HUIZEN, Netherlands—Misha Rohozhyn, a Ukrainian teenager with Down syndrome, escaped besieged Mariupol as his mother wove a motivational fantasy that his pro-wrestler hero John Cena lay at the end of their dangerous journey out of Ukraine.
On Saturday, the fantasy ended with a happy reality, when the U.S. star visited Misha here.
Over a long journey that took Misha out of the familiarity he craves to traverse minefields, hostile Russian soldiers, artillery bombardments and national borders, his mother, Liana Rohozhyna, explained that their constant movement was to find Mr. Cena.
That journey, and the escape of others from the same day center in Mariupol, was the subject of a Wall Street Journal article that was read by Mr. Cena, who arranged a meeting in Huizen, the Dutch town where the family has been staying.
After arriving in the Netherlands last month, Misha, a 19-year-old who is unable to speak, stayed in his bedroom, disoriented by his new surroundings and getting angry with his mother that they hadn’t found Mr. Cena.
As Mr. Cena stepped out of a car on Saturday, wearing his
outfit, Ms. Rohozhyna began to cry.
“This is something out of this world,” she said.
Misha Rohozhyn and John Cena compared their flexed biceps during their meeting in Huizen, the Netherlands.
Their flight from Mariupol illustrated the extra layers of trauma that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, such as Down syndrome and autism, can experience during wartime. For some with these conditions, changed routines can stir extreme stress. Those with sensory hypersensitivity find explosions, sirens and raised voices particularly jarring. Physical disabilities make escape harder.
In Ukraine, authorities are still struggling to rehouse people with disabilities in the country’s west after many fled from occupied areas, according to medical professionals. Institutions like the day center will need to be rebuilt after the war, having been damaged or destroyed in the fighting. Those with disabilities that escaped to other countries face a difficult task acclimatizing to new surroundings.
Saturday was among the first times Misha had smiled since the war began, his mother said. Misha had prepared for Mr. Cena all morning, tidying his room and preparing his own version of the wrestling outfit, a red T-shirt, matching socks, dark shorts and baseball cap. When Mr. Cena arrived, Misha was shocked still, Ms. Rohozhyna said.
Misha and Mr. Cena hugged, before the actor and wrestler gave him a WWE belt and other memorabilia.
“I didn’t want a son to think of his mom in a different light just because she did whatever she had to do to get him to safety,” said Mr. Cena, who had been filming in London.
“I wanted to tell him today personally that his story really touched me,” he said.
That story began on Feb. 24, the first day of the war, when Misha froze as Russian missiles rained down on Mariupol. Not wanting to risk being caught hesitating in future attacks, Ms. Rohozhyna moved them full time into a shelter. But when the shelter’s electricity failed, Misha had a panic attack, persuading Ms. Rohozhyna to forgo safety underground and move into a day center that her son had attended in peacetime.
Olena Kravchenko showed Liana Rohozhyna pictures of damage to the day center that she founded in Mariupol.
The center, unprotected against bombardment, soon became a refuge for others with disabilities who were unable to cope in basements and other shelters, and their families.
Ms. Rohozhyna and her family left the unheated center after two weeks. Throughout the journey, she motivated her son with the promise of Mr. Cena, posters of whom had covered a wall of Misha’s room in the family apartment now destroyed by bombing.
In Huizen, outside of Amsterdam, Ms. Rohozhyna invited Mr. Cena inside their temporary accommodation for a traditional Ukrainian honey cake.
“If I have cake, will Misha have cake with me?” Mr. Cena asked, through a translator. Misha nodded.
As they sat on small children’s chairs, Misha mimicked the way the wrestler ate, holding the plate in his hand in the same way.
A group of children from Mariupol also being hosted by Dutch care provider ISZA Thuiszorg crowded around the door, eyeing both Mr. Cena and the cake with envy. They all went into another room, and Mr. Cena played with building blocks with the children and Misha, who constructed a house for the star of the Peacemaker TV series.
Olena Kravchenko, John Cena, Misha Rohozhyn and Liana Rohozhyna, from left to right, shared a meal during the wrestler turned actor’s visit.
Also watching was Olena Kravchenko, the founder of the Mariupol center. Ms. Kravchenko wants to eventually return to Mariupol and hopes to rebuild the center, which was badly damaged by a Russian missile. After harboring around 20 people during Russia’s bombardment, there is now only one person left, the center’s accountant, who stays to stop it being looted of its remaining contents, Ms. Kravchenko said.
Many of the center’s former attendees are unaccounted for. Several are known to have died in the bombardment of Mariupol. Recently, Ms. Kravchenko received a call from the mother of one former attendee pleading for help. Ms. Kravchenko said there wasn’t much she could do given the city was now fully occupied by the Russians.
“Unfortunately, we Mariupolians don’t have anywhere to return to,” she said.
In Huizen, Misha showed Mr. Cena his bedroom and they both compared their flexed biceps. Misha did an impression of a signature Cena move, where he brings his hand across his face while saying his catchphrase, “You can’t see me.”
“I tried to let [Misha] know today that in every journey we’ve got good days and bad days,” Mr. Cena said later. “I hope he gets more good ones.”
As Mr. Cena left, Misha waved goodbye. Later he tried on his new WWE belt.
He always wanted one, said Ms. Rohozhyna, who described her son as an obsessive John Cena fan.
“Misha is an example for moving toward your dream by believing in it,” she said.
Despite fuel shortages, damaged roads and the risk of Russian attacks, many displaced Ukrainians are driving back home after fleeing at the start of Russia’s invasion. Here’s what one journey to Kyiv looks like. Photo illustration: Michelle Inez Simon
Write to Alistair MacDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org
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