American native Alex Abel was nine months pregnant and raising a 2-year-old in Moscow, Russia with her husband when the country invaded Ukraine. She shares what family life was like before the war and her last-minute journey home before birth.
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I was on date four with my now-husband when he told me he wanted to move to Russia. He is first-generation American and his family has businesses in their native country giving him the opportunity to work there. Naturally, though, he didn't want to move there alone.

"I don't know," was all I could say in response, perplexed this was even a situation I found myself in. As we continued to date, I was plagued by the decision. I liked him, but could I really live in Russia? Not only had I never been, but the only familiarity I had with the country were Putin, cyber hackers, and frigid temperatures—it wasn't exactly the most enticing destination in my mind.

That being said, I was in an adventurous place in my life. I had recently left my magazine editor job in New York City to move to Israel to learn for a little, which was where my husband and I met. I wanted to truly experience life. I thought, if this really was the person meant for me, we could make it work anywhere, right?

Alex and David Segal
Credit: Courtesy of the Segal family

At a certain point, I decided that I wanted to marry him and told him I would give Russia a try. If I was miserable though, we would come back home and he agreed. Well, one year turned into almost four. However, our years of exploration and so many new experiences, people, and emotions ended (at least for now) quite abruptly. I was nine months pregnant with my second child when the completely heart-wrenching war between Russia and Ukraine caused us to quickly pack our bags and return to America.

The Joys and Challenges of Living Abroad

Let's backtrack a bit though. When we got to Moscow in June of 2018, we moved close to one of the synagogues. As observant Jews, this was a necessity and also gave us instant community. While certainly not everyone there spoke English, the few who did embraced us and really helped me adjust. Two of the women took me around to different grocery stores to help me figure out what to buy and start to read the products. They and others invited us for Shabbat meals so we could get integrated.

The language is probably what made life abroad the toughest. When I arrived, I started learning with a Russian tutor, and eventually started taking classes to get more practice speaking in a group setting. A big part of the struggle was that my whole life outside my home was in Russian. Unlike in Europe where so many people speak English, each trip to the grocery store, or ride in a taxi, involved breaking out broken Russian. I was often able to call my husband to help translate, but it's difficult going from being a completely independent woman working and living in NYC, to being completely reliant on another person in a totally new foreign world. Honestly, I struggled with that until we left.

The Segal family
Credit: Courtesy of the Segal family

While the challenges definitely stood out in the day to day, living abroad also had its perks. I got to experience the Moscow Ballet at the famous Bolshoi theater. I went husky sledding and ice skating on the coolest rinks in parks around the city. I experienced Russian parties and weddings which have unique cultural components like full-on shows unlike anything I've seen in America. I went to art museums and visited an underground bunker. I took a train with my husband to St. Petersburg and explored the palaces the royals once lived in. I ate new food and learned how to make some of it myself.

Russia's War in Ukraine Changed Our Plans

When I became pregnant with my first child in April of 2019, I was connected to a doctor who spoke English and she cared for me throughout most of my pregnancy.

I ultimately decided to go back to America to give birth. While I really loved my doctor, she was the only one who would have spoken English in the hospital—none of the nurses knew the language—and while my husband would be there, I was nervous to give birth in a foreign country, so far away from family, friends, and all of the support I would need afterward.

At around 32 weeks, I flew back to America. We stayed through the birth of our son Ezra, which happened in January 2020. We lived in NYC until he was 2 months old and got his eight-week shots. In early March 2020, literally days before COVID stopped travel, we flew back to Moscow.

Segal family on airplane
Credit: Courtesy of the Segal family

About a year and a half later, I became pregnant with my second child. This time, Moscow was more my home and we decided we would stay through the birth. We had a nanny we loved who helped with Ezra and he had a school he went to in the mornings with new friends. Traveling back and forth between countries with a toddler was so different than it was when it was just me and my husband. Also, we knew if we returned to the States for birth, we would need even more help with Ezra. Between setting up a temporary home, finding child care for him, and getting everything for a new baby in place, only to return to Moscow months later—it was too daunting of a decision to make. We would stay in our adopted home country this time around.

The world had other plans.

When I was 35 weeks pregnant, Russia invaded Ukraine. At first, my husband and I decided to stay the course. We thought the fighting would be over in a matter of days. As things started to develop further, that became less clear. Sanctions were hitting Russia hard, flights were being canceled, and airlines refused to travel to us.

While we didn't feel like we were in physical danger being on the Russian side of the border, we had no idea if we would be able to get out if things got worse. Being so pregnant, I knew there was a limited number of weeks left when I would be allowed to fly. While my husband was calmer, the anxiety itself was enough to propel me out of there pretty quickly. We packed essential items in five suitcases—clothes, some books, a few toys for Ezra, and anything valuable or sentimental—and were ready to go. 

Already flights were difficult to book: We got seats on one with a layover in Qatar but our first flight got delayed so we would have missed our connection. This canceled the whole ticket so we had to change it. We booked another flight but right before we were about to leave, we found out the airline had a strict policy about pregnancy—if you didn't inform them about it three weeks beforehand, you could be denied entry onto the plane and we didn't want to take that risk.

Then, miraculously, we got on a connecting flight through Israel. Not only was this journey shorter than both of the others, but we got to stop in a country that also felt like our home. The flight to Israel was longer than normal due to the need to fly around Ukraine, but when we landed, I felt like I could really breathe. When everyone clapped as the plane touched the ground, you could truly feel the relief everyone was experiencing together.

Finding Comfort in the Unexpected

Our new baby boy, Noah, was born on April 6, 2022, at 40 weeks and 3 days. We are now living in New Jersey and all of the things I was stressed about beforehand—setting up a home, finding child care for Ezra, and getting things ready for a new baby—were figured out. We had the best support from local family members and our larger community. For the first two weeks after we arrived, we lived with my husband's brother and family, which was a huge help. Then, we had two weeks before the birth in our new home. I'm grateful I had just the amount of time I needed to prepare and get settled once we got here before having our new baby. It's been a whirlwind with everything going on in the world and with our journey, so this birth represents new life in more ways than one.

In Hebrew, Noah means rest, comfort, and peace. This little baby boy really brought those things to our family. When he was born, he was so peaceful and so calm in nature. I felt such a sense of comfort and internal rest too. Because we came to the U.S., both my family and my husband's family could be all together for his brit, something that would never have happened if we stayed in Russia. For us, Noah was bringing comfort into a challenging situation. He is a light in that struggle and we are savoring him every day.

I'm not sure what the future holds. So many are asking if we ever plan to go back to our home in Moscow, but it's all really unclear. At this point, we're just taking it one step at a time. In a couple of months, we'll reevaluate and see what makes sense. For now, we're just enjoying the time we have here at home with our new little family.