustice is magnified by a million.”
His wife and son remain in Ukraine, according to the family.
A family friend started a GofundMe page under the title “The Memorial of our Dear Friend, Serge Zevlever” to raise funds to eventually return Zevlever’s remains to the U.S.
“He wanted to return and retire to the U.S. one day,” Nicole Zevlever said. “We would like to bury him here.”
Outside Sander’s St. Charles County home, a Ukrainian flag now sits in the front lawn of the house in the country her father fought to get them to years ago.
Neighbors this week piled flowers there under the blue and yellow banner to honor his memory.