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They found a surrogate in Ukraine. Now a U.S. couple must get their preemie twins out of a war zone.

Twins Moishe and Lenny at a hospital in Kyiv, where they were born to parents in the United States via a surrogate in Ukraine. They arrived two months early, on Feb 25. (Irma Nuñez)
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CHICAGO — Alexander Spektor didn’t immediately recognize the number on the video call that came through on his phone Thursday.

For the past week, Spektor, 46, and his partner, Irma Nuñez, 48, have been glued to their devices, waking at 5 a.m. each day to immerse themselves in the latest news from Ukraine and digest the stream of messages flooding their phones from 5,000 miles away.

In Kyiv, their surrogate was carrying twins for the couple, and she and the babies had endured weeks of terrifying health complications. There were seven more weeks until the due date, and now Russian forces were bearing down on the capital city.

“I get a video call from this beautiful young woman, who appears a little bit drunk, and I’m like, ‘I’m sorry, who are you?’ ” Spektor recalled. “And she says, ‘You have two beautiful sons.’ ”

Born premature but weighing more than four pounds each, and with full heads of hair, twins Lenny and Moishe brought new life during wartime.

“It feels like a schizophrenic experience,” Spektor told The Washington Post late Saturday. Nuñez agreed: “This has been the longest weeks of our lives.”

A couple was in Ukraine to adopt a child. As troops closed in and flights got scarce, they narrowly escaped.

Nuñez and Spektor now face the same challenge as a number of other families who are trying to bring home adopted children and babies born to Ukrainian surrogates as embassies shutter, military vehicles clog the roadways, ambulances are diverted to the war effort, and Russia launches missiles and airstrikes.

As preemies, Lenny and Moishe require intensive care and need a special medical transport. Doctors in Kyiv told the parents the babies need to stay in the hospital for at least another four days before they can be transferred to another regional clinic farther from the most intense fighting, Nuñez said.

“They don’t want them to make the journey now without IV solution, proper care, whatever they need to have if a situation comes up,” Nuñez said. The ultimate goal is to get the twins to Poland or a more stable city in western Ukraine, like Lviv — a trip that will also require medical transport.

So far, the couple says the State Department has been unable to help, and they’ve reached out to their representatives in Congress. The Ukraine-based staff members for the international surrogacy agency that was part of the coordinating plan have their work disrupted by curfews and military conflict. If the fighting intensifies, Nuñez and Spektor understand that time is against them.

Under protocols from the surrogacy service, Adonis Fertility International, the surrogate mother is not supposed to contact the intended parents or get attached to the babies, the couple said. (An Adonis executive later clarified that contact between surrogates and families is determined on a case-by-case basis.) But now that the protocols have eroded, their surrogate, Katya — whose last name they withheld for her privacy — is now the only person who can photos and videos of their sons. Her video call to Spektor was the only time the couple had seen her face, without a mask, outside of a photo.

“In our mind, the surrogate, she gave birth to our children, but she’s not beholden to them,” Nuñez said. “What if she decides she needs to be with her family and save herself? We need to find someone who can take care of the babies.”

The couple is searching for anyone who can help bring their children to safety, and looking for transport not only for Lenny and Moishe, but also for surrogate Katya, her 6-year-old son Nikita, and two other babies born to American families via surrogate.

“We’re in a position where we need to help not only our babies, but other babies,” Nuñez said. She added that they are grateful for the support from Adonis surrogacy staff and medical teams. “We know they’re in danger, too.”

Maria Feekes, the U.S.-based executive director of Adonis Fertility International, said that as war strains resources and upends normal operations, the organization’s staffers in Ukraine and around the world remain dedicated to families relying on them, with surrogates, families and staff working “as one big team.”

“You’re still trying to do the best medical treatment possible within the conditions of military danger and escalation,” Feekes said. “That’s what everyone on the ground is doing, while also really fighting for their lives and the lives of their patients.”

During the past week of fighting, Feekes described a flurry of staff working in shifts and across time differences as they contact surrogates on the ground, reach out to families daily and evaluate medical supplies for patients as they monitor the varying on-the-ground conditions for surrogates dispersed across the country.

“The challenges has [been] a combination: They’re looking at the bridges, the barricades, the curfews,” Feekes said of her staff. Adding to that are shortages of medical supplies, like preemie formula at some hospital locations, and hospital staff who would normally care for surrogates being overwhelmed by an influx of admissions — including injured civilians and fighters.

“We know how hard it is for everyone there,” Feekes said. “But we see how much is being accomplished through their dedication and courage.”

Ukrainian diaspora in the U.S. grieves, pleads for peace as conflict escalates in their homeland

While the couple has received supportive offers from individuals in Poland and Ukraine who have learned of their plight — far-flung connections and even strangers offering a room to stay, or a ride — the specialized medical transport to move the twins from Kyiv to western Ukraine or the Polish border remains elusive.

As of Sunday, the babies and Katya were sheltering in the basement in the hospital in Kyiv. The parents have seen glimpses of the conditions there: Katya in a paper gown, the twins in a makeshift newborn intensive care unit. Spektor described it as looking like a scene from a horror film.

Martha Bayne, one of Nuñez’s longtime friends who helped launch a GoFundMe campaign for the twins’ transport, said she has been struck by how the new parents have managed to stay calm.

“This is a truly remarkable and mind-boggling situation to find themselves in. It’s something that’s so happy — Irma keeps sending me videos of the babies that they’re getting from the surrogate — and she’s saying, ‘This is what’s keeping us going.’”

The intensity of the past week with the war in Ukraine is part of a longer, difficult road to parenthood for the couple, particularly Nuñez.

“I had a really painful experience trying to have babies in the past. And sharing the news, where it didn’t work out? It was hard to deal with the grief,” Nuñez said. “And this time I didn’t want to do that. I felt incredibly private about the situation. I didn’t want to share it with anybody until it felt safe, until it felt like it was going to be good.”

Up until the birth of the twins, the couple had kept news of their babies intensely private, even from close friends, until their premature birth and outbreak of war prompted them to suddenly go public.

“Irma — who has a ton of friends — the first time they heard about it was, ‘We want to share this great news: We just had twins … and they’re in Kyiv,’” Spektor said.

Nuñez admitted that even plans for the nursery in their Chicago apartment were incomplete. The couple didn’t want to jinx what felt like it could finally be their stroke of good luck. Much of the baby clothing they acquired has been cautiously stashed in their storage unit until the twins make it home.

“We didn’t think we’d need any for two more months,” Nuñez said. “We wanted to wait until we crossed this hurdle and we know the babies are fine.”

For many couples who pursue surrogacy, Ukraine is an attractive option for its relative affordability. U.S.-based surrogacy can cost upward of $100,000, while surrogacy in Ukraine is often less than half that.

For Nuñez and Spektor, Ukraine offered a powerful personal connection.

“There was this notion that, we can’t have our own kids, but there’s something symbolic in having our kids born where I was born,” said Spektor, who was born in Kyiv.

Ukrainians in Kyiv and Kharkiv jammed the highways attempting to leave the area as Russia launched an attack on the country on Feb. 24. (Video: The Washington Post)

The twins’ journey into the world has been fraught, even before Russian forces began shelling eastern parts of Ukraine. About halfway through the pregnancy, Katya developed an Rh-incompatibility with the twins, meaning her blood was Rh-negative while theirs was positive. The doctors suggested they may have to induce labor at 27 weeks.

“Her body began to attack the babies,” Spektor said. “We were losing our minds on what to do, but then two days later things would stabilize. Then they’d get another bad ultrasound and it would go into a logistical nightmare.”

When Katya went into labor last week, she was transferred by ambulance to a clinic outside Kyiv. When an ultrasound showed one of the twins had a severe oxygen deficiency, Katya was transferred back to Kyiv, where the hospital options were better, Spektor said.

Instead of the ambulance ride taking 20 minutes, it took three hours because of traffic from military vehicles, Katya later told the couple.

“For those three hours, it was agony. We’re thinking, ‘Is this three hours going to be the end of our babies?’” Spektor said.

In videos, photos and maps, how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is unfolding on the ground

But the babies survived their tumultuous birth. Katya later sent a video where she is heard saying of the twins, “These are Ukrainian heroes.”

The babies were named for Jewish and Mexican relatives of the couple: Lenny and Moishe are Jewish names derived from Leonid and Misha from Spektor’s side, and the middle names Carlos and Rosario from Nuñez’s.

Spektor joked that he picked the name “Moishe” to saddle his family with “a very provincial Jewish name” — “They think they’re so sophisticated,” he said, smiling. And they settled on “Lenny” because of composer Leonard Bernstein, who was born to Ukrainian-Jewish parents, and comedian Lenny Bruce.

The couple plans to travel to Poland but have yet to come to an agreement on whether Spektor will attempt to travel into Ukraine. In the meantime, they continue to replay the videos they have of their sons — their “heroes of Ukraine.”

“We have these two lives born,” Spektor said. “And their own journey into this world was so difficult, and all of a sudden to have them born in a war zone — among all this devastation — feels incredibly hopeful.”

This story was updated Feb. 28 with comment from Adonis.