On the day Russia invaded Ukraine, Max and his wife drove from their home in Germany to Poland and then crossed the border into Ukraine. Frightened, they drove in the opposite direction of the long line of cars fleeing the country, racing for miles on the roads.
As they traveled diagonally across the country on February 24, they encountered undeniable signs of possible violence from dozens of Ukrainian military checkpoints, tanks patrolling the roads and sandbags piled high on the streets.
If they didn’t venture to the country, the couple’s ten-year-old dream of starting a family would have been shattered. Their Ukrainian surrogate mother would soon give birth to their twin daughters.
‘We couldn’t live with the fact that our children weren’t with us,’ said Max.
If his daughters smile at him now, the war fades away. They were born prematurely on March 4. But he knows that the war can get closer to his family every day. Air raid sirens sound day and night, and much of the twins’ early days in the world were spent in the hospital’s underground shelter.
Max said he wasn’t sure if, when or how his new family of four would be able to return home safely. He spoke on the condition that his last name would not be used because many of his relatives were unaware that he and his wife had gone through surrogacy.
The Russian war in Ukraine has devastated cities and killed more than 500 Ukrainian civilians, with no end in sight to the fighting. The war has also engulfed the lives of foreign couples who want to become parents. Almost every day, Ukrainian surrogates give birth to children of foreign couples, and these parents struggle to evacuate their children or even meet them for the first time.
Commercial surrogacy is legal in Ukraine for heterosexual couples who are medically incapable of having children or who have tried multiple times unsuccessfully to conceive using in vitro fertilization. The country’s favorable laws — biological parents are listed on the baby’s birth certificate — and affordable prices, generally around $40,000, have attracted many aspiring parents.
Most parents visit Kiev, the capital, once before the birth of their child, to visit agencies, possibly undergo in vitro fertilization, and sign a surrogacy contract. Then, the process of getting pregnant from a surrogate mother can take several years.
At least a dozen companies offer surrogacy in Ukraine, and BioTexCom, one of the leading agencies in Kiev, estimates that it arranges at least a thousand births each year. The agency had expected 100 babies to be born by the end of the month. Many of these newborns will be born in Kiev, where the fighting has nearly reached hospitals, far from the parents anxiously waiting from outside Ukraine’s borders to take them home.
Sam Everingham, the founder of Growing Families, an Australia-based nonprofit that helps people navigate surrogacy, said he had heard of about 90 panicked couples with newborns or babies expected in Ukraine soon. Surrogacy agencies, many in Kiev, once courted parents with images of chubby-cheeked babies and ultrasounds. Now the agencies’ social media pages are filled with grim updates on the staff members’ upward lives and their efforts to keep surrogate mothers and newborns safe in bleak shelters.
Some agencies, such as New Hope Surrogacy, have relocated pregnant surrogate mothers to safer regions of the country, or beyond. However, if these women give birth in neighboring countries with different paid surrogacy laws, the rights of the biological parents could be compromised.
The number of stranded babies is growing. Denis Herman, BioTexCom’s legal counsel, said the agency looked after 30 newborns, most of them in Kiev.
“Many babies were born during this period,” said Mr. Herman. “We cannot stop this process. We have to find a way to deal with it.”
BioTexCom believes the babies are safer in the Kiev shelters than being rushed over, Herman said.
Mr Everingham has heard of a “continuous stream” of parents traveling to Ukraine despite the risk.
Televised scenes of Russian strikes have terrified parents, including a new Canadian father who spoke on condition of anonymity because his religion forbade surrogacy. His son was born in Kiev shortly before the start of the war. He and his wife are in Turkey trying to devise a plan to free their son, mired in deep stress and depression as they follow the news.
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“I don’t know what to do and where to go,” said the 41-year-old man, who lives in Toronto. “Our child’s joy has been taken over by the fear that we may never hold him and lose him forever.”
The parents who managed to get their children out through a combination of luck, connections and timing say they feel a huge responsibility to help evacuate their surrogates and others left behind in Ukraine.
Sasha Spektor, who lives in Chicago with his partner, Irma Nuñez, first met his twin boys, Lenny and Moishe, on Tuesday. His sons had just traveled from Kiev to Poland, a journey that took about 18 hours.
They were born two months premature in Kiev at the beginning of the war, on February 25. The couple, their friends and supporters have made hundreds of phone calls to find resources in Kiev, such as baby food and medical equipment, and help the twins find a way out of the war zone. The couple previously shared their story about getting their sons to safety to The Washington Post and NPR.
They were eventually able to secure an evacuation with the help of a volunteer Ukrainian ambulance crew and Project Dynamo, a nonprofit organization in Tampa, Florida, that conducts rescue missions from Ukraine.
It was wonderful to meet their sons, the new father said, adding that they were so gentle and so small.
Their surrogate mother, Katya, crossed into Poland with the twins and another baby and his parents. A few days later, she returned to Ukraine to reunite with her 6-year-old son in Lviv, hoping to flee the country together.
“There are other people I feel responsible for,” said Mr. Spektor. “It was just as hard for me to say goodbye to her and let her go back to Ukraine. She is one of us.”