Springfield residents sponsor Ukrainian family

Congregation helps a couple and their young son start over in the U.S.

Tunzala Ahaieva knows the terror of war and the joy of finding a new home. And that new home is in Springfield, thanks to the generosity of a group of local supporters.

The 31-year-old Ukrainian woman arrived in Springfield in March, along with her husband and son, with assistance from Abraham Lincoln Unitarian Universalist Congregation.

click to enlarge Springfield residents sponsor Ukrainian family
Photo by Scott Reeder
Arzu Aghayev, left, his wife Tunzala Ahaieva and the couple’s 5-year-old son, Hasan, arrived in Springfield in March after being sponsored by members of the Abraham Lincoln Unitarian Universalist Congregation. The family was forced to flee their home in Ukraine after Russia invaded in February 2022.

Before coming to the U.S, Tunzala worked as a nurse and owned a small business with her husband, Arzu Aghayev, The couple also cared for their now 5-year-old son, Hasan Ahaieva. But things changed radically in February 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine.

"At that moment I heard this bomb. And Arzu tells me that the war has begun. We started hearing this noise outside – explosions. They were shelling our city," Tunzala said through an interpreter. "Well, millions of people left – it's a city of a few million with suburbs and everything. Everybody started panicking. The stores were empty. Everybody was trying to get money from the bank. It was just massive insanity."

Eventually the family of three fled to Germany, where they lived in a single room comparable to a hostel. While there they registered on the website welcome.us, which tries to match refugees with hosts in the U.S.

Meanwhile, Jodi Perko, a retired Springfield state worker, was following the news about what was happening in Ukraine.

"I was talking with my daughter and telling her I would so welcome a Ukrainian family," said Perko. "And then my daughter was watching some late-night comedy show that had Ashton Kutcher and his wife and the two of them were talking about (the website) welcome.us."

Perko's daughter sent her a link to the website. "I just clicked on it and I filled out the application," Perko said. "Once I completed the application and was approved, the information that I provided was made available to Ukrainians on the same website.

"Tunzala was very quick at responding. And we went back and forth and just got to know each other. We had a lot of the same interests, and she seemed so dedicated to her family. She's a good mom and hardworking. They just wanted to come to the U.S. to be safe and to work and do their part. It didn't take me long to say, 'Do you want me to sponsor you?'"

Sponsorship is an important part of the process because the U.S. government doesn't want refugees to become wards of the state, Perko said.

"We had to show financial ability to potentially support these people for two years. They expressed a desire to come here and work, so we knew we wouldn't have to do that forever," Perko said. "I reached out to three of my friends from church. I just said, 'Guys, this is going to be a big job. Will you help? And all three of them gave me an enthusiastic 'yes.' That was on a Thursday, and by Monday night we had our first meeting. Fourteen people showed up at my house all wanting to help," she said.

Members of the congregation located a house and are covering the rent while the family establishes a financial footing.

Congregation member Kenton Childs, who owns Midas auto repair shops in Springfield, Wisconsin and New England, donated a 2012 Hyundai Elantra after having it repaired.

"We knew it would be life-changing for that family to be able to get to and from work," he said. "The reason (I did it) is as simple as that."

Tunzala and Arzu are both now employed, Tunzala at TJ Maxx and Arzu with a uniform company.

"Many members from our church donate quite a bit of money every month to make sure they get on their feet because they're still struggling with English," Childs said. Tunzala hopes to be able to return to the nursing profession, but first she must develop greater proficiency in English.

"Sponsoring Tunzala, Arzu and their son has really become a whole community effort," said Perko. "Members of our church, other churches in the community, and even complete strangers have come together to provide aid to this wonderful family."

Scott Reeder

Scott Reeder is a staff writer at Illinois Times.

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