Ukrainian children thrive in Minnesota after losses in the Russian invasion two years ago

It’s recess at Rice Lake Elementary in Maple Grove and Artem Fedorenko,10, heads to grab his coat from his locker.

“Zip?” he asks a classmate.

The fellow fourth grade student helps Artem put his arm through the sleeve and zips his coat up. Together, they head outside, where Artem excels in a game of soccer, confidently declaring himself team captain despite the challenges he has faced in the past two years since Russia invaded his home country of Ukraine.

Artem is missing his left arm, an injury from a bomb. He came to Minnesota with his mother to receive a prosthetic in late 2022.

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A boy zips a jacket for a friend
Artem's friend stops to help him zip up his jacket before recess.
Ben Garvin for MPR News

Special friendships have helped ease Artem’s transition to his new life, particularly a reunion with his best friend Nika Kravchenko, 9, a third-grader who also attends Rice Lake Elementary.

A map in the English Learner room, an arrow with Artem’s name on it points to Ukraine, along with Nika and many others. Rice Lake, in Osseo District 279, has now welcomed over two dozen Ukrainian students.

“What a unique opportunity and unfortunately a terrible time in their lives, but for me it’s really important for everyone to feel good and safe at school,” said Diane Bagley, Rice Lake’s principal.

Artem likes to tell jokes through Google Translate. He loves humor and often shares how he lost his arm, both signs of his resilience, Bagley said.

A kid points his glasses down
Teachers say Artem Fedorenko, 10, loves the spotlight and often tells jokes.
Ben Garvin for MPR News

Artem’s loss

On Feb. 26, 2022 Artem visited his father at a cabin outside Kyiv. Artem’s family hoped he would be safer outside the city, but the Russians invaded the village. His father died shielding Artem. Artem’s half brother died too.

“Why did it happen to my son? My heart hurts. I will always feel this pain for him,” said Oksana Shpakovych, Artem’s mother. “I hope he will forget all this stuff and like a bad dream.”

As Inna Karpenko interprets in English, Shpakovych recounts the harrowing journey to find Artem after the bombing, eventually seeking refuge in Western Ukraine and then Spain in hopes of securing a prosthetic for her son.

Two kids in a room
Artem shows how he wears his prosthetic arm at home in Maple Grove as his best friend Veronika 'Nika' Kravchenko, 9, translates from Ukrainian to English for Artem. Their families moved together from Ukraine to Spain and finally to Maple Grove after the war started.
Courtesy of Bill Middeke

Shpakovych reunited with Karpenko, her longtime friend and Karpenko’s daughter, Nika in Minnesota. The families moved together from Ukraine to Spain and finally to Maple Grove.

After living with sponsor families in the Twin Cities, Shpakovych and Karpenko now share a home together and vowed they would live together as a family for one year.

Nika, a budding artist, covers her bedroom wall with drawings she created in school. Artem shows where he keeps his prosthetic arm in a basement drawer. 

Two women sit at a table
Inna Karpenko, Nika's mother (left), translates for Oksana Shpakovych, Artem's mother (right). Their families share a home in Maple Grove and made a pact to live together for at least a year after fleeing the war in Ukraine.
Ben Garvin for MPR News

There’s a backyard big enough to play tag, a secret room under the stairs, and a fish tank. Artem and Nika affectionately call each other brother and sister, often bursting into giggles.

“It’s like a big chance for us to begin a new life from the new page,” said Karpenko. “Artem is a good example for all of us. How he can enjoy life and do everything he wants. Even without his arm, he can dive, he can play tennis, he can play soccer, he can play PlayStation with one arm.”

Hope for amputees 

While living in Spain, Shpakovych saw a Facebook post from the Protez Foundation in Oakdale and reached out to the founder and medical director, Yakov Gradinar.

Gradinar made Artem’s prosthetic arm, the first child he treated at the Protez Foundation, which to date has provided free prosthetics to 150 Ukrainians at their headquarters in Minnesota and at a clinic in Kyiv.

“Artem is quite a character, he’s a very, very active person,” Gradinar said. “Why do kids have to suffer in the 21st century and lose their limbs? It’s like, why?”

Students names on pieces of paper
In the English Learner room at Rice Lake Elementary in Maple Grove, a crowded cluster of names point to Ukraine. The school has more than two dozen Ukrainian students.
Ben Garvin for MPR News

Gradinar holds a blowtorch, shaping a prosthetic while greeting a new group of amputees who just arrived from Ukraine. The group of mostly soldiers starts the day in physical therapy, exercising in unison.

One man is missing both arms, another is missing both legs, and yet another man has only his right arm remaining. Still, there’s laughter. Some will receive their prosthetic limbs and return to the war. Gradinar estimates 1,500 people are on the Protez Foundation’s waiting list.

Gradinar offered to sponsor Artem so he and his mother could move to Minnesota for medical support.  Both Shpakovych and Karpenko found sponsor families through the federal Uniting for Ukraine program and the Minnesota-based nonprofit, Alight.

Two years after Russia invaded Ukraine, Alight has recruited more than 500 Minnesota families to welcome Ukrainians into their homes.

“We are still seeing people arriving, we’re still seeing people waiting for travel authorization,” said Steph Koehne, private sponsorship lead at Alight. “I’ve been the most moved by the resilience of the kids, but having a child have their life disrupted is trauma, and then having them have to rebuild on their own.”

Passage of time

As the day ends in fourth grade, Artem isn’t focused on what is lost. His prosthetic arm is shoved under his desk as he works on telling time. His teacher asks how many minutes are in an hour.

He adjusts the hands on a sample clock from 2:30 to 3:30, eyes lighting up with the correct answer.

He’s learning to tell time, about the way it moves forward, and doesn’t turn back.

A boy does homework
With his prosthetic arm resting on the floor, Artem works in his fourth grade spelling. Artem lost his left arm after an injury from a bomb in Ukraine.
Ben Garvin for MPR News