Minnesota soccer fans rally to support injured Ukrainian teen refugee

Sixteen-year-old Ukrainian refugee Artem during a rehabilitation session with Protez. (FOX 9)

Minnesota soccer fans are rallying to help Artem, a 16-year-old Ukrainian refugee who lost his leg during a Russian attack on his home city of Mariupol.

Last week, Anthony de Sam Lazaro, a board member of the Wonderwall, an umbrella group of Minnesota United supporter groups, delivered supplies to Artem and his mother Olha, who recently relocated to a Fridley apartment. The supplies, including clothing, food, shoes, and kitchen essentials, were donated by fans and collected at the Blackheart bar near Allianz Field before a game — with another collection occurring before Thursday's league cup game against the Chicago Fire.  

"One of our goals as an organization is to use soccer as a way to bring people together to better our community. It has been great to see the outpouring of support and donations from all of the supporters groups, and I'm hopeful we can build on this to help even more people," Sam Lazaro said.

Olha struggled to hold back tears as she tried to express her gratitude while surrounded by half a dozen newly arrived boxes in the living room of her small apartment. 

"We appreciate the American people. They encourage and just help because, without that support, we would not survive emotionally," she said while speaking through a translator.

Anthony de Sam Lazaro of the Wonderwall, hands a dish to Olha, a Ukrainian refugee settling in Minnesota. (FOX 9)

Anthony de Sam Lazaro of the Wonderwall, hands a dish to Olha, a Ukrainian refugee settling in Minnesota. (FOX 9)

The strike 

Artem's life took a drastic turn in March of the previous year in a harrowing experience he shared in a video on Facebook, detailing the immediate aftermath of the attack and his subsequent hospitalization.

Once a promising midfielder on the youth squad of FC Mariupol, a team that plays in the Ukrainian first division, his dreams of a professional soccer career were abruptly shattered when a Russian drone targeted him and his friends while they were playing soccer near their school on March 2, 2022.

At that point, Russian forces were closing in on the outskirts of the city. As Artem remembers, there was a lull in the fighting that afternoon, and his friend called him to see if he wanted to join him and another friend to play near their school.

As Artem recalled in the video, he was changing his shoes while one friend stood in the net and the other was near the center of the field. They heard a drone buzzing overhead. At first, Artem didn’t think anything of it, but then the drone stopped and hovered above them. One of his friends yelled out, "We need to run, guys!" and Artem began sprinting. Seconds later, he was on the ground.

Russian forces had used the drones to either fire missiles or aim artillery at the field, as later reported by The Associated Press.

For a moment, Artem was confused. He couldn't hear anything. He saw his stomach and legs were covered in shell fragments. He noticed he was losing blood. He turned to see one of his friends on the ground next to him. His friend’s legs had been torn off, and he was screaming. Artem reached out to grab his hand. As they lay there, help came. Artem remembers a stranger using a jacket to construct a makeshift tourniquet for his leg, and then someone took them to the hospital in the back of a car.

That friend who lost both legs died at the hospital. Artem and his other friend survived.

"It was very painful for me that my friend died for nothing. Just died. That’s all. He was 15 years old and died as a soccer player. It was very painful for me," Artem recalled in the video.

The Russian attack on the soccer field was part of a larger, intense shelling of civilian areas of Mariupol on that day that lasted 15 hours, with scores killed, according to news reports at the time.

Hospital under siege 

Artem’s initial surgery went well, but in the days that followed, supplies at the hospital began to run out as Russian forces surrounded the city. His mother Olha told FOX 9 that at one point, the hospital itself was hit, causing a floor above Artem’s to collapse. Again, he saw people around him fatally wounded.

Patients and medical staff fled while they could. Olha recalled that for a 10-day period, no one could enter or leave the hospital as fighting raged outside. Food ran low, and patients shared candy among themselves.

With limited medical staff to help and a lack of clean bandages, Artem’s wound grew infected and he developed gangrene. On March 20, 2022, the remaining doctors made the decision to amputate the limb to save his life.

"The most terrible feeling was to look under the covers after that. It was very difficult for me. I could not accept it. I understood that this is it. Soccer is done. I will never see professional soccer. And it was the most upsetting for me," Artem recalled. "I cried very intensely because I devoted all my life to this. All my time. I worked very hard for this. And here it is one moment, it is done. I will never be able to do it again."

Russian forces eventually seized the city and hospital. Artem was sent to a hospital in Donetsk under Russian occupation. He recalls TV reporters interviewing doctors by his bedside, claiming that it had been Ukrainian forces, not Russians, who had injured him. He kept silent.

Artem's story took a turn for the better when a British volunteer and a German NGO managed to evacuate him to Germany, where he began his rehabilitation. There, he learned about the Twin Cities-based Protez Foundation, a nonprofit co-founded by a Ukrainian-American prosthesis doctor. Artem applied and soon found himself in Minnesota.


Ukrainian soldiers come to Minnesota for prosthetics — and then return to the fight

"I go back so that every person in my country, whether they be in my family or anyone else, can stop hiding in the basement," a Ukrainian soldier who received prosthetic care in Minnesota said of his decision to return to the military after losing a limb.

Protez Foundation 

With Protez, Artem has been able to spend time with Ukrainian soldiers who have also lost limbs, and his mother says that their support and camaraderie have been critical for his recovery and his mental health.

In the last few months, he has taken important steps forward.

"When I stood on my feet the first time I felt free. I felt so courageous, bigger. I could do it. I had strong emotions. I don’t know how to describe it. It was a joy and I told myself I can do this," he said.

He still needs a new prosthetic. Protez has organized a fundraiser to help pay for a new device.

Artem understands that he has years of rehabilitation in front of him, but he’s ready to take it one step at a time.

"I could have died on that field just like my friend, so I understood that God gave me a chance and that with time, it will all pass. It is difficult, very difficult, but there is support," he said.