As Russian forces invaded Ukraine, volunteers went to extraordinary lengths to get Ukrainian orphans out of the country and safe from harm.
Now that they are safe, they're telling their story of escape.
A week before Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to attack Ukraine, Yael Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a non-profit coalition providing life-saving aid to people around the world, wanted to assess the looming threat in person. The Fellowship supports six orphanages in cities throughout Ukraine.
"I was in Kyiv, and the truth is what terrified me the most is that everyone was in denial. Nobody thought that a war would break out in Ukraine," Eckstein told TODAY Parents.
When Ekstein returned to Israel she prepared her colleagues for the inevitable, and the fellowship launched a $1 million emergency grant to send mattresses, food, water and medicine to Ukraine.
Days later, war broke out.
"Thank god (we prepared)," she said. "The schools and synagogues became refugee centers for whole communities, and the reason why they were able to get through the first few days of bombings is because they stocked up on supplies."
'Take only the most important things'
Ekstein said that at first, people were reluctant to flee. After all, Ukraine is their home. And given reports that Russian troops have intentionally targeted civilians fleeing Ukraine, leaving was scary and dangerous.
But as the assault persisted, it became clear that things weren't going to get better. They were going to get worse.
"That's when we helped organize all of the children to leave the orphanages," Ekstein said. "As bombings are happening all around them, they had to collect all their documents — their papers and their passports. And there was one child who went outside to board the (evacuation) bus and said, 'Oh my gosh, I forgot my pet rabbit!' So she ran back inside to her bed and took her pet rabbit."
Malcki Bukiat, who manages one of the evacuated orphanages in Zhytomyr, Ukraine, found herself responsible for the lives of the children at the orphanage, as well as her own five children and the children of two other families living in the community who travelled with them.
“We knew that the situation is very dangerous. We have seen that it became even worse in the last day, before we left," Bukiat said in a written statement shared with TODAY. "We were theoretically ready to take the kids towards the border, but, practically, it was a very complicated operation.”
As plans were being made, the Russian onslaught continued. On Sunday, March 6, at 5:00 am, Bukiat awoke to the sound of explosions. She knew she had to evacuate the children immediately.
“When you have to organize a trip of nearly 60 children with their basic needs, their documents, and the papers from families, and at the same time you have to try keep them calm and mentally balanced, it is not easy," she shared. "It took us a couple of hours. We told the kids to take only the most important things: clothes, personal medicines. We prepared some food for the way, as we knew the way was going to be very long, and we left Zhytomyr moving to the west in the bus.”
'We had to convey calmness to them'
The Fellowship worked in partnership with the Israeli government to arrange safe passage from Ukraine to Israel, by way of Moldova. Ekstein said they created a "proper rescue mission, where we mapped out a route based on what we knew about where the bombings were in Ukraine, where there will most likely be future bombings, like nuclear plants or army bases."
Just as importantly, everyone tried to stay calm amid the chaos, for the children's sake.
"It was very difficult to keep the children calm. They are not used to seeing tanks, military vehicles and soldiers," Bukiat said. "They were very scared, and some of them cried. They needed us to support them, and we had to convey calmness to them to protect them from trauma."
The children — ranging in age from 2 months to 17 years — are orphans, children who could not be adequately cared for by their parents, as well as the children of workers and volunteers. Ekstein said along their dangerous journey, the older children put aside their own fear and took care of the little ones.
“I gathered the elder children and explained to them that I need them to take care of the little ones,” she explained. “We declared that our slogan was ‘everybody for everybody,’ and the children really acted according to this principle.”
The journey by bus toward Moldova took 15 hours, as hundreds of thousands of people left Ukraine simultaneously. At least 2 million people have fled their homes as a result of Russia's war on Ukraine. Bukiat described the traffic jams as "endless," and said she was often afraid when meeting other people, never knowing if they were "harmless or dangerous." And yet, her focus remained on the children.
"The way was challenging," she said. "We prayed a lot."
As the group neared the Ukraine-Moldova border, Bukiat said they heard the bombs getting closer. They decided to get off the bus and try to make it across the border on foot. "We decided that there was no choice, and we have to take the kids to the other side," she explained.
The children and those tasked with caring for them, as well as other members of their community — including two Holocaust survivors — walked the rest of the way. A total of 100 people safely crossed the border. The oldest was 87 years old, and the youngest was 2 months old.
"What that journey must have been, for those taking care of a baby so vulnerable and so needy — it's such a huge responsibility," Ekstein said. "The last kilometer, they walked — in the snow; in the freezing, freezing weather. So imagine this little baby, being held in the snow and the freezing cold, not knowing what will be."
'It was like holding my own child'
Once safely in Moldova, the group waited to board a plane. In Israel, Ekstein, who had been on the phone with the workers and heard the children crying while bombs exploded in the distance, waited impatiently for their arrival.
"I think these children are specifically very lucky, because they were able to come to Israel where they were greeted with song and dance and the government has a whole plan and they have a place to sleep and they have food and they have medicine," she said. "They have everything that they need here."
As the plane landed and the children left the aircraft, Ekstein spoke to some of the smaller children. A mother of four herself — her oldest is 15 and her youngest is 6 — she couldn't help but see them through a mother's eyes.
"I could see the terror and fear in their eyes," she said. "It's so easy to become stuck in the news reports and statements from government officials and actually lose that human side of a 6-year-old child and their individual journey."
"So when I help these people — following them from inside of Ukraine; trying to get to the border; being in touch with them; hearing the bombs all around them; hearing the babies' crying; hearing the uncertainty in a mother's voice; getting close to the border and making that decision to get out of your car and just run; waiting on the other side and then welcoming them in Israel — I connect, not just as a mother but as a Jewish woman whose grandfather is a Holocaust survivor from Germany," Ekstein said.
As Ekstein examined the steady stream of people walking down the aircraft steps, she landed on the smiling face of a little boy.
"I saw so many people with these heavy eyes — crying, sad, scared —and there was one boy, who was adorable," she explained. "He got off the plane with me and he had the biggest smile and he said, 'I've never been on an airplane!' And there was music playing as he started dancing with me, waving his hands in the air."
That moment sticks out for Ekstein, and the moment she saw the little girl who ran back to her bedroom to save her pet rabbit. She proudly held her furry friend as she walked off the airplane.
But the moment that is engraved most in Ekstein's heart, she says, is when she held the 2-month-old baby who was carried to safety.
"Holding that little baby when they landed in Israel was one of the happiest moments of my life," she explained. "It was like holding my own child."
Ekstein said there has been an outpouring of support in Israel and abroad, and many — including her own family members — have expressed a desire to adopt some of the orphans. But the plan is to keep the group together.
"They're staying together. They're staying with their school, their teachers, and the same routine," she said. "We found an amazing location for them to all be together."
While they're grateful to be safe and cared for, the children have all been very clear that they want to go back home to Ukraine, as soon as they can.
"They want to be able to go back — they have their school there; they have spent their whole life there; Ukraine is everything they know; it's their life," she added. "It was a safety rescue mission, and we'll see what happens next."