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U.S. couple traveled to Ukraine to welcome a new life — but days later, they fled for their own lives

Courtes: Jacob and Jessie Boeckmann

Jacob and Jessie Boeckmann of Costa Mesa, California, were in Kyiv this past week to witness the birth of their daughter, born to a surrogate mother, when they woke up to the sound of explosions.

“We left the hospital despite the nursing staff asking us to stay, and we got in the car and started a 27-hour drive to the Polish border,” Jessie said. The couple left carrying their new baby, Vivian.

The trip should have taken six hours. At first, the family drove to a temporary U.S. embassy set up in the Ukrainian city of Lviv.

“However — as we were en route to Lviv — we had found out that that embassy had also closed and there were no further U.S. personnel in the Ukraine," Jacob explained. "And our only opportunity to get out would be to make it to the Polish border.” 

They got close to the border when traffic came to a complete standstill.

“At this point, we're still about 20 kilometers away from the border, so we were at a complete standstill,” Jessie said. “So the driver, my husband, the baby and I slept in the car that night in the massive traffic jam.”

Courtesy: Jacob and Jessie Boeckmann

At around 7 a.m., traffic started moving again. But by 9 p.m., they had moved very little. That's when they made a decision.

“We thought our only way to get across as soon as possible and as safely as possible was to start the trek,” Jessie said. “So I put the baby in the babywear [and] strapped her on. I grabbed my purse. Jacob grabbed our suitcases, and we started the trip.”

The family walked in sub-freezing temperatures about seven and a half miles toward the border past a solid line of stopped cars. When they finally got to the border gate, they found that no cars were being allowed across.

“That’s when the complete chaos began,” Jessie said. “There are so many people just desperate to get across. The women were crying. The kids were screaming. People were pushing other people.”

Courtesy: Jacob and Jessie Boeckmann

Possibly because Jessie was carrying a four-day-old baby, the crowd pushed her forward to the gate. She was eventually allowed through, but without her husband. No men between the ages of 18 and 60 were being allowed across. Jacob began to doubt he would make it to Poland.

“As I got to the gate, I shared my American passport. The U.S. Embassy had told us Americans would have the opportunity to pass,” he said. “However, they told me my passport was fake and would not allow me to go through.”

Eventually, thanks to some U.S. Embassy personnel who spoke directly with the border guards, Jacob was allowed in after around six hours. Finally in Poland —after the three-day ordeal — the family breathed a sigh of relief.

“Red Cross had set up assistance centers, as well as a small welcome center that was busing people into the closest Polish city to the train station,” he said. “There were supplies of water, baby food, [and] heat because ... the temperatures were below freezing at this point, and we had all been out for hours and hours in the cold.”

The couple saw many sad sights among refugees gathered in Poland.

“At the train station, it was a very sad sight because so many women and children were separated from their fathers and their husbands and their brothers,” he said. “You could see the look of desperation, not knowing what to do or where to go.”

Jacob and Jessie Boeckmann spoke to TPR from Warsaw, Poland. The couple was able to get a temporary visa for their daughter, and they hope to make their way back to the U.S. in the next few days.

Jacob reports the surrogate mother is safe at home with her two children and husband, however, her husband wants to go and fight against the Russians.

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Jerry Clayton can be reached at jerry@tpr.org or on Twitter at @jerryclayton.