June 10, 2024

A Pregnant Mom’s Journey From War-Torn Ukraine

A Pregnant Mom’s Journey From War-Torn Ukraine

She fled her home in a Kyiv suburb with her family and survived only through the kindness of a dozen strangers on two continents.

Anya Chernets Radomsky was nearing the end of her pregnancy when the explosions began.

The 23-year-old had been living what she called “my ordinary life” in a Kyiv suburb near Bucha — attending church, caring for her husband, Mischa, and their toddler, David, and preparing for the arrival of their second baby. Between the house chores, and when Anya could muster the energy, she’d pick up freelance work to make extra money to support their soon-to-be family of four.

But in the wee hours of the morning three months ago, after the booms of Russian shelling had begun to echo across Anya’s quiet neighborhood, her phone rang. It was her mother, Olena Chernets, calling with a warning: This was war.

Anya had no idea how the rest of her pregnancy — and her life — were about to change.

“I was in shock,” she told Forbes. She tried to act normal and go about her usual nesting activities that first day of the war, forcing herself to prepare food even as the windows trembled. But the “next day, Papa made [the] decision to move away.”

Papa — Anya’s 45-year-old father, Vadym Chernets — was terrified of what might happen to his wife and five daughters if they chose to stay. He’d heard from an acquaintance, a local bus driver, that the soldiers pouring into the area were Chechens, pro-Russian fighters who’ve been accused of sexual violence against women and girls. So at his urging, the family crammed into a van and drove away from their home with no clear plan or destination.

So began a weeks-long odyssey and a race against time for the young expectant mother who, overnight, lost her home, medical care, the hospital where she was set to deliver and any semblance of a plan for how she would bring the baby into the world. The journey would end up taking her and her family 5,000 miles from home. And only if many, many small and random pieces fell perfectly into place would she be able to give birth in safety.

The next several weeks, the unborn baby grew along with uncertainty around what might happen to Anya’s pregnancy and where the family — with the lives of six other children in the balance — would land. Their journey was marked by missteps, painful separation and blind luck; by solutions plucked serendipitously out of casual conversations with strangers and acts of kindness from unlikely sources. The family’s path forward, which would take the group across two continents and an ocean, was improvisational and done without traditional resources, as the Ukrainian government became overburdened defending its territory and nonprofits grew overwhelmed by millions of refugees fleeing unprovoked attacks from Russia.

But what Anya and her family left behind turned out to be a lesson in what all-out war can mean for a woman in her state. The photo of a bloodied, pregnant woman outside a bombed Mariupol maternity ward, being carried through rubble on a gurney, one hand clutching her belly before she and her baby died, became an iconic symbol of the invaders’ brutality, just as Bucha, their neighboring town, became world famous for what looked like the Russian military’s wanton massacre of unarmed civilians.

When the Chernets-Radomsky family reached Ukraine’s border with Moldova, all but Anya’s husband and adult brother were permitted to pass. Forced to say goodbye and leave the men behind, the other nine family members continued on for more than a month in search of visas, sleeping in their van or in cheap hotels in unfamiliar places where they didn’t speak the language.

“Every day brought huge amount of uncertainty,” Anya said. “A lot of money, a lot of stress and continuous driving.” Lugging suitcases with a toddler on her hip, and trying to move fast or sit still in a cramped van for days at a time — the trip sapped her energy as she neared the end of her pregnancy. She struggled to feed her toddler, who eats only homemade food. “We didn’t sleep a lot,” she said. “Went to bed late, get up early. Uncertainty was killing all of us.”

The family headed to the U.K., where they were turned away, and then to Brussels, where they showed up — desperate — at the American embassy. There, too, they were out of luck.

But when Papa happened upon an American security guard there who saw his family’s situation, suddenly, plans were in motion.

The security guard phoned a friend, an American living in Brussels whose husband works for NATO. She phoned another friend there. Between their two homes, they took in the pregnant woman and her family. They also put out a Facebook post seeking contributions as they pooled together money to buy the family flights to the U.S. Those were the first of many acts of kindness Anya and her family received from strangers. Almost two weeks later, with one-way tickets to Mexico but no plan beyond that, the family drove to Frankfurt, where Vadym sold their van, and boarded a flight to Cancun, where they pretended to be tourists and drove thousands of miles more to the U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana.

“Uncertainty was killing all of us.”

–Anya Chernets Radomsky

The conditions there were challenging for anyone: crowded camps with hundreds of people forced to sleep on the ground in 90-degree heat, said Vera Fedorchuk, a volunteer for United with Ukraine, a group assisting Ukrainian refugees crossing the U.S. border. Earlier this month, a young couple lost their first pregnancy in the Mexico City satellite camp where Fedorchuk had been working. The woman, who found out she was pregnant while she was there and was about seven weeks along, was hospitalized, Fedorchuck said.

Anya, too, spent several days sleeping on the ground. “I was praying all the time,” she told Forbes.

When the group of nine was finally admitted to the U.S. through the humanitarian parole process managed by the Department of Homeland Security, the American strangers in Brussels pieced together money to cover another round of flights, this time from San Diego to New York.

The U.S. plans to accept up to 100,000 Ukrainians, President Joe Biden announced in March, and more than 25,000 have arrived since, according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Though the government doesn’t track refugee pregnancies, some expectant mothers have lost their babies during the resettlement process.

Vadym imagined that staying near New York City Hall would help their chances at becoming naturalized, so with nobody to persuade him otherwise, he moved the family into one of the only options they could afford: a hostel in Chinatown, replete with rats and a landlord who wanted them out if they couldn’t pay. (“No impressions about New York; only noise and mess!” Anya said.) Days later, with the living conditions proving untenable for a family spanning three generations, Vadym again reached out to the Americans in Brussels with another plea for help.

From there, a game of telephone: The American expat called a childhood friend in the U.S., who called her sister, whose husband is a rabbi in New Jersey. Within 12 hours, a Jewish-American family had decided to open their home to nine Ukrainians — religious Pentecostal Christians they’d never met before.

“We just couldn’t leave these people in the street,” said Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner of Temple Emanu-El in Closter. “You can’t claim the words ‘never again’ and then just sit in the comfort of your home without helping others.” The Kirshners quickly rearranged their basement. Vadym and Olena would sleep between the gym equipment on a Murphy bed; Anya and toddler David would sleep in the home office; the children, ages 7 to 15, would sleep on air mattresses surrounded by toys and a ping-pong table. The future was unknown, but at least they had a warm, safe place to sleep.

“You can’t claim the words ‘never again’ and then just sit in the comfort of your home without helping others.”

—Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

“It wasn’t something that jeopardized our safety,” said Kirshner. “In World War II, when people hid Jews, it jeopardized the safety of the Jew and the hider — they would be killed summarily for doing it. That wasn’t the case for us.”

The two families quickly became one family sharing a roof and table, navigating the language barrier with the help of Google Translate and the Kirshners’ Russian neighbor, Tanya Rosenblum, who became their interpreter (including for this story). The Kirshners introduced the Ukrainians to rainbow bagels, which they’d never seen before and marveled over, and the Chernets family cooked their hosts leek soup and borscht. Some of the shared meals, like Anya’s 24th birthday celebration 10 days ago, were filled with joy. Others were filled with pain, like the recent Friday night when, over tea and Ukrainian dessert with the rabbi, an overwhelmed Vadym began to cry. The Kirshners and volunteers from the synagogue took the children to play miniature golf and get their nails done “to try and chip away at the trauma … and make them feel normal and human again,” Kirshner said, while the Chernets adults waited anxiously to hear from the two family members left behind.

“Absence of my husband is very difficult,” said Anya, who speaks to him daily over Telegram.

Then there was the issue of Anya’s pregnancy. It was deemed high risk once she arrived in the U.S. because it was unclear exactly how far along she was. Going by the due date she’d been given back in Ukraine, the baby initially appeared to be too small when Carl Saphier, the American obstetrician, first examined her at his office in New Jersey. Radomsky’s scattered medical records in Russian were also difficult to interpret and left a lot of unknowns, Saphier said. And the cost of delivering a baby in the U.S. can range from thousands of dollars to potentially far more if there are complications, which presented a problem for Anya, and for others in her position.

Most Ukrainians who’ve arrived in the U.S. since the Russian invasion don’t have health insurance, and aren’t initially eligible for coverage. That’s left hospital executives and physicians making on-the-fly decisions about whether to foot their medical bills, while local residents, religious communities and grassroots groups cobble together money to cover things like transportation costs, housing and groceries.

When Forbes arrived at a dinner with Anya and her family the night before the delivery, she, her mother and the translator were wading through a pile of hospital paperwork that included a bill for more than $6,000. They wondered, in mixed Russian and English, who would be paying for what. Warren Geller, president and CEO of Englewood Health, the New Jersey health system that includes Englewood Hospital, where Anya was scheduled to have her baby, said the facility was covering the costs of Anya’s care.

“Our job at the hospital is to care for the communities we serve, and this is one of our community members,” Geller said. “We’re here for everyone regardless of their ability to pay. That’s our mission.”

Saphier adjusted Anya’s due date and began monitoring the baby with weekly ultrasounds, which Anya would share over Telegram with her husband, now based near the town of Mogilev Podolsk on the Ukraine-Moldova border.

“He is glad and anticipates, likes all ultrasound pictures,” she said. “Worries that all will be safe.”

Meanwhile, a member of Kirshner’s synagogue, Robin Hollander, began looking for a place Anya could bring the baby home to. She started contacting real estate agents across the state, including a Russian realtor who was sympathetic to the family’s situation. But none were willing to rent to a family of nine — soon to be 10, God willing — with no source of income.

Then Hollander had an idea. Valley Hospital in nearby Ridgewood, where she’s general counsel, owns four houses. One of them was vacant. Hollander ran the plan up the chain and the hospital agreed to let the Chernets family move in. Kirshner’s Temple Emanu-El is paying the hospital $2,500 a month to cover the rent.

Through another friend who happened to know a local superintendent, Hollander also managed to get the five Chernets children enrolled in public school in Ridgewood, within walking distance from their new home.

“It could be the beginning of another World War III,” said Hollander, whose Ukrainian grandmother left the country many years ago because of discrimination. “If we don’t help these people, we’re no better than the people who didn’t help us in Germany in 1932.”

Against all odds

Anya celebrated her birthday with the Chernets and Kirshner families on May 20, the night before she went into labor, bringing four parents, eight children, a toddler, a translator, a Forbes reporter and two dogs, Brisket and Latke, around one table in the rabbi’s home.

As the group gathered around the kitchen counter and the Kirshners recited their Shabbat prayers, the Chernets family listened and nodded along, smiling. And as everyone ate together in the dining room, they delighted in being able to understand each other — both in language and in customs — far more than they had just a month before. As they opened birthday presents (a post-partum pajama set for Anya) and sliced a vanilla cake with a photo of the nine Ukrainians printed into the frosting, the Chernets family seemed, if only for a moment, to be at peace.

“Kirshners are one of the best families, and rabbi himself is the best person we probably know,” Anya told Forbes that night. “Person from God. All his community, all his friends, are amazing.”

Then came worry. With the rise in Covid-19 cases, Anya would need to be admitted to the hospital alone.

When she arrived there the next day, the Ukrainian nurse they’d arranged to accompany her, to put her at ease and help the doctor and patient communicate, had called out sick. The hospital’s video translating service also didn’t work out because the assigned translator was Georgian, according to Saphier.

With Anya going into labor and time running out, Saphier had his nursing staff call Rosenblum, the rabbi’s neighbor who’d become the family’s go-to Russian translator, and put her on speakerphone in the delivery room. Saphier said that was a career first.

“On the phone with Dr. Saphier and Anya delivering the baby,” Rosenblum texted Forbes that afternoon. “I feel like I’m in labor.”

Then, at 3:12 p.m. on May 21, 2022, a healthy baby girl, Elizabeth Grace Radomsky, was born in safety, 5,000 miles from Ukraine, thanks to her family’s remarkable resilience and a wide community of strangers stretching halfway around the world who shared in their outrage and heartbreak over Russian atrocities in the Chernets’ home.

She is one of the first babies born in the U.S. to a Ukrainian refugee of this war.

“The most striking thing is: a pregnancy is a pregnancy, a baby’s a baby,” Saphier told Forbes after the delivery. “People are remarkably similar, even though they’re different, right?”

Anya and Elizabeth are home from the hospital. In the weeks and months ahead, they’ll have a new set of questions to tackle, such as when Elizabeth’s father will meet his daughter, and where he and Anya will raise their children.

“For now,” Anya said, “I will follow Papa.”


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