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Parents of twin boys rescued from Ukraine reflect on a year of trauma and joy


Sasha Spektor and Irma Nunez will never forget the day the war in Ukraine started, because for them, that day of tragedy is paired with a more personal, joyful occasion. On the second day of the war, their twin boys were born to a surrogate in Kyiv.

SASHA SPEKTOR: I think for both of us, it was the most exciting and traumatic and important event that happened in a very long time, if not over our entire lives. So it's incredibly vivid and memorable.

IRMA NUNEZ: I remember thinking, I've seen this movie before and I don't like it. Like, this is not my genre.

SHAPIRO: And I wasn't starring in it.

NUNEZ: (Laughter) I mean, this was before the happy ending, of course, when it was unclear what direction things were going to go. It was hard.

SHAPIRO: Here's how that movie played out. One year ago, before Russia invaded Ukraine, Sasha and Irma were home in Chicago. Their babies weren't due for another two months. Then rockets started pummeling Kyiv, and their surrogate went into labor early. An American team went on a daring rescue mission they called Operation Gemini.


BRYAN STERN: We had two dozen baby hospitals in Kyiv. All of them were kind of in the middle of the city. It sounded like the shelling and started bombing were there.

SHAPIRO: That was Bryan Stern speaking with us one year ago. He led the effort to rescue the premature newborns.


STERN: If dust gets in the room, they're in trouble. If the power goes out in the room, they're in trouble. So bottom line is get them out of Kyiv.

SHAPIRO: The father, Sasha, flew to Poland, which is where I met him last March. The evacuation team took the babies through artillery fire checkpoints. Even the weather seemed to be fighting them.

SPEKTOR: It was like a storm, a winter...

SHAPIRO: A snowstorm.

SPEKTOR: The war didn't want to let them go, but we got them out, so...

SHAPIRO: The war didn't want to let them go.

SPEKTOR: Thanks for the good people of Ukraine.

SHAPIRO: Finally, the babies arrived safely in a Polish hospital. But even that wasn't the end of their ordeal. Polish bureaucracy kept the family stuck for months, until finally the family of four went home to Chicago. That was May of last year. And now?

SPEKTOR: This is Lenny on the left and Moishe on the right.

SHAPIRO: Amazing. Hi. Can you wave? Can you say hi?


SHAPIRO: The parents have been too busy taking care of twin boys to plan a first birthday party.

SPEKTOR: Lenny is dancing.

SHAPIRO: I can see that. Lenny has got the moves.

But on this anniversary of the baby's extraction from a war zone, we wanted to talk with the parents about their personal experience and how it fits into the larger narrative of the war. So after they put the boys to bed, Sasha and Irma got on the line with us again from Chicago.

The happy ending was also a beginning. So what has it been the beginning of? Catch us up.

SPEKTOR: I think eventually it just became what I imagine is regular life for every new parent, just boring. Hey, Sasha, look at Lenny's poop.


SPEKTOR: That's the highlight of our day sometimes, you know. When you said you wanted to talk to us again, I thought, like, what about? Like, our lives are so uneventful.

SHAPIRO: What's so special?

SPEKTOR: They're so uneventful right now.

NUNEZ: Or they're special in a way that is common to everyone raising a child. It's amazing. It's stressful. I mean, watching Lenny dance is just the most joyful thing I've experienced in a long time. But also, you know, we don't sleep very much. And we get crabby.

SPEKTOR: That's true.

SHAPIRO: So Lenny is the dancer. What's Moishe's personality?

SPEKTOR: Moishe is like a - I would say a little tank if it wasn't too close to home.

SHAPIRO: We don't want to use war metaphors. Right.

SPEKTOR: That's right, a little Ukrainian thing - powerful, straightforward, very strong.

NUNEZ: Head strong.


NUNEZ: He knows what he wants, and he's fearless going after it.

SPEKTOR: You know, they're completely different in their personalities. That was one of the things we would discover on a daily basis.

SHAPIRO: I know that early on, there were concerns about, you know, dust and debris from rocket attacks affecting the lungs of newborn babies. And, of course, they had this harrowing evacuation through a snowstorm in their first days of life there. Can you tell whether that has had any impact on them, whether that has lasting consequences? Is there any way of knowing?

SPEKTOR: Fortunately, only on us, at least the way we understand them. Yeah. And I think we've been tremendously lucky in that respect.

NUNEZ: I think a year ago, my big concerns were our son's survival. But now, when I think about the things that scare me now like safety in the bathtub...


NUNEZ: ...It seems so ridiculous to give so much worry to that when the war is still going on. It's been a year.

SHAPIRO: But what a gift to be able to worry about only the same things that every parent worries about and not also the thing that parents in wars worry about.

NUNEZ: Oh, absolutely.


SHAPIRO: You say jokingly, the impact was only on us. But it did have an impact on you. What was that impact?

SPEKTOR: So on one hand, it's an incredibly personal event. But for us, I think it happened in a way that, you know, it (inaudible) expanded my understanding of history, of the place where we live. It's as if the room all of a sudden lit up and we saw things that we would not be aware of before. You know, our sounds are intricately connected to what's happening in the Ukraine right now.

SHAPIRO: And so do you mean you understand the news differently? What do you mean specifically?

SPEKTOR: Of course. I mean, I'm from Ukraine originally. And so as so many other people, we're incredibly worried and connected. But I think for us, it's also a place where our sons were born. My mom was - I was just speaking to her. And she was like, oh, my God, like, we had to leave Ukraine. And somehow your boys went back to Ukraine and were born there.

SHAPIRO: Your family left as Jewish refugees when it was part of the Soviet Union, right?

SPEKTOR: That's right, in '89.

SHAPIRO: In '89. How has the last year changed the way you see yourselves and each other?

NUNEZ: I've always known Sasha as a strong, brilliant, resourceful person. But to see him in action, it just blew me away.


NUNEZ: I told him, like, 10 minutes ago, I don't want to cry on NPR.


SPEKTOR: Yeah. We agreed that there will be no crying.

NUNEZ: No tears. But...

SHAPIRO: Some stories just - you have no choice. I'm sorry.

SPEKTOR: It's true. Irma is an amazing mom. Like, it - just watching her with kids is incredible for me. And I feel - talking about safety - I feel safe when I see the kids with her. And it's a certain safety of our family being safe, knowing that there are so many people who are not safe. And it's something that I think we enjoy with a new sense of responsibility that we might not have had a year ago.


NUNEZ: And just for the record, that was part two of my answer was seeing you actually be a dad to them, being with them. There's no one they like more than Sasha. It's true.


SHAPIRO: Irma Nunez and Sasha Spektor. Their twin boys, Lenny and Moishe, turned 1-year-old this Saturday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.
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.