Experience

A Young Man from Mariupol Dreamed of Meeting John Cena, and then the Celebrity Wrestler Himself Paid a Visit

In end-May, The Wall Street Journal published a story about Misha, a Ukrainian 19-year-old with Down syndrome. The Russian invasion drove his family from Mariupol to seek shelter in the Netherlands. To explain to Misha why they had to leave Ukraine, his mother made up a story that they were going to meet his favourite American wrestler and actor John Cena. Cena read the WSJ’s story and flew to the Netherlands himself. Liana Rohozhyna, Misha’s mother, discussed with Bird in Flight their journey and meeting John.

On the 24th of February, when the Russian attacked Mariupol, Misha had a panic attack. His mother took him to the bomb shelter at once, but then the lights went out, and the young man got worse. The family moved to the Believe in Yourself centre that Misha used to attend before the war.

When the invasion began, it became a shelter for people with special needs and their families, who couldn’t stay in basements for a long time. Besides, there were no bomb shelters in the central part of the city. So, when the life under shelling became unbearable, the woman decided it was time to evacuate. “People with mental disorders are very attached to the place where they live. It is important for them that nothing changes: their room, their bed, the centre that they visit, and the people they interact with. New people mean stress. And now we are in the middle of this,” Liana recounts.

People with mental disorders are very attached to the place where they live. It’s important to them that nothing changes.

They left Mariupol two weeks after the war broke out in a convoy of 15 vehicles organized by the National Assembly of People with Disabilities. The occupied Berdiansk was their first stop. Then, they set off for Zaporizhzhia, then to the Cherkasy Region, Vinnytsia, Poland, Germany, and, finally, the Netherlands. Liana kept reassuring her son on the road, saying they were leaving to meet Misha’s favourite wrestler John Cena. “That way, he had a goal and understanding of why we were leaving,” the woman recollects. On the walls of their now destroyed flat in Mariupol, there were posters of Cena — Misha has been admiring him since the age of 15. Also, there were lots of the wrestler’s photos on his tablet, which the Russians took away at a checkpoint.

The 45-year-old John Cena is primarily known as a wrestler holding the most world champion titles in history — sixteen. John also appeared in films and TV shows, including Fast & Furious 9 and 2022’s Peacemaker, where he starred. Besides, Cena is into songwriting and rapping.

Eventually, the Rohozhyn family settled in the Dutch town of Huizen near Amsterdam. According to his mother, moving to the new, strange place made Misha so sad that he stopped leaving his room. He was also upset that the whole “looking for John Cena” turned out false. Then Liana told her son that their journey was not over and they needed to make some money to buy a plane ticket to the USA to see the celebrity.

They didn’t have to go anywhere, though. John Cena, who had been filming in London, learned about Misha from the WSJ story and came to visit his fan on Saturday, the 4th of June. Surprised to see his hero, the young man smiled for the first time in a long time. “It was out of this world. On the day of the visit, I told Misha that John would come over. He wore his best clothes and prepared to meet his friend,” Liana said.“And then John came and spent a few hours with us. We made a cake, had tea with him, and then there were many presents. John played with kids, and they flexed, and all. He was so humble and sincere, and everything felt so heart-warming. Misha is still delighted to have met him.”

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Photo from Liana Rohozhyna’s archive

Cena shared a video of their meeting on Twitter. The wrestler also gifted the young man his champion belt and other memorabilia. “I didn’t want a son to think of his mum in a different light just because she did whatever she had to do to get him to safety,” John said. “I wanted to tell him today personally that his story really touched me.”

The Rohozhyn family is planning to stay in the Netherlands for now because they have nowhere to return. “We will stay here, and then… I don’t know what we will do then,” Liana confessed. She was also surprised by how welcoming the locals were. “The locals help us so much, bringing clothes for children, sweets, and asking about what else we need. In Mariupol, Misha went in for inclusive football. Here, these kinds of sports clubs are expensive. A man living nearby paid for a few classes, and Misha attended them. People are very open and thoughtful here and do everything to help us adapt. I’m so grateful to them,” the woman said.


The cover is based on the photo: Dia Dipasupil/ Getty Images/ AFP.

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