MEMPHIS, Tenn. — They lost their home to war. They found peace in Collierville.
Natalia Pereverza and her children are Ukrainian refugees who are being sponsored by, and living with, a Mid-South couple in Collierville. They came to the United States with little more than the clothes on their backs after Russia invaded their country in February of 2022.
“The war began, it was my daughter's birthday, February 24," Natalia told us through a translator. "I heard the war had started, but I did not believe it. I thought it was a misunderstanding.”
The Pereverzas lived in Marhanets, a city close to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. As Russian shelling intensified, Natalia fled with her three youngest children to the Czech Republic.
Her husband, Vladimir, and oldest son, Yukhym, stayed behind. Men over the age of 18 are not permitted to leave Ukraine.
"There was a moment where I did not want to leave my home," Natalia recalled. "And then it got scary, and unpredictable."
Steve and Sheila Rice watched the war unfold on television from their Collierville home and were inspired to help.
“We have this big, underutilized house in Collierville," Steve said. "I wonder if any of them would want to come here?”
They met the family last summer through a non-profit called Welcome.US and agreed to sponsor them.
But during the process of getting them to the United States, Vladimir died suddenly after suffering a stroke. Natalia believes the stress of the constant Russian shelling is to blame. She considers her husband’s death a casualty of the war.
"This year we would have celebrated our 20th anniversary," Natalia said. "But fate decided otherwise. War changed the lives of many families."
The family returned to their worn-torn hometown to give Vladimir a proper burial before proceeding with their arrangements to leave. I asked Natalia where she found the strength to continue.
"I do not know, I'm used to being strong," she replied, wearing a matter-of-fact expression. "After all, I've got four children. Maybe we do not have the right to be weak."
“We were already committed to helping them," Steve said. "But my wife and I realized, with the father having been killed, this family needed us more than ever.”
Steve and Sheila helped pay for the funeral and for their travel to the U.S.
Why go through such lengths to help someone they had never met?
“Because we could," he said. "Because they needed our help.”
For the Rices, it was that simple.
“The program tells you not to do some of those things because people can get taken for money," Sheila explained. "But again, we just decided we’re going to continue to step out on faith and see where this leads.”
The first step—a 20-hour bus ride from Kyiv to Warsaw.
"We knew buses and vehicles were being attacked," Sheila said. "So our biggest concern was can they get to Poland safely.”
Once in Poland, the family flew to Chicago, where they were granted entry to the United States. Sheila drove them back to Memphis. The reality of their language barrier quickly set in.
“I think the drive back was pretty quiet,” Sheila said with a laugh. “When they got here, we couldn’t really speak. It was a lot of Google Translate, which was time consuming.”
Prior to their arrival, the families primarily communicated via e-mail. They eventually realized they had been running each other's messages through Google Translate.
The Pereverzas began English classes. The children, Ruslana, Mark and Ihnat, enrolled at Collierville Schools. They've since joined the basketball and soccer teams. Natalia is starting a job at Pfizer.
As for Steve and Sheila, it's just refreshing to have their big, underutilized house full again.
“Our grandkids don’t live near by," Sheila said. "This has been fun for us to fill that gap for us. It’s been a really surprising relationship that we’ve gotten along so well.”
The Collierville community wrapped their arms around the Pereverzas donating clothes, gift cards, even a basketball hoop for the house.
"What is very touching here is how neighbors, teachers are supportive," Natalia said. "It helps me forget. It helps me feel comfortable. They are giving us gifts, help. And I want to thank them so, so much."
But the greatest gift, has been the family they’ve found in Steve and Sheila.
"I consider them my second parents, my American parents," Natalia added with a smile. "We live at home like one big, happy family. It is very comfortable. Steve and Sheila support us in everything. We discuss everything together—children's problems, life. I know that they will always help."
“It’s a blessing for Steve and I to get to do this," Sheila said. "We’re honored to do it for them."