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Premature American twins rescued from Ukraine become stuck in bureaucratic limbo

Lenny and Moishe were evacuated from Kyiv in March.
Alex Spektor
Lenny and Moishe were evacuated from Kyiv in March.

Two months ago in a Polish border town, Alex Spektor believed his life was finally about to become a little less intense.

"So my friends, they're like, welcome, finally, welcome to normal fatherhood. And I'm like, OK, thank God," he said.

Alex and his partner Irma are parents to baby boys named Lenny and Moishe. The twins were born prematurely to a surrogate mother in Kyiv just as Russia began its war on Ukraine.

Rescuers exfiltrated the babies and the surrogate in March in a dramatic mission called "Operation Gemini."

They dodged Russian artillery fire, drove through a snowstorm, and finally arrived at a Polish hospital where Alex met his boys for the first time.

"The real life begins now," Alex said in the hours after his babies made it to safety in Poland. "The twins — I had to look at them and, you know, be saturated with their presence."

Two months later and Alex and his family were still not back home in Chicago as expected. They were in Poland, stuck in bureaucratic limbo.

The catch-22

Alex and Irma thought getting the kids out of a war zone would be the hardest part.

"This is harder," Alex said of the legal quagmire they found themselves in.

Irma flew to Poland in early March after the twins had been evacuated. She had stayed in Chicago to get the family's legal paperwork in order.

She arrived late at night and the next morning went straight to the hospital where her twins were. Irma vividly recalls the first moment she saw them.

"I described it to a friend as, you know, like Marcia Brady, when she falls in love on the Brady Bunch and she puts her schoolbooks in the refrigerator," Irma said. "It's like I finally understood what people mean when they say, 'I was on cloud nine,' I was just floating."

Irma didn't cry the day she first saw Lennie and Moishe, and instead just felt unbridled joy.

The hospital only let them experience that happiness with their twins for one hour each day.

Alex and Irma spent the rest of the time fighting to go home.

The hospital said they needed to prove their paternity in order to discharge the kids. The American embassy in Warsaw said in order for them to give the kids passports, they needed Alex and Irma to bring the twins to Warsaw.

"So there was this wonderful catch-22 where in order to release the kids, the hospital needed passports, and to get the passports we had to take the kids to Warsaw," Alex said.

Alex Spektor thought the hardest part was behind him the night he first met his boys.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
Alex Spektor thought the hardest part was behind him the night he first met his boys.

The case even went to court, where Alex said the judge was less than helpful.

"They wouldn't really tell us what exactly we needed, they would just say we still don't have all the documents," he said.

Eventually officials said they needed to see the birth certificates — that were in Ukraine.

And so Alex crossed from the Polish city of Rzeszow back over the border to retrieve the documents from the Ukrainian city of Lviv.

"The funny thing is that for me, just sitting in Rzeszow without being able to do anything was just the worst thing possible," Alex said. "But in order to collect all the proper documents to go to Ukraine, it was another huge task."

Alex got the papers. And then just last week, there was another update.

"Today was the hardest. Today was just excruciating," Alex said last Friday. "Because at this point we submitted everything that can possibly be submitted. And when I called the court this morning, the secretary said, 'The decision has been made, the judge has to sign it, and then we'll fax it to the hospital.' And I said, 'But what's the decision?' And she says, 'I'm sorry, but I cannot tell you.'"

Working to help others

Alex was born in Ukraine when it was part of the Soviet Union, and his family came to the U.S. as Jewish refugees. He said this experience with his twins had made him feel closer to the place of his birth.

One of their friends in Chicago who helped them get the boys to safety created a network to provide similar assistance to others who need it. They call the new organization Ukraine TrustChain.

"We benefited so much from individuals who were willing to just step up and do something. And it's really incredible," Irma said. "And being here in Rzeszow we've also met a lot of people who are experiencing difficult things and we're trying to connect people who we trust with other people we trust and help build these networks."

They have teams of volunteers in the U.S. and Ukraine providing a pipeline of medical supplies, baby formula, food and other essentials to people in the war.

It's an operation Alex and Irma will contribute to from Chicago now. Because this week, there was another update: the court had approved their request and they had finally made the flight home. Lenny and Moishe cried the entire flight from Poland.

Alex and Irma with their twins.
/ Alex Spektor
Alex Spektor
Alex and Irma with their twins.

"Everybody was very helpful, though," Alex said. "You just have to say the magic words, 'These kids were born in Ukraine on the second day of the war,' and everybody just goes out of their way to help."

The American pediatrician who'd had months of consultations by phone finally met the twins for the first time on Monday. She said they're both good babies.

And now, Alex and Irma are surrounded by family and friends to help them.

"There's an army of people who love them," Alex said.

It's very different from the army that surrounded them on the first day of their lives, in Kyiv.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Courtney Dorning
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.