The first weeks of parenthood can be an emotional rollercoaster even in the best of circumstances. For Nadene Ghouri, who had her baby through surrogacy in Ukraine, the coronavirus pandemic added a dramatic layer of stress and uncertainty to the experience.
She and her son Gilbert found themselves stranded in Ukraine for the first six weeks of his life because of international travel restrictions. They are now finally back home in England with the father, Sam, after weeks apart only being able to connect through video conference calls.
Both parents were in Ukraine for Gilbert’s birth just before the nation went under lockdown in March. After a few days, Sam had to fly back to the UK for work, with the aim of returning shortly after.
"Then the borders closed. So I was stuck in Ukraine with the baby, and my husband was stuck in the UK unable to get back to us," Ghouri said in a live interview on Euronews Tonight.
"It went on for six very stressful weeks, with my husband trying to bond with the baby over Skype."
Ukrainian authorities were "incredibly helpful," she said. They even offered to grant Sam special permission to come over. But since the pair didn't know when they would be able to go back to the UK with their baby, they didn’t want Sam to risk losing his job.
The focus was to get Gilbert out of Ukraine. The family had to wait for him to be issued a passport, but the UK passport office was shut down, and routine procedures suddenly seemed impossible.
"The Foreign Office were willing to give the baby an emergency travel document, but you can’t get one of those until you’ve already been given your first passport. So it was this sort of bureaucratic loophole that we fell through," Ghouri explained.
"We had to do quite a lot of lobbying, and I made a lot of noise, and in the end, I did get the emergency passport issued and I was able to get on a rescue flight home."
Rows of babies in bassinets
Commercial surrogacy is illegal in most European countries but is allowed in Ukraine, and the country has become a popular destination for people longing to become parents.
After Ukraine went under lockdown and closed its borders, more than 100 surrogate babies were left stranded across the country. The children were due to be collected by their parents from countries including France, Italy and Spain.
BioTexCom, the largest surrogacy clinic in Ukraine, drew worldwide media attention to the problem when it released footage of rows of babies in bassinets in Kyiv’s Venice Hotel.
Ghouri said she was “horrified” when she saw the video, and said that the agency she went through sends newborns to live with nannies or families until the parents can pick them up.
Ghouri was fortunate enough to be there for her baby’s birth, but is aware that some parents are still waiting to meet their child. Others are still stranded in Ukraine with their newborn, waiting for the day they can all finally head home as a family.
She said she knew several Spaniards in this situation. In Spain, babies born through surrogacy in Ukraine are considered Ukrainian citizens, and when their parents manage to return to Spain they have to adopt them.
"In the UK, it’s different: he’s genetically ours. So we were on the Ukrainian birth certificate but now we have to reapply for what’s called a parental order, to have the birth certificate reissued in our name," Ghouri explained.
She said she also knew a couple who had to drive from the Czech Republic to reach Ukraine, showing police a special letter from Ukrainian authorities and one from their own government. They got arrested on the way, but eventually made it to Ukraine the day before their baby was born.
"It’s incredibly stressful, and I think what people need to understand is that under these surrogacy arrangements, the parents are legally responsible for that child the moment it’s born. So to not be able to be there to welcome them into the world, and not being able to be there to look after them, is really devastating," Ghouri said.
"Nobody enters surrogacy lightly, and for most parents in this position, it comes after years and years of very painful failed fertility treatment, miscarriages… Surrogacy is the end of a very long process for those people going through it, so to go through all of that and then not be able to be there for your child is just awfully heartbreaking."
You can watch excerpts from the interview in the video player above.