Wantage NJ parents adopt Ukrainian orphans amid war with Russia
Michelle Torppey still remembers the tears shed when she and her husband Wade, parents of six biological children, adopted seven orphaned siblings from Ukraine nearly a year ago, leaving behind their two older sisters.
“We all lived in an apartment [in Ukraine] and we left for the airport at 5am,” the Wantage resident said. “I can never forget the image of them walking alone when we left.”
Since then, the expanded Torppey clan has flourished as its new members have started their new lives, blending in with their new families and enrolling in school.
Meanwhile, their older sisters, Kristina, 20, and Snizhana, 21, have been caught on the frontlines of a Russian military invasion that has thrown their homeland into violent chaos.
“We were Facetime with them pretty much every day and you could hear the bombs going off in the background,” Michelle said. “Sometimes you could see and hear gunshots. They were afraid for their lives, and the other children too.”
It took Kristina and Snizhana three months to escape to Poland, then Germany and Amsterdam before arriving at Newark Liberty Airport on May 24 to join their siblings and bring the Torppey family tree to 17, give or take grandparents and in-laws.
“It was almost like ‘What’s a few more’?” Wade joked.
But in a more serious tone, Wade said welcoming them “was the only thing we could do”.
“What else could we do?” ” he said. “They were fleeing their country and had nowhere to go. And they had family here.”
Politics were tense in the region when the Torppeys traveled to Ukraine last July to adopt the seven young children, who were sent to an orphanage after their father was stabbed to death in 2016 and their mother died in 2018.
But they never knew the deadly fighting and destruction their sisters had to endure in Brovary, just east of Kyiv, after the Russian invasion.
“They were on Facetime with their siblings both and telling stories of seeing things shot from the sky, shooting through the sky,” Wade said. “I think they got out of there just in time before they saw something too terrible.”
Leaving with “the clothes on their backs”, Kristina and Snizhana headed west to Lviv, where they had to wait several days before finally boarding a train for Poland.
“There were tens of thousands of people all trying to cross the border,” Michelle said. “People would wait all day and if you couldn’t get on the train you had to come back the next day. All the while shots were being fired so you had to find a safe place to stay.”
Eventually, they arrived in Poland on March 8 and had to wait in line for 15 hours to enter a church that accepted refugees.
“They were fed and given basic needs,” Michelle said. “There were beds lined up wall to wall. There were people arguing online. Children were crying because they couldn’t find their parents.”
A week later, they boarded a midnight bus for a 13-hour journey to Germany. Their journey to America was easier from there. Michelle has relatives in the Netherlands who picked them up and brought them to Amsterdam, where they stayed for two months while paperwork was filed allowing them to enter the United States.
Michelle’s father flew to Amsterdam to escort Kristina and Snizhana to New Jersey.
“Their siblings knew they were coming but didn’t know when,” Michelle said. Her husband picked them up from the airport in the morning and “when we picked up the kids after school, their sisters were in the car,” Michelle said. “They were jumping out of the car and crying and screaming. It was cute.”
The Torppey Group
In Wantage, the blended family caught national media attention and even received an offer to develop a reality show which Michelle said she turned down.
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“We don’t watch much TV,” said Michelle, whose family has operated Sussex Meat Packing stores in Wharton and Wantage for 40 years.
Instead, they turned to their church community at Lafayette Federated Church, where parishioners still send them Shop-Rite and Walmart gift cards to help make ends meet.
“Some of them even cook meals for us, which is pretty big when you’re cooking for 15-20 people,” Michelle said.
With newcomers, language continues to be a barrier, but Kristina and Snizhana happily participate in all things Torppey.
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“We passed a carnival in Franklin over Memorial Day weekend and they all had a great time,” Michelle said. “They’re so generous and nice, always hugging and ‘thank you, I love you.’ Always helping. All my daughters have jobs in the kitchen. They’re on the job list now.
Kristina, accompanied by her sister Leeza, said they were “happy to be here, not having to worry about a place to live and eat. But they are sad and afraid for their friends who are still there, and they don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Snizhana recalls, “It was scary at first when they went to Poland because they didn’t know where they would end up.”
Kristina said she hopes to return to Ukraine one day. Snizhana said she has no plans at the moment. She would like to come back once the war is over, “but she doesn’t know how it would be”.
Until then, both hope to find work in the United States.
“We don’t know how long they’ll be here,” Michelle said. “This program only allows them to stay for two years. We don’t know what is happening in their country. We don’t know what will be left of their town, their homes and everything.”
For now, the Torppey group is safe and happy.
“We always said God was watching these kids every step of the way,” Michelle said. “It’s just amazing for me to see how it’s come full circle and they’ve been united with their siblings.”
William Westhoven is a local reporter for DailyRecord.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.