Oksana, a Ukranian woman trapped in Russian-controlled territory, was 39 weeks pregnant and getting desperate.
She had no running water, no electricity and no way to get to a doctor. She was planning on walking miles through nearby fields, hoping to evade Russian soldiers, to get to the nearest town in order to give birth.
Then she heard about Project Dynamo.
Bryan Stern, co-founder of Project Dynamo, a non-profit group of ex-military members who evacuate refugees from war-torn countries, has overseen nearly 400 rescue missions since the start of the war, transporting refugees safety across the Polish and Romanian borders.
For one woman, we had to make three attempts because the bridge to get to her had land mines on it. We couldn't proceed, because driving over land mines is generally bad for your health.
Bryan Stern, co-founder of Project Dynamo
Now his team is conducting coordinated rescue missions — code name “Aquarius” — evacuating Ukrainian surrogate mothers. Like Oksana, whose name is being withheld to protect her safety, these are women carrying babies for other couples, and they have rarely received the same media attention or level of concern as the surrogate babies they have been giving birth to in the midst of a violent war. When Stern got a request from an American couple to help their Ukrainian surrogate, it sparked the idea for this mission.
So far, Project Dynamo has rescued five pregnant Ukrainian women, Stern told TODAY Parents via Zoom, collecting them from various regions of Ukraine and safely transporting them to one of their safe houses far from Russian occupation, where they have access to medical care as well as food, water and electricity. The team has happily named the safe house "Club Dynamo."
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Once a staging area to temporarily house refugees, "Club Dynamo" has been turned into a makeshift maternity ward, complete with two medical professionals and a translator. It's located about 30 minutes away from a hospital ready to care for the women when they go into labor.
“Right now, we have a list of 25 surrogates who need to be rescued,” Stern explained. “They’re all in various stages of pregnancy. Some people would argue we should evacuate people in order of who is the most pregnant, but we don’t see it that way. We evacuate those who are in the most danger. Whether you’re 11 weeks pregnant or 36 weeks pregnant, what’s the difference if you’re in Russian-occupied Ukraine?”
Inside the daring rescue mission
There are some unique factors the team has to consider when evacuating pregnant women, although Stern says the missions don't pose significant additional logistical challenges.
"One seat turns into two or three," he explained. "And some of these women are really pregnant, so we have to stop more so they can go to the bathroom. We also had more in-depth conversations about medical requirements, because these women are on a timeline — at some point, I know they need to be in a hospital."
Project Dynamo spends a significant amount of time route planning — never taking the same route twice, and considering various checkpoints, Russian troop movements and other factors that will give them the best chance of evacuating safely. In order to successfully rescue pregnant Ukrainians, the team had to add another factor to their route plan: Proximity to a hospital.
"Do we go to a hospital even? Because in some cases, they're dangerous," Stern added. "So I really thought about, OK, so every 100 miles or so, is there a hospital? Will she need a bathroom break? A water break? And in many cases, there are no options — things are blown up or closed."
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Stern also had to consider the women's medical needs, especially if they were experiencing pregnancy complications as a result of the war. While the team was able to secure two medical professionals willing to travel with the women, they did not — and still do not — have the money to hire a gynecologist.
"I simply can't afford it, and the surrogate agencies won't pay for it," he added. "The reality is, we provide a free service — we are 100% donor funded, and every cent donated pays for an evacuation. We've asked the (surrogate) agencies if they would pay for a doctor to travel with us, but they said no. So what do we do, just leave (the women) there and say, 'No doctor, no drive'? Or do we bring them out? We bring them out and take our chances."
Once the team had a plan in place, it was time to pick up the women from various locations in Ukraine, including Kherson, Oleksandria, Kamianske, and Mykolaiv. Many of the women were evacuated with their own family members and children in tow.
"These women tend to be in at least contested areas, if not (Russian) occupied," Stern said. "So, the threat to them is extreme, which means we're at risk also. We're with them."
In one Russian-occupied town, a Project Dynamo driver was detained, then forced to strip naked so Russian troops could check for any Ukrainian tattoos. The team drove by bombed homes, destroyed apartment complexes and shot-up vehicles. The journey was perilous, especially as Russian troops have been committing war crimes by continuously targeting humanitarian corridors, the press and civilians.
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The team traveled more than 1,500 miles to five towns over the course of a week, sometimes taking multiple trips to safely reach the pregnant women.
"For one woman, we had to make three attempts because the bridge to get to her had land mines on it," Stern added. "We couldn't proceed, because driving over land mines is generally bad for your health. And even if we made it through the land mines, we had to get back — I'm not driving over land mines with a pregnant woman in my van."
What the journey was like for the surrogates, in their own words
Oksana, 33, was 39 weeks pregnant when Project Dynamo rescued her from her Russian-occupied hometown in the Mykolaiv region of Ukraine.
"It is a very difficult process to get out when Russians are controlling everything," Oksana told TODAY via Signal and a Ukrainian translator. "They're checking people very carefully, and they won't let anyone get out."
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Oksana did not have access to any electricity, a running water supply or telecommunications — her situation was similar to those trapped in Mariupol.
"I have no clue what I would have done, because the hospitals don't work. There are no grocery shops. Nothing works," she added. "In the nearest city, the situation is quite easy, but it's difficult to reach there. If Project Dynamo didn't rescue me, I would have walked through the fields to reach the nearest town to get medical attention."
Marina, 34, is around 13 weeks pregnant, and was evacuated with her mother and her two young children. She has no idea what she would have done if she had not been evacuated — Russian forces were attacking the train station near her hometown in the Dnipro region of Ukraine.
"I had pregnancy screening tests I couldn't have because of Russians," Marina told TODAY via the same translator. "I can get them now that I am in a new location."
While most of her family were able to get out, she was forced to leave her husband and the family's pets behind.
"The children were crying very hard, but Bryan tried to keep them calm," she explained. "He gave them some toys, some candies and after that they started some connection and they stopped crying."
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Another woman, also named Marina and who is 28 weeks pregnant, was in the same evacuation van, and said she is grateful for the Project Dynamo team for trying to keep everyone as calm as possible.
"It was scary, of course. I was scared," Marina told TODAY via a translator. "But the guys from Dynamo decreased the stress level as much as possible. We were singing Ukrainian songs during the trip — it was really amazing."
Her daughter, 8, was also scared, but she said the songs the team were singing helped.
"It really made the trip less stressful," she added. At one point, her daughter told Stern she wanted to give him a makeover — at 8 years old, her favorite thing to do is play with makeup. Stern bought her a cheap makeup kit at a gas station, along with a doll and some candy.
Mila, 38, was 30 weeks pregnant when she was rescued, along with her 10-year-old daughter. She says if Project Dynamo had not evacuated them, she would have stayed in her Russian-occupied town of Kherson, because "Russians are hunting volunteers."
"They made a hunt on them, and they don’t let volunteers to bring medicine or food," Mila told TODAY. "So I would only stay there and expected the worst. And the situation is becoming worse — the situation there is becoming worse and worse."
She said she was scared during the journey, because a lot of cars that have been evacuated have been attacked.
"There are no evacuation corridors, humanitarian corridors and local Russians use people inside Kherson as live shields," she added. "They use them to prevent Ukrainians from attacking them. They don’t let people go out."
The majority of the women do not know where they will go after they give birth, nor do they know when it will be safe for them to return home. But every single one says they do not want to leave Ukraine. They want to go home.
"I love Ukraine. I love my country," Mira said. "I love Kherson. I want to travel in other countries like a tourist, not a refugee, and I will always come back to Ukraine."