More than 6.3 million civilians have fled Ukraine since the start of Russia's invasion, but after getting their children to safety, some moms are returning to help their fellow Ukrainians evacuate.
Kateryna Turkevych, 39, was forced to leave Ukraine shortly after the war began. She was desperate to protect her 14-year-old daughter.
"Two weeks after the beginning of the war, I was psychologically overloaded," Turkevych told TODAY Parents via a Ukrainian translator. "I decided to leave Kyiv for Lviv. Every night we had to go to the bomb shelter, and I didn't want my family — my mother and daughter — to have to spend every night in a bomb shelter."
Turkevych took her mother and daughter to Poland, traveling by bus. An estimated 2.9 million Ukrainians have sought refuge in neighboring Poland.
"My daughter was sobbing all the time," Turkevych explained. "She could not stop her tears, and when we got to the refugee center she just kept crying. We didn't take much with us — just one small case."
Once safely in Poland, Turkevych knew she had to do something to help her fellow Ukrainians. She found and decided to volunteer for UkraineFriends.org, a group of veterans and Ukrainians assisting with evacuation and humanitarian efforts.
The operation partnered with Airbnb to provide free housing for those forced to leave their homes as a result of the war, as well as Operation White Stork and Medical Supplies of America to provide humanitarian and medical aid to Ukrainian citizens who have stayed behind.
The same bus company that carried Turkevych and her family to safety would end up partnering with the group as well.
'They're Wonder Women'
Oxana Zayac-Kryviak, a former teacher and mom of six kids between the ages of 2 and 14, was alone with her children when Russia invaded Ukraine. Her husband was in Poland for work.
As the first bombs fell, Zayac-Kryviak's husband begged her to leave their home in Kyiv, but Zayac-Kryviak was afraid.
Eventually, she evacuated all six of her children and brought them to safety in western Ukraine.
"For me, it was always a combination of this fear on the one part and this idea that I can do something here. I can do something to help others," Zayac-Kryviak told TODAY. "And as you see, so far, we are here."
Zayac-Kryviak's husband also returned to Ukraine and immediately joined the country's territorial defense unit. She says the innate desire to help others runs in her family.
"Together, with our older kids, we have all the time been busy doing something useful," Zayac-Kryviak said. "We were making nets that our Army could use, and have been engaged in humanitarian aid and various charitable organizations. And I feel very grateful to Ukraine Friends, because this work gives me an opportunity to financially support my family."
Zayac-Kryviak has been working with Turkevych and 20 others to provide evacuation and humanitarian assistance. Zayac-Kryviak is a bus coordinator, while Turkevych is the leading evacuation coordinator. Both moms have been working round the clock on rescue missions and supply runs, providing citizens with food, water, diapers, medicine and clothing.
To date, the team has safely evacuated more than 10,000 people, and more than 5,000 evacuees have been provided Airbnb housing, according to Roman Vinfield and Michael Sinensky, co-founders of UkraineFriends.org.
In addition, they say the team has donated more than 10,000 medical kits. They are currently operating out of Lviv.
"In our big team, not everyone is from Lviv — some are actually refugees who fled their homes," Turkevych explained. "And those who are refugees were recruited for our project not so long ago. My idea was to give the floor to the people who were with us from the very beginning of the war."
A mother's touch
Khrystyna Romanuk, 29, is the mom of a 6-year-old daughter and a bus coordinator who's been working with Turkevych and Zayac-Kryviak. She also fled her home in Ukraine after Russia invaded her country. She has since stayed in Lviv coordinating and running bus evacuation operations.
She says that as the gunfire and shelling has intensified in the east, so, too, have the mental health ramifications of the war. The people she's evacuating now, she says, are not running from a hypothetical war zone — they've seen and experienced it.
Not only are the moms offering evacuation and humanitarian services, they've become de facto mental health care workers.
"The people who are getting on the buses, they feel depressed," Romanuk explained. "They've gone through a great trauma and they don't know where they are going. They're leaving their native land. They are leaving behind their houses. They are living behind their relatives, family members, and it is very, very hard for them."
Romanuk says she had one teenage evacuee who "could not physically cross the border" because she realized she would be leaving her grandparents behind. They had another person who fled Mariupol after spending 25 days in a basement.
"People are psychologically traumatized. Quite often their emotions are subdued when they enter the bus," Romanuk added. "We had a boy who, when he was crossing the border, was not able to pronounce his name correctly. Evacuations take seven, sometimes nine hours, and over that period of time, we're able to provide some psychological support to the people — at least to give them hope."
The team’s youngest evacuee to date was 10 days old.
All three women say their experience as mothers make them the best people to care for the evacuees, the majority of whom are mothers themselves. In times of trauma and anxiety, they said, the moms they're evacuating need mothering too.
"Being a mom helped me to understand them better," Turkevych said. "I look at them and I remember what my kid was like when she was 1, 2 and 3 years old. You cannot really explain to a young kid or make a child understand what is happening. Often, they are really stressed because they do not understand why it is happening to them. So we're trying to put ourselves in their shoes and to do everything possible to at least ensure some comfort to them."
Zayac-Kryviak agreed, adding that even the fact that she gave birth not that long ago made it easier for her to better understand what a mom who gave birth just 10 days prior to evacuating would feel when she's postpartum and leaving her home.
"I understand what women must be thinking and feeling," she said. "Maybe not having time to fully rehabilitate and still under the impact of the stress of childbirth, feeling pain, and they still had to undertake such travel. Sometimes we somehow inspire them and help them, and even do not realize how much impact we may have on them."
Vinfield, the co-founder of UkraineFriends.org, said he is constantly inspired by the work the three women are doing.
"They're Wonder Women," Vinfield told TODAY. "When you're in that place, day in and day out — the toll is extraordinary. Caregivers in general have some of the shortest life spans because of the stress. I can't even imagine the type of stress that they're under, the pressure they're under, and they deserve all the credit. They're amazing, amazing women."