War torn; Ukrainian family finds refuge in River Falls | News | riverfallsjournal.com

2022-06-16 05:08:35 By : Mr. steven moovent

Tammy Smith and the Purtov family. From left to right: Smith, Nataliia, Mark and Andrii. Sam Fristed/Star-Observer.

Since arriving, the Purtovs have been spending their time catching up on sleep, adjusting to the time zone difference and getting used to their new life. Left to right: Smith, Andrii and Nataliia. Photo courtesy of Tammy Smith.

Smith greets Andrii with a hug at the Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport. The Purtovs arrived at the end of May. Photo courtesy of Tammy Smith.

The apartment complex in Hostomel where the Purtov family was residing. Nearby cars were vandalized by Russians as they ransacked the complex. Photo courtesy of Andrii Purtov.

Broken windows and debris from the complex show the aftermath of the Russian invasion into the city. Photo courtesy of Andrii Purtov.

The front entrance to the apartment is covered with debris. The family made it out one day before Russian soldiers marched into the city. Photo courtesy of Andrii Purtov.

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RIVER FALLS – It’s the night of Feb 23. in Hostomel, Ukraine. Located in a northern suburb of Kyiv , Andrii Purtov and his wife, Nataliia, are putting their one and a half year old son Mark to bed. As the couple prepare for bed themselves they are unaware that when they wake up their lives are going to change forever.

Andrii is the first to wake in the morning. He senses something is wrong. 

“I woke up to the sound of bomb shelter sirens, airplanes and distant explosions,” Andrii recalls. “I’m like, ‘Oh shit this is actually happening.’”

War has broken out between Russia and Ukraine, ending weeks of tension and confirming international predictions of the imminent attack.

His life is quickly changing. He is about to embark on a journey that will lead him to River Falls. He just doesn’t know it yet.

Tammy Smith and the Purtov family. From left to right: Smith, Nataliia, Mark and Andrii. Sam Fristed/Star-Observer.

Andrii races around his apartment gathering his family's belongings as Nataliia tends to Mark. Packing only the basic needs, Andrii knows there is not much time. 

“I told Nataliia we don’t have time to get Mark ready for the day, we have to leave now,” Andrii said.

Russian soldiers have marched into Ukraine from the northern country of Belarus, 79 miles away. Both Andrii and Nataliia know if they do not move quickly they risk being trapped in Hostomel, becoming sitting ducks as Russians march into their city.

The family jump into their car, fleeing their apartment complex. They head west toward Hungary, their only goal is to get as far from the bombings as possible. 

Having to instantly flee your country is something no American probably will ever have to face. For the Purtov’s, it is now reality.

“The media kept saying, ‘This will be the day of the invasion’. The day would pass and they would set a new one,” Andrii said. “They kept saying war is going to start but they were always wrong.”

Andrii takes back roads to avoid the log-jammed traffic. With thousands fleeing the Kyiv metropolitan area, Andrii knows the bottlenecks are unavoidable.

“It was a huge risk because while there was no traffic we risked running into invading Russian forces,” he said. “If we would have been caught we would have been killed.” 

Andrii navigates using news media reports about the most plausible Russian invasion locations. The backroads lead the family through the western Ukraine countryside. Open plains turn to forests. It would make for a calm, scenic drive if not for the panic an ongoing invasion causes.

“I told myself, ‘I hope there are no tanks in the forest,’” Andrii recalls.

The family makes it to the Hungary border after a day of driving. They present the necessary paperwork. They cross into the refuge of Hungary as the sun sets below the horizon. 

The next goal was getting into Romania, 130 miles away. They had already traveled 500 miles. Andrii contacted an old friend who would give them a place to live and help them look for work.

The next day the family is back on the road heading south to Romania. As they cross into Romania they run into some luck.

“As we are driving into the country we notice a large group of people supplying aid,” Andrii said. “We were able to get food, diapers for Mark and other supplies. They also gave us updates on the Russian offensive.”

The Purtovs would make it to their friend’s house to plan their next moves. The plan was for Andrii to stay to find work, hoping the family could return to Ukraine when it was safe. The family stayed in Romania for two months. Their hope was to return to their home but as they days wore on that looked less of a possibility. 

Enter Tammy Smith of River Falls. 

Smith was involved with Ukrainian refugee Facebook groups. She said Andrii and Nataliia reached out asking about refugee residency. 

“I saw what was going on over there, and I just wanted to help,” Smith said.

The Ukrainian family and the American began exchanging information. Both feared a scam.

“I wanted to make sure they were not trying to pull a scam. I began to ask them specific questions to ensure they didn’t have a fake story,” Smith said.

Andrii admitted the same thing, asking specific questions to ensure his family would not be scammed. Eventually the two set up a Facetime session. It was the first time Smith saw Andrii and Nataliia’s faces.

“I knew they were genuine when I saw their faces and heard their stories,” Smith said. 

Smith began to research a way to get the refugee family to the U.S. Smith and the Purtov’s signed up for the “United for Ukraine Program”. The program allows qualified Ukrainian refugees to legally enter the United States and stay with a host family for two years.

Smith said it took about three weeks for all the paperwork to be approved. Andrii said Nataliia was hesitant to come to the U.S. 

“She was nervous because she has never been to that part of the world before. Eventually I convinced her to go because that was the best option we had,” Andrii said.

This would not be Andrii’s first trip to the United States. He had worked on cruise ships that have sailed into ports in Florida a few years earlier. 

Being around vacationing Americans he learned to speak English well. His language ability caught Smith off guard when they first spoke.

The apartment complex in Hostomel where the Purtov family was residing. Nearby cars were vandalized by Russians as they ransacked the complex. Photo courtesy of Andrii Purtov.

Andrii said the family researched River Falls to determine if they would enjoy living there. They agreed it would be a good place because of its proximity to Minneapolis. He said he wanted to keep the family in an urban setting similar to Hostomel.

That town was no longer a home for them.

Broken windows and debris from the complex show the aftermath of the Russian invasion into the city. Photo courtesy of Andrii Purtov.

The front entrance to the apartment is covered with debris. The family made it out one day before Russian soldiers marched into the city. Photo courtesy of Andrii Purtov.

Preparing for the trip to River Falls, they hear about the devastation of the place they called home. A video from a family member of their old apartment showed busted windows and debris littering the complex. The video shows vandalized cars and the aftermath of the invasion. 

One photo is especially haunting. The photo shows a yellow chair outside the complex with a metal container underneath it. Written on the chair in Russian: “If you sit here you will be blown up.”

The city was a frontline for the invasion. The Russians broke through, marching into Hostomel the day after the family fled. 

“If we didn’t get out that day we would have been dead. I would not be here today,” Andrii said. 

Andrii is able to stay in contact with his family. He said both his and Nataliia’s family are safe. Their close friends are safe too, he added. 

Friends tell of the ruthlessness of the Russians soldiers. One lady who stayed at the apartment was captured, shot and buried in the yard. 

“They call us Nazis but they come into our country and kill. It makes no sense,” he said, his voice cracking.

The Purtov’s touched down in Minneapolis at the end of May. Smith was ready at the airport, welcoming the family to the country. It was “a dream” when Smith first met the family.

Andrii said the River Falls community has been “wonderful” since they arrived. For the family, the host has exceeded expectations.

“Tammy is our angel,” Andrii said with a smile. 

As the Purtovs settle in, Andrii said community members have been extremely supportive and helpful. River Falls has only been home for two weeks, but the support has led the family to consider making a permanent move once the two years are completed.

“I want to stay in River Falls,” Nataliia said, smiling at the thought of establishing a long-term residence. 

The next steps for the family involve getting work authorization. Andrii said he is here to work, he’s not just here to visit.

Smith greets Andrii with a hug at the Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport. The Purtovs arrived at the end of May. Photo courtesy of Tammy Smith.

“We want to work in a community that has helped us out so much. Our way of giving back is working in the community,” he said.

The family have made a few trips to Eau Claire so Andrii and Nataliia can apply for work authorization. They have also applied for social security numbers.

To help with the life-changing transition, Smith has set up a GoFundMe to raise money for Andrii, Nataliia and Mark. The fundraiser has raised over $5,000. More information about the fundraising effort can be found here.

Smith has connected with other families in the area who expressed interest in taking in Ukrainian refugees. One of those families lives in Hudson. As someone who recently completed the process, Andrii has been helping Smith and the family.

Since arriving, the Purtovs have been spending their time catching up on sleep, adjusting to the time zone difference and getting used to their new life. Left to right: Smith, Andrii and Nataliia. Photo courtesy of Tammy Smith.

“I think families should help. It’s what I did and now I don’t want them to leave. I love having them,” Smith said. 

While returning to Ukraine would be the dream situation, Andrii said he doesn’t know if that will be possible. Andrii said there are too many factors to consider before they can return home. 

For now, River Falls is home and he isn’t complaining.

“We love it here. This has been more than what we expected,” Andrii said.

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What a great story, full of courageous adventures. Thanks Sam for sharing.

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