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Newborn twins were rescued from a warzone. Now they're stuck in bureaucratic limbo

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Two months ago, in a Polish border town, I met a new father named Alex Spektor. He goes by Sasha, and on that day, he told me he believed his life was finally about to become a little less intense.

SASHA SPEKTOR: So my friends, they're like, welcome - finally, welcome to the normal fatherhood, and I'm like, OK, thank God.

SHAPIRO: Sasha 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 a dramatic mission called Operation Gemini. They dodged Russian artillery fire, drove through a snowstorm and finally arrived at a Polish hospital, where Sasha met his boys for the first time.

SPEKTOR: Like, real life begins now. And this was the surreal life. You know, the twins - just, I had to look at them and, you know, be saturated with their presence.

SHAPIRO: That was two months ago. So I was shocked to get a text from Sasha recently saying the family was not back home in Chicago, as I had assumed. They were still in Poland, stuck in bureaucratic limbo.

IRMA NUNEZ: My name is Irma Nunez. I'm Sasha's partner, and I'm mother to Moishe and Lenny, and I'm going to cry saying that. It's been a very long journey.

SHAPIRO: You thought that getting the kids out of the war zone would be the hardest part.

SPEKTOR: Right, of course. Yeah.

SHAPIRO: But...

SPEKTOR: This is harder.

SHAPIRO: Here's what happened. Irma flew to Poland soon after I met Sasha in early March. She had stayed in Chicago to get the family's legal paperwork in order.

And Irma, did you go straight to the hospital to see the boys?

NUNEZ: No. We arrived late at night. But the very next - the next day, that was the first place we got. We have to book an appointment to see our kids, like, a day in advance.

SPEKTOR: And back then, there were COVID protocols.

NUNEZ: Right.

SHAPIRO: So do you remember the first time you saw them?

NUNEZ: Oh, yeah. Yeah. 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. It's like, I finally understood what people mean when they say, like, I was on cloud nine. I was just floating. Like, everything else disappeared. And it was just amazing. I actually didn't cry that day 'cause it was just this blast of, like, unreal happiness.

SHAPIRO: The hospital only let them experience that happiness with their twins for one hour each day. Sasha and Irma spent the rest of the time fighting bureaucracy.

SPEKTOR: So eventually, the hospital said, we need to prove your paternity in order to discharge the kids to you. But how do we - and then, American embassy in Warsaw said, in order for us to give the kids passports, we need you to bring the kids to Warsaw. So there was this catch - wonderful Catch-22 where, in order to release the kids, the hospital needed passports. To get the passports, we had to take the kids to Warsaw.

SHAPIRO: The case even went to court, where Sasha says the judge was less than helpful.

SPEKTOR: They wouldn't really tell us what exactly we need. They would just say, we still don't have all the documents.

SHAPIRO: Eventually, officials said they needed to see birth certificates that were in Ukraine. Remember, these kids had been rescued from a hospital while the city of Kyiv was under Russian assault. And so Sasha actually left the Polish city of Rzeszow to cross back over the border and retrieve the documents from the Ukrainian city of Lviv.

Can you just tell me about the moment you realized you would have to cross the border and go into Ukraine to solve this problem?

SPEKTOR: You know, the funny thing is that, for me, like, just sitting in Rzeszow without able to do anything was just the worst thing possible. And so - but in order to collect all the proper documents to go to Ukraine, it was another huge task.

SHAPIRO: When I recorded this conversation with them on Friday, Sasha and Irma were in a hotel room in Rzeszow. Sasha said it was his 14th hotel since he'd arrived in Poland two months ago for what he thought would be a short trip.

SPEKTOR: You know, I (laughter) - today was the hardest. Today was just excruciating 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.

SHAPIRO: Where do things stand right now?

SPEKTOR: They actually - the things are actually - well, the two boys are laying down just...

SHAPIRO: They're there in the room with you.

SPEKTOR: Yeah. You want to see?

SHAPIRO: They're there in the hotel room.

SPEKTOR: I'll show you.

NUNEZ: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: Ah. Oh, in two months, this is the first time you've actually...

SPEKTOR: I know.

SHAPIRO: ...Had them in your own space, not in a hospital.

SPEKTOR: That's right. That's right.

SHAPIRO: I suddenly feel like I should be talking quietly so I don't wake them up.

SPEKTOR: That's what I was doing, but Irma said, no, we have to speak loudly so they learn.

NUNEZ: (Laughter) That's not what...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

NUNEZ: They have been living in a little nursery for the past two months, and...

SPEKTOR: The nurses don't keep quiet.

NUNEZ: They don't, and they play pop music and drop things, and there's monitors beeping all the time.

SHAPIRO: I didn't realize this whole time we've been talking, they are right there behind you, sleeping.

NUNEZ: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: That's amazing.

SPEKTOR: It is amazing, yeah. I - you know, when we came in, I dropped my bag. And I thought, oh, my God, what an idiot 'cause they are sleeping. But I'm still in the middle of not knowing what to do.

NUNEZ: But also, these babies were born in a war zone, so...

SHAPIRO: Oh, is one of them crying?

SPEKTOR: One of them coughed.

SHAPIRO: I see Irma rushing off.

SPEKTOR: He coughed.

NUNEZ: He coughed. I'm a mother in the "Steel Magnolias" vein (laughter). You just, like, stand up and make sure they're breathing.

SHAPIRO: Sasha was actually born in Ukraine when it was part of the Soviet Union. His family came to the U.S. as Jewish refugees. He says this experience has 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.

NUNEZ: We benefited so much from individuals who were willing to just step up and do something. And it's really incredible. And being here in Rzeszow, we've also met a lot of other people who are experiencing difficult things, and we're trying to...

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY COOING)

NUNEZ: ...Connect people who we trust with other people we trust and build - help build these networks.

SHAPIRO: 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.

SPEKTOR: And so my friend and his team in Chicago are getting donations, and they found a way to immediately channel it to the volunteers. And the volunteers are doing the hard work, of course.

SHAPIRO: So that conversation was Friday. And yesterday...

SPEKTOR: So we just feel very lucky - lucky to be home.

SHAPIRO: Sasha called me from Chicago. He said Lenny and Moishe cried the entire flight from Poland.

SPEKTOR: Yeah, everybody was very helpful, though. Yeah, you just have to say magic word - these kids were born in Ukraine (laughter) on the second day of the war - and everybody just goes out of their way to help.

SHAPIRO: The American pediatrician who'd had months of consultations by phone finally met the twins for the first time yesterday. She said they're both good babies. And now, Sasha and Irma are surrounded by family and friends to help them.

SPEKTOR: There's an army of people who love them.

SHAPIRO: Very different from the army that surrounded them on the first day of their lives in Kyiv.

(SOUNDBITE OF THOSE WHO RIDE WITH GIANTS' "THE SAFETY OF THE SLEEPY MOONLIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.