The Wheelers of Madison open home to Ukrainian emigrants

MADISON – As war explodes in their home country, a family from Ukraine has found solace and safety in the home of Corey and Kelly Wheeler in Madison.

Viktoriia Kuznietsova, 34, is pregnant with a baby girl due in February 2023. Her seven-year-old son, Artem Kuznietsova, accompanied her, according to spokesperson Edwin Eyre.

On Feb. 24, the Russian army invaded the Kuznietsovas’ hometown of Melitopol. “We knew it was no longer safe. I decided to leave. The army did not destroy our home, but the territory is occupied,” Viktoriia said.

Viktoriia heard about Welcome Connect from a cousin and applied immediately in June. Welcome Connect, an online platform from Welcome.US, helps facilitate the connection between displaced Ukrainians with potential American sponsors.

After a volley of messages, the organization facilitated connection between the Kuznietsovas and Wheelers. The two families decided they were a good fit, applied and were accepted for sponsorship through the Uniting for Ukraine program.

Viktoriia fled Ukraine to Israel for six months before connecting with the Wheelers. Kelly’s father, a pilot for Delta, asked the international flight crew to welcome Viktoriia and Artem . . . and gave Artem his dream — a window seat.

“We booked her flights and got her to the states within about a month. We started raising money to help Viktoriia as she arrived with a suitcase and little money,” Kelly Wheeler said.

“For now, I must stay in the United States because I will give birth to my baby girl. We also don’t know the future of the war, so it’s a hard question to answer. I cannot return now even if I wanted to. People can leave the occupied territory but cannot come back due to the Russians’ many questions,” Viktoriia said.

“Corey and I are both in the military and felt drawn to sponsoring Afghan refugees back during the fall of Kabul. We were about to have a baby . . . not the best time. When the opportunity arose to help a Ukrainian, we wanted to help but didn’t know how (without) any connection to Ukrainian people. When Welcome Connect was launched, we signed up,” Kelly said.

The Wheelers’ children are Ellie, 5; Charlie, 2; and Essie, 10 months. The older two attend Asbury Weekday. Artem is attending Mill Creek Elementary School, the best support for Artem who can’t speak English. After only three months, Artem and the Wheelers are communicating well.

On a typical night, the Kuznietsovas and Coopers don’t watch television. “The kids play very well together. Often we forget they’re not brother and sister. We love showing them American holidays; Artem has loved Halloween and Thanksgiving. They have immersed themselves in the Christmas holiday as well,” Kelly said.

Viktoriia, an exceptional cook, prepares Ukrainian meals that everyone likes. She also bakes everything from scratch.

“Oftentimes, we do have to remember the horrible atrocities happening in Ukraine as Viktoriia’s family and friends are still there,” Kelly said. “We’re trying to balance the joy of the holiday with the pain that Viktoriia and Artem must be feeling.”

The best help to Ukrainians is sponsorship. “We have a strong Ukrainian community in Madison and Huntsville,” Kelly said. For more information, visit https://welcome.us/connect.

“We have been more than blessed with the community of Madison. We have been offered furniture, clothing, toys and money. We plan to move Viktoriia into her own place following the holidays and have created a baby/new home registry for extra things she needs. We would love for people to purchase items before the arrival of her baby girl,” Kelly said.

Individuals can search for “Viktoriia Kuznietsova” on Amazon’s baby registry at amazon.com/baby-reg/viktoriia-kuznietsova-february-2023-madison/38HN8936A1A4.

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