As the humanitarian crisis at the Ukraine-Poland border intensifies during the nearly week-long war in Ukraine, a Ukrainian pregnant mother of two is escorting her children to safety, then returning to help her country.
Alya Shandra, the editor-in-chief of the Euromaidan Press, an internet-based English newspaper in Ukraine, had mundane plans before Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops to invade Ukraine on Thursday, Feb. 24.
“My plans before the invasion were to pick up two mixers — two kitchen mixers and blenders that broke," Shandra told TODAY Parents via phone and while waiting to cross the Ukraine-Poland border. "I finally got myself together and got them fixed, and I was supposed to drive and pick them up."
Shandra, who is 37-weeks pregnant with her third child, said she had also planned to pick up pregnancy clothes she had custom made, as she "had a lot of trouble finding pregnancy clothes that I liked and that I looked good in." She said she was looking forward to wearing "pretty pregnancy clothes" to work meetings that finally made her feel comfortable.
Now, her life is unrecognizable.
"Russians targeted a TV station near our house. The neighbors that remained in Kyiv told us they felt a terrible blast. And five people were killed. I don't know if I will have a home to come back to. I don't know whether my friends or family will still be alive," she said. "Really, it feels like lightning years away, my worries about wanting to pick up my clothes and these mixers and what to cook for dinner. I never thought that I would be a refugee.”
On Tuesday, Shandra and her husband were in the process of escorting their two children — daughters, ages 13 and 2 — across the Ukraine-Poland border, so her children can stay with her husband's parents in Germany.
"The little one is actually feeling the best of us all. She is just happy to be in a new place and she is satisfied with driving around and seeing new places," she explained. "My older one understands what is going on — she’s worried."
Shandra said her 13-year-old daughter's biological father joined the territorial defense and is currently fighting in Kyiv. There have been multiple reports of street fighting in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, as a 40 mile-long Russian military convey descends on the city.
"He’s exposed to danger; exposed to the Russian invasion; to the saboteurs that might be in the city — that is very worrying for (my daughter)," she added. "And like many young people in Ukraine she is joining the forces of the so-called 'cyber Army.'"
While fleeing, Shandra said her daughter works to combat Russian disinformation online, posting on social media and working to expose Russians to the realities of the war in Ukraine.
Even though she's nearing her due date, Shandra says she is going back to Ukraine, to Lviv, to continue to cover the war and help her fellow Ukrainians any way she can.
"I think it's crucial for the world to express its solidarity with Ukraine," she said. "And by being in the country, I can speak to journalists; I can speak to volunteers; I can coordinate a lot of processes; I can continue to cover the situation, and I think that's what Ukraine needs at the moment."
Shandra explains that most Ukrainians did not think the current Russian invasion would happen, so when "full scale war broke out, many were shocked."
"From that time on, they just started fleeing the city," she added. "There were huge traffic jams along the way. There was a shortage of gas. If you're lucky enough to find a gas station, they'll only give you 20 liters (5 gallons) because they're prioritizing special vehicles."
Shandra said there are road blocks with checkpoints, meaning cars must drive in "zig-zag patterns." And in order to make Russian air strikes less effective citizens are mandated to turn off their lights at night, transforming cities into "haunted" towns.
"Just imagine, just six days ago you were driving your child to kindergarten, worrying about grades in school and things like this. And now your new reality is a basement where you sit all day, together with your baby who can't even have a diaper change," she added. "We have friends in Kyiv, and they just had a baby. The mother, she had the baby in a basement of a hospital. This is basically where the maternity wards are now transferred — they transferred to basements of the hospital, and there are maybe 30 women in a room giving birth or have already given birth."
She says luckily her friend did not experience any pregnancy or birth-related complications, but now she is staying in a basement with her newborn and a group of pregnant or new mothers.
"Because the city is facing shortages of food, the father is trying to find milk formula," she added. "It is not an easy task."
While Shandra is determined to expose the realities of the war in Ukraine, and the atrocities committed by Russian troops, she simultaneously cannot ignore the realities of pregnancy.
"I’m feeling just as I guess I should be at 37 weeks. I’m feeling active movements inside me; not being able to eat much; feeling nauseous," she explained. "Feeling all the side effects of pregnancy, I guess. But at the same time, I must also work for 20 hours a day and just somehow be not pregnant, in that regard."
Shandra says that, when the time comes, she is not afraid to give birth in Lviv. Currently, Lviv, the western city near the Poland border, has not been attacked by Russian forces and is considered to be relatively safe — transforming into a safe-haven of sorts for Ukrainians fleeing the eastern region of the country. If things remain unchanged, it's highly unlikely Shandra would face the same circumstances pregnant women in Kyiv and Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine, currently face.
Still, she says she does not know where she will end up giving birth, adding that maybe she will go back to Germany to reunite with her children and introduce them to their new sibling.
“There are no plans now," she said. "Plans do not exist. It all depends on what this lunatic dictator decides to do next.”