Bucharest, 24 June 2022 – Anastasia had always wanted children, so she was over the moon when she found out that she was pregnant with her second child last November. She and her husband were praying for five-year-old Artem to finally have a sibling to play with. She is now 27 weeks into her pregnancy but has yet to decide on a name for her baby.

She knows it’s a boy though; Artem should be happy, she thinks. Right know the fetus weighs one kilogram – the size of a melon, she has learned. She is happy that the baby seems to be growing at the right speed – normal fetal growth, as they call it – but she has doubts about the world he will be born into.

With her extended family and friends, she endured 44 days of shelling and air raid sirens after the war started. Taking refuge in their building’s parking space in Kharkiv, the family waited for days on end for the war to stop to finally be able to go back home. Yet, with each day passing, the situation only seemed to be getting worse as Anastasia’s pregnancy was progressing.

“I didn’t have access to a doctor or an ultrasound during a very important stage in my pregnancy,” says the 26-year-old, who barely slept at night as she lay on her mattress in the cold parking area, struggling to ignore the shelling outside. “The war was taking a toll on me, so I could only imagine what effect it had on the tiny human growing inside me.”

IOM translator Yuliia and physician Hussam help Anastasia navigate her consultations to better understand her health needs. Photo: IOM/Monica Chiriac

The night they left, they thought the shelling would tear right through the car park. They packed some winter clothes and left in a hurry. “I didn’t even know what to pack first or what was important. In the chaos, I ended up taking a cooking plate,” Anastasia recalls.

Then they had to quickly and painfully part ways with those who chose to stay and those who had no choice but to stay in Ukraine. Her father-in-law crammed all 22 of them, including 10 children, in a minibus and drove them across the border, to the Republic of Moldova.

Some people found comfort in being close to home and stayed in Moldova, while others wanted to go as far from Ukraine as possible and crossed from Moldova into Romania. Anastasia, Artem, and her older sister Ksenia were some of the few who went looking for safety in Romania.

After getting in touch with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Romania, Anastasia underwent an evaluation with Dr. Hussam, an IOM physician, who immediately referred her to an OB-GYN at the Clinical Hospital Dr. Ion Cantacuzino, in proximity to IOM’s premises.

Accompanied by her sister Ksenia, Anastasia arrived at her first doctor’s appointment with apprehension, fearing the worst. Photo: IOM/Monica Chiriac

Accompanied by her sister, Anastasia arrived at her first appointment with apprehension, dwelling on the worst-case scenarios. Yuliia, an IOM staff member, was forced to flee Ukraine herself together with her son only a few months before, so she took the time to explain to Anastasia in Ukrainian how the procedure would go and what to expect. Once she found out that the baby was perfectly healthy, Anastasia was overcome with relief and emotion.

Having left Syria shortly before the unrest began in 2011, Dr. Hussam understands better than anyone what it means to have to leave your home and loved ones behind. After completing medical school in Romania, he got his citizenship and started working with IOM as a cultural mediator and then physician.

His workload had always been heavy, but the current situation is unprecedented, he explains. Working as a doctor for the Ukraine response, his phone constantly rings, and he picks up every time – day or night. It is exhausting, he admits, but regardless, he carries it all on his shoulders, knowing that his work is crucial and that one minute can sometimes make the difference between life and death.

Hussam has performed hundreds of consultations and referrals since the war started. Photo: IOM/Monica Chiriac

Hussam has a stock of medicine at the IOM office that he tries to replenish as often as he can. When he accompanies IOM’s awareness-raising team for field visits to refugee reception centres, he always makes sure to take some basic medicines with him to distribute as needed.

IOM partners with different hospitals, clinics, and private associations to tend to the various needs of the patients. Sometimes he escorts patients to the hospital, and other times, he organizes medical transfers.

Sometimes during field visits, he performs quick assessments and refers people for further specialized consultations or to hospitals, free of charge. No one should be left behind in terms of access to health care.

“There are many elderly people among those that need help, cancer treatment patients or people with chronic diseases that require urgent and longer-term attention,” Hussam explains. Along with information on legal assistance, temporary protection and rights, the team also regularly advertises the available health support.

IOM is strengthening and enabling access to health services and referral pathways through its awareness-raising sessions. Photo: IOM/Monica Chiriac

Anastasia’s husband is still in Kharkiv, taking shelter in a bunker and volunteering at local food banks. She calls him every day to enquire about what is happening back home and – more importantly, she says – to check whether he is still alive. During every call, she is happy to hear his voice, but with air raid sirens going off in the distance, her happiness is always short-lived.

With the baby due in August, she is still trying to come to grips with the fact that her husband won’t be there for the birth, the newborn’s first cry, and maybe miss many other firsts. Sometimes she lets herself fantasize that she will be back in Ukraine by the time the baby is due.

In the meantime, she tries to create a stable environment for Artem and his cousins in Romania, but normalcy seems to be a thing of the past, she says. “The children start crying every time they hear thunder outside; those things they witnessed... those things will haunt them for a long time.”

She regularly sends her husband updates about Artem and ultrasound pictures of the baby to keep him up to speed, and in exchange, he shares updates from Ukraine. “I’m not sure which one of us is more concerned,” she says, “but we try to keep it together for each other’s sake and hold on to hope – it’s all we have.”

There is still a glimmer of hope in the darkness, Anastasia says. Photo: IOM/Monica Chiriac 

IOM’s health response in Romania is possible thanks to the support of the Government of Japan.

Written by Monica Chiriac

SDG 3 - Good Health and Well Being
SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities
SDG 16 - Peace Justice and Strong Institutions