Ukrainian refugee builds new home with Madison family

Ukrainian refugee builds new home with Madison family
Published: Dec. 5, 2022 at 2:40 PM CST

MADISON, Ala. (WAFF) - The war is still raging in Ukraine, and families continue to flee from their homeland. One family made the escape to north Alabama. A Ukrainian mom and her seven-year-old son sought refuge with a family in the City of Madison.

The minute Viktoriia Kuznietsova heard the sound of alarms in her hometown of Melitopol she knew she had to leave.

“I have a job, my son goes to school, we go to the swimming pool, we have holidays, we have plans, we have dreams,” said Kuznietsova. “This was all destroyed in one day. Now, I have nothing. I have a home but it’s not my home now it’s Russian home.”

Kuznietsova says Russian forces took control of her village in February.

She says she knew she couldn’t stay and raise her seven-year-old son, Artem, in a place where free speech is restricted and soldiers line the streets.

“That’s why I decided to leave because I don’t want these rules,” explained Kuznietsova.” It’s not my country. We’re around soldiers. Because Artem asked me who’s that? Is that a Ukrainian? No, it’s Russian. Why Russian? I cannot explain why because another country comes inside like it’s normal. It’s not normal.”

WAFF's Megan Plotka reporting

Kuznietsova left her extended family and a law career behind in Ukraine and first fled to Israel. She lived there for a few months but she said it never felt like the right fit. The language barrier was too strong and she wanted to get away from soldiers posted on street corners.

She wanted to come to the United States but she knew she needed a sponsor. She had no ties to the U.S. and was running out of hope until she found Welcome Connect. The program matches Ukrainians seeking refuge to Americans who want to help.

Kuznietsova quickly matched to the Wheelers.

Kelly Wheeler says it’s easy to sign up for the program. “You create a profile with your family and where you live and the things you like and what you’re like and a Ukrainian will also create a profile and they have the ability to choose first,” said Wheeler.

Turns out, it is a match made in heaven. Kelley Wheeler, a mom and wife to a big military family, was thrilled to find this program. She and her husband, Cory, just wanted to do something to help those forced to flee their homeland. They expected nothing in return but got it anyway.

“Corey and I just love just experiencing new cultures and traveling but when you have three young children that’s really hard,” said Wheeler. “So learning about the Ukrainian culture is really great and immersing the children together is great. Artem doesn’t speak English but children have another way of communicating they don’t need to speak the same language.”

Artem attends Mill Creek Elementary while his mom works towards her green card to finds a place of her own for three. Kuznietsova is expecting her second child in February and she couldn’t be more excited.

“It’s like I feel for the first or second month the baby speak with me like, ‘mom don’t worry all will be good,’” said Kuznietsova.

There are still tens of thousands of displaced Ukrainians. Kelly Wheeler encourages other Americans to sponsor refugees with the help of the Welcome Connect program.

She says sponsorship can look different for each family but the main goal is to help the refugees settle into the United States. For the Wheelers, that meant letting Kuznietsova and her son live in their house, help them sign up for social services and assist them financially.

Kelly says the financial burden is not too heavy because her community stepped up in a huge way. She says she raised over $10,000 with a GoFundMe to help Viktoriia and Artem. She says that helped cover initial costs and will go towards subsidizing Kuznietsova’s rent.