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Fitchburg family stuck in war-torn Ukraine at wit’s end: ‘Most harrowing experience of our lives’

With the help of her dad, a young Massachusetts mother is desperately trying to get her infant son out of a war zone.

This photo of Aislinn Hubbard and her 9-month-old son, Seraphim, was taken March 9. Courtesy

It’s any mother’s nightmare—her baby ripped from her arms. But that’s what happened to Aislinn Hubbard, an American citizen living in Ukraine, just last week as she tried to cross the border into Slovakia with her infant son.

Nineteen-year-old Hubbard, who hails from Fitchburg, has been stuck in Ukraine with her 9-month-old son Seraphim, unable to leave the war-torn country because the child has no birth certificate and no passport — the result of a COVID-19 era home birth.

Military officials in Ukraine temporarily took the baby from his mother last week as they tried to leave the country. Aislinn’s father, who recently traveled to Ukraine to help his daughter and grandson flee, said the officials didn’t tell them why they took the child, but they assumed it was due to concerns over child trafficking. The baby was later returned to Aislinn, but the experience was terrifying for the family.

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“They took us into custody, separated the baby from my daughter, and questioned us. The cops brought my daughter to a maternity hospital, then later gave the baby back to us,” said Dr. William Hubbard, a Fitchburg podiatrist. Dr. Hubbard said they brought him to a military camp where he was forcibly detained against his will. He pleaded with military officials there that they were, indeed, the boy’s true family — and even produced a positive DNA test and a letter from the U.S. State Department confirming the child’s identity. 

The most invasive part for Aislinn: She showed actual birth photos to military officials.

“They didn’t care,” said Dr. Hubbard. 

After pleading with the camp administrator, the family was allowed to leave. They’re now staying outside the city of Uzhgorod in western Ukraine. It’s been more than two weeks since Dr. Hubbard arrived to escort his family out, and at this point, he says he has little hope they’ll make it out soon.

Aislinn Hubbard, 19, and her 9-month-old son Seraphim. (Courtesy)

Aislinn gave birth to Seraphim at her home in Kyiv, during the height of the pandemic. As tensions escalated between Russia and Ukraine, the Hubbards anticipated they’d have a hard time getting the baby back to the States due to his lack of identification documents. The U.S. State Department wrote a letter and advised the Hubbards to get the DNA test. But still unsuccessful, the Hubbards are frustrated with what they say is a lack of help from government agencies back home. 

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“They just give us lip service,” said Dr. Hubbard. “They emailed us two weeks ago and said to go back to Lviv and wait several weeks with no place to stay for some imaginary birth certificate to show up from a civil authority that’s not functioning because everyone has left.”

“I feel like our senators and our congressperson have abandoned us to our own demise,” he adds.

A spokesperson from Sen. Ed Markey’s office declined to give details about the situation but told Boston.com that they’re ​​actively engaged with the case and in touch with the Hubbard family.

“Our office does not comment on specifics related to constituent casework. We are in contact with Dr. Hubbard and working to assist him and his family any way we can,” said Francis Grubar, a spokesperson for Rep. Lori Trahan.

‘Trapped in a bureaucratic blunder’

Back home in Fitchburg, Aislinn’s mother, Dr. Deborah Hubbard, says she’s worried and exhausted. 

The youngest of her three kids, Aislinn moved to Ukraine to study ballet at the prestigious Kyiv Choreographic College at the age of 16. Recently, she’d been teaching ESL and learning the ropes of parenthood along with the baby’s father, who isn’t allowed to leave Ukraine. Now, Deborah just wants to help get her daughter and grandson out of danger.

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“She’s our baby. And she’s doing whatever she can to save her baby,” she tells Boston.com.

As her family struggles to leave Ukraine, Deborah said she’s doing everything she can to help. She describes the past few months as “a series of unfortunate events” that included the sudden death of a family attorney in Kyiv due to a heart attack. He had been trying to help Aislinn get the necessary identifying paperwork for Seraphim. Deborah says she’s reached out multiple times to Rep. Trahan’s office, but feels like they’re at a stalemate.

“They just keep kicking the can down to different people. We’re trapped in a bureaucratic blunder. It’s been an exhausting and harrowing experience for everyone,” she says. At one point, Ukrainian officials offered Aislinn the option of leaving the country — without her son. 

“She said, ‘There’s no way I’m going to leave my baby behind,” said Deborah. “You’d think the DNA test would be enough. If you can put someone in jail with a DNA test, you can certainly liberate someone with a DNA test.”

‘A heartbreaking zoo’

Before arriving in Uzhgorod, Aislinn, Seraphim, and Dr. Hubbard hitched a ride through 600 miles of winding back roads, fearful for their safety as they passed multiple security stops, barriers, and military tanks along the way. At one point, armed soldiers approached them, and the Hubbards were unsure if they were Russian or Ukrainian soldiers: “A chilling experience to say the least,” says Dr. Hubbard. 

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“It’s been a heartbreaking zoo,” he says of his solo trek from Poland to Kyiv to meet up with Aislinn. “Women and children out in the weather. Some for almost two days, all in rough shape, desperate.”

He spoke of his time working in an Emergency Room, and performing surgery throughout his medical career, but says the sights he’s seen in the past few weeks are some of “the most harrowing and emotional moments of my life.”

As Seraphim gets more mobile, Dr. Hubbard points to the challenge of leaving the child’s baby items — such as a playpen — back at Aislinn’s home in Kyiv. “What people don’t realize is that when people flee, they leave behind everything,” he said. 

 A Go Fund Me fundraiser meant to help Aislinn with expenses had raised nearly $13,000 as of Saturday. 

Dr. Hubbard had visited his daughter just weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine. Things seemed normal — the vibe in public, happy and calm. 

“I went to the grocery store. People were buying birthday cakes. People had no idea. Most Ukrainians didn’t think Russia was going to invade,” he said. 

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