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River Falls woman takes in Ukrainian family fleeing war

One Facebook message changed a Ukrainian family's life after a River Falls woman posted to a group that she was looking to sponsor refugees.

RIVER FALLS, Wis. — On Tuesday morning, 21-month-old Mark Purtov got excited when he saw a garbage truck drive by the home he's staying at with his parents in River Falls, Wis.

Mark often runs to the front window to watch the garbage get picked up. It's one of many new routines since the family resettled in Wisconsin after fleeing the war in Ukraine.

Back in February, Andrii Purtov and Nataliia Purtova were living in Hostomel — just outside of Kyiv — when Russian soldiers invaded Ukraine.

"I woke up and I heard the bombs and airplane," Andrii recalled. Then Nataliia and Mark woke up. They started packing their things and fled that day. The next day, Russian soldiers destroyed their apartment. A family member of Nataliia's returned to their home a couple weeks ago to find it riddled with bullet holes.

Andrii said he is thankful they left on that first day when some decided to stay behind.

"The Russian soldiers, they start to shoot the cars just on the road. The cars going on the roads, they start to shoot. They didn't look who's inside. They don't care. They just start to kill everybody. So for them, it was very high risk to go in the second day. For us, it was lucky to have left in the first day," Andrii said.

The family fled not knowing what would come next. While many men had to stay behind to fight, Andrii was an exception because of his health.

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"Because of my health, they removed me from the Army forever. There's a stamp in a document that I was removed from the Army in that list of exceptions," he said.

It allowed Andrii to cross the border with his family.

They then traveled to Hungary, before going to Romania and then Bulgaria. Eventually, they went back to Romania where they stayed for about two months. Andrii has a background in hospitality but the language barrier made it challenging for work.

President Joe Biden has pledged to take in about 100,000 Ukrainian refugees. The family then heard about a program called Uniting for Ukraine which streamlines the process of coming to America.

"Then we check the rules and it was like... it's impossible. We don't have a chance to use this program," Andrii recalled. "You have to find a sponsor; sponsor is supposed to take care of you. Some financial, supposed to provide you housing, the food... we put ourselves in the sponsor's shoes and we're like, it's impossible."

Then came Tammy Smith. She had been following the war and doing her part to help the people of Ukraine. When the opportunity arose to become a sponsor, she jumped on it. Smith posted to a Facebook group that she was looking to host a family at her home in River Falls.

Nataliia sent a message to Smith and in the morning, Smith had replied.

"I was like, how is it possible!?" Nataliia said.

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Smith added, "It happened very quickly and I was like, 'Oh my gosh. This is actually going to happen!'"

Smith filled out the paperwork and got approved to be a sponsor. You can find out more about the process, here.

Credit: Tammy Smith
Andrii and Jack Purtov, Nataliia Purtova and Tammy Smith.

The family arrived at Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport on May 27.

"That's why we call Tammy an angel. Tammy's our angel, really, and that's why we are a little bit emotional," said Andrii, as both Andrii and Nataliia had tears in their eyes. "Because it was almost impossible but it happened and it happened to us."

They've been staying with Smith for about three weeks. Smith said she was a bit nervous at first because she doesn't have a large home; the family is staying in her basement. But she's come to realize that "it's nice and clean and it's safe. You don't have to have much."

Smith hopes it inspires others to open up their homes.

The program allows the family to stay for up to two years. They won't be staying with Smith the entire time.

"I told them I never want them to leave. I'm like if you guys go I'm going with," said Smith, laughing.

At first, they were thinking they would get a place in Minneapolis but they now plan on staying in River Falls.

"We don't want to move from River Falls. We want to stay here," Andrii said. "People here are really wonderful and our angel Tammy is the best one."

The family hopes they can eventually return to Ukraine. The biggest challenge they face at the moment is getting authorized to work in America. They are waiting for approval.

Smith has set up a GoFundMe to help the family. You can donate, here.

Watch more on the war in Ukraine:

Watch all of the latest stories from Russia's war on Ukraine in our YouTube playlist:

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