An Orange County couple shares their story on their trip to Ukraine to bring home their newborn in the midst of the Russian invasion.
Costa Mesa residents Jessie and Jacob Boeckmann’s surrogacy journey began in 2018 after several years of trying to conceive.
Their daughter, Mary, was born in Ukraine in 2019 with the help of a gestational surrogate. Their second child was due to be born there through another surrogate this February. But things were much different in the world this time around. The geopolitical situation was increasingly tense and the couple wasn’t sure what would happen. But they had no choice.
“It’s not like going to Ukraine is optional at this point,” said Jessie. “We have to go to Ukraine to get our daughter.”
When they learned that their surrogate would be hospitalized and possibly induced on Friday, Feb. 11, the Boeckmanns quickly planned their trip.
Heading to Ukraine
The couple landed in Germany on Sunday, Feb. 13, and they wondered then if flights would be canceled into Kyiv.
“I don’t know what we would have done if that happened,” said Jessie.
But they did make it to Kyiv. As the situation continued to escalate with Russia, the Boeckmanns knew they had to leave as soon as they could. The baby was technically full term at this point, according to Jessie. Knowing that and that their surrogate had children of her own to tend to, the couple requested that local doctors induce the pregnancy. But, Jessie said, because their surrogate’s condition had improved and many foreign countries prefer not to induce in order to avoid C-section, local doctors held off.
So they waited.
“My husband and I, we actually had a really nice time in Kyiv,” she said, adding that they took walks, went out to dinner and even went to the gym. The political situation wasn’t yet having an impact locally, she said. “Everything was completely normal.”
On Tuesday, Feb. 22, their surrogate went into labor. They were in the car when they got the call about the birth of their daughter, Vivian. Because of COVID protocols, they were unable to attend the birth.
“We actually missed the birth of our daughter,” Jessie said.
The couple met their baby in the hospital and she was doing well. But the situation in Ukraine was shifting quickly. Jessie said she got the sense that up until Monday, Feb. 21, nobody was thinking Russia would actually invade. But that sentiment changed literally overnight.
The first thing they had to do was get a birth certificate for their baby. They went to city hall and got that done. Then they needed a passport, which requires a DNA test — normally a multi-step process. But before the process could be completed, the western embassy closed in Kyiv and the DNA test was left at that embassy, so the DNA test was waived.
On the night of Wednesday, Feb. 23, Jacob went out to the grocery store across from the hospital to get formula for the baby, because she wasn’t feeding well on the formula they had. She did much better on the new formula. But they slept little that night because of the anxiety about what would happen in the country.
“Right before 6 [a.m.] I heard a big explosion,” said Jessie. “He heard them too.”
That was Thursday, Feb. 24, the day Russia invaded Ukraine.
Getting Out of Ukraine
Jacob went to get more formula and water from the store across the street while Jessie texted their driver.
“His wife was pregnant,” Jessie said. She thought, “‘He’s going to say no. Why would he say yes?’”
As she expected, the driver recommended another driver, but he only spoke Russian. But the driver told her she could text or call him for translation help with the new driver. They prepared to leave, but the nurses wanted them to wait for the doctor to arrive.
“We’re like ‘We’re leaving,’” she said. “They really didn’t want us to leave yet.”
It was 7:30 a.m.
“I think we’re kind of ahead of it,” Jessie said.
They were on the eastern side of Ukraine, and had to go over the river and through the entire city in order to leave.
“This is the first time we’ve seen panic set in,” she said.
They saw people carrying water and long lines at the ATM.
“Up until this point, nobody was stockpiling food, water, anything like that,” she said.
It ended up taking them four hours to get outside of Kyiv because of traffic. She felt better after they were out of the city. But the obstacles were far from over.
“Every time I thought something was going to get better, it got worse,” said Jessie.
They had one portable charger, but it didn’t work in the driver’s car. So they had to conserve phone battery power for important communications. When Jacob turned his phone on, he got an email that ambassadorial business in Ukraine was closed and they would have to travel to Poland. They asked their driver if he could take them (with the help of Google Translate) and he said it would cost more, but yes.
“Through this whole journey, I don’t know why our driver didn’t just kick us outside the side of the road,” Jessie said. “Probably because we had a baby.”
At points she could hear the driver getting angry calls from a woman.
“I imagine the woman was his wife,” she said.
She saw military putting up roadblocks to block the Russian army.
“He’s not going to be able to get back in,” Jessie thought to herself. “I was also worried about gas. Every gas station line we passed was full of people waiting in line to get gas.”
She didn’t realize it at the time, but the driver had a diesel car and could go 10 hours without getting gas. Plus the car had a gas bladder, which was like having two fuel tanks in his car.
“We just kind of got lucky,” she said. “One time he pulled into the gas station and they didn’t have diesel and he pulled out again.
“So many things could’ve gone wrong that didn’t go wrong too.”
Traffic was jammed. They slept in the car overnight until about 6 a.m. of Friday, Feb. 25. Cars started moving at about 8 a.m. They were eight miles from the border. But movement was slow. The embassy advised them to walk.
“We decided we were going to get out and walk,” she said. “I tried everything to have this baby, I don’t want her to die of hypothermia.”
Jessie was worried. Vivian was three days old and temperatures were below freezing. As they walked, they got some disapproving looks from others. But it didn’t take them long to realize they’d made the right decision.
“Traffic didn’t move our entire eight-mile walk … the longer we walked, I knew we made the right decision,” said Jessie. “We make it to the border and I’m really excited. … I think it’s going to be orderly, we’re going to get through.”
But things weren’t as she’d hoped.
“When we got to the border, I realized how bad the situation really was,” she said.
Children were crying, women and children were alone without their husbands and fathers. People were crammed together in no kind of order. It was about 1:30 p.m. when someone asked how old the baby was. She said four days old.
“We’re jam-packed,” Jessie said. “My husband couldn’t even lift up his arms to take off his backpack. … The crowd starts yelling, ‘Four-day-old baby, let her through, let her through.’ The crowd pushes me through.
“I’m being pushed through the crowd with my baby. I think my husband’s behind me. … He tried to come through with me, but because he was a man, they didn’t let him through.
“I start crying. I don’t have my passport. I don’t have my baby’s food.”
The baby hadn’t been changed all day and Jacob had all the supplies.
“I start crying to the border guard, and ask what I need to do,” she said.
The guard pointed to a line.
“I go stand in line, I’m crying,” she said. “I’m not the only one crying. There’s some women crying. All the kids are crying because it’s so traumatizing.
“I’m crying. I get in line. About an hour and 30 minutes after I get in line, the baby starts crying. She’s hungry and I don’t have any food for her.”
But fortunately her husband is tall and he started to wave his arms so she could find him.
“He knew what I needed,” she said. “He took the backpack and passes it over the crowd. … So I went to get the formula.”
She had made some friends in line who were Ukrainian-American that saved her spot.
“I came back and I fed the baby,” she said.
She went back to the gate and Jacob passed over the baby’s suitcase with diapers and Vivian’s clothes. The line started moving at 4 p.m.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen with my husband,” she said.
She didn’t have her passport or her baby’s birth certificate. So her husband passed this over the crowd too and she got it through the gate.
“I’m just so thankful that nobody stole my passport or the baby’s birth certificate,” Jessie said.
Jessie and Vivian crossed the border.
When Jessie was pushed ahead with the baby, Jacob didn’t understand what was happening at the border crossing.
“I tried to move with her in the crowd but they would not let men pass, despite pleading to be able to cross with my wife and new daughter,” he said. “The people around me looked at me and said we are all trying to get across the border, there was nothing special about my situation. I was forced to wait behind.”
But once he saw Jessie make it across the border, he was relieved that at least one of them made it out of the country and their daughter at home would not be orphaned.
“That was my biggest worry when we left and so that was a big weight lifted,” he said. “However, I did not at the time understand how difficult it would be for me to get across. I assumed after a few hours I would be able to make it to the gate and be able to pass. As the hours passed, I was making very little progress. At that point I was still with our luggage and knew to progress through the crowd of people I would have to abandon our bags and try to force my way through the crowd of people.”
He eventually forced his way through several hundred people and made it to the gate. It was at this point that he realized only women and children were able to pass, even though the American embassy had said they would have no problems passing.
“I witness so many families having to say goodbye to their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons,” he said. “The look in the women and children’s eyes were heartbreaking, knowing this could very well be the last time they would ever see one another again. I attempted to pass through the gate with a family. However, I was immediately apprehended by a Ukrainian border guard and forced me back on the other side of the steel gate barrier.”
He pleaded with the guard that he was an American citizen and needed to cross in order to join his wife and new baby.
“He yelled at me something in Ukrainian — which did not seem complimentary of America — and closed the gate, telling all the men to return to Ukraine and ‘fight Russia,’” he said. “By then, the sun was setting and more and more people were arriving to the border, attempting to cross. As the sun was going down, the sounds of more bombing was heard nearby, which temporarily silenced the crowd.”
He said it was the same sounds they heard at 6 a.m. when the invasion began.
“Words cannot describe the desperation, heartache and fear from the crowd trying to make it across to the border,” he said. “Eventually thanks to many prayers, my mother-in-law in the US was able to send a photo of my passport to the US state department and my phone number to the head border guard. With 9 percent of my phone battery left, I received a call from a guard who directed me out of the crowd and was able to escort me across a separate section of the border into Poland.”
Twelve hours after Jessie and Jacob were separated, he made it to the hotel on Feb. 26, two hours from the border, and they were reunited.
When Jessie was at the hotel, she made a quick post on social media about making it out. The next time she checked, she saw it had been shared 1,000 times.
“I didn’t even know it was shareable,” she said. “We started getting all these news calls from all over. … It was insane, I’ve never had that many messages in my life.
“I was trying to just figure out what to do. Just take care of my baby and just kind of heal myself.”
There was a lot of fear and trauma she’d experienced that she was still processing. And yet she realized how lucky they were.
“When I look at people in Ukraine, their life, we’re just so lucky to be American,” she said. “So many people have it so much worse and continue to have it so much worse, we were lucky.
“It’s been a very humbling situation to be in.”
Now home on maternity leave from her work as an ophthalmologist, Jessie reflected back on the experience, seeing it as an opportunity to shed light on the situation in Ukraine.
“I wouldn’t change anything about having gone through this,” she said. “It also changed me as a person and probably helped me be a better person and a better mom.”
By Jessica Peralta