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Olena Tsebenko of Lviv was about to give birth to her first child when the Russian invasion began. For her and husband Andreii, what happened next would depend on the kindness of many strangers

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Baby Vira was born in Poland after her parents, Olena and Andreii Tsebenko, fled their hometown in the early days of the Russian invasion. Vira means 'faith' in Ukrainian but her mother offered a broader translation: 'She's Hope,' she says.Photography by Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

When Russian bombs started falling on Ukraine four weeks ago, Olena Tsebenko was nine months pregnant and, determined to get her baby to safety, made a frantic dash to Poland from her home in Lviv.

She kept the faith that her baby would survive even as she waited for hours at the border crossing with her husband, Andreii, who begged those in front to let them through. They’re both 31 and have only been married a couple of years, but they’ve known each other since childhood and began going out as teenagers in Sambir, a town southwest of Lviv. The baby was their first child.

Once they reached the border crossing, they got lucky. They arrived just before the Ukrainian government ordered all adult men to remain in the country.

Once across, they made it to Przemysl and found their way to the Marko Hotel, on the highway into town. It was serving as a makeshift refuge for Ukrainians in the early days of the war, and the owners took in almost every family that showed up, sometimes letting them sleep in the lobby for free.

But then new challenges emerged. The baby was due any day, and the couple had no idea where to find a doctor or who to turn to for permanent shelter. As she stood in the doorway of Room 115 two days after arriving in Poland, Ms. Tsebenko looked exhausted but steadfast. She knew the baby was a girl and she’d already chosen a name, Vira.

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Ms. Tsebenko and Vira.

Vira is “Faith” in English, but to Ms. Tsebenko it meant so much more that day, so she broadened the translation. “It means ‘hope’ for me,” she said. “She’s Hope.”

Her faith, and hope, were rewarded. Last week, thanks to the support of countless strangers – from the owners of the Marko to the doctors and nurses who refused payment for their services to the young couple who offered their home for free – Vira came into the world. All six pounds and 15 ounces of her.

As she held her baby Thursday, Ms. Tsebenko was still trying to comprehend the family’s journey.

“When Vira grows up, we will tell her all the stories of how she was born,” she said. “And also, I want her to know how Polish people are friendly, how they helped her to be born, in safety and harmony. So she should know the kindness of humans.”

She’d always wanted a daughter named Vira, and now the name held even more significance. “I think that to believe for us, for Ukrainians, now, it’s really important. To believe that everything will be good and to believe that we will come home soon.”

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In Przemysl, Ms. Tsebenko's main focus is on returning to Ukraine some day.

For the couple, faith also means charity. Since arriving, Mr. Tsebenko has been organizing humanitarian aid deliveries into Ukraine and spends almost every waking hour at a giant warehouse in Przemysl that has been turned into a depot for donations of food, medicine and clothing from all over the world. His father, a bus driver in Sambir, has been going back and forth across the border in his minibus, taking humanitarian supplies into Ukraine and bringing refugees to Poland.

Mr. Tsebenko is also grappling with how their life has changed in the past month. They’d always dreamed of travelling the world one day and maybe working abroad in Canada or the United States. They’re both highly skilled. He’s a software engineer with a doctorate in mathematics, while she taught math at a centre in Lviv that cared for children from troubled families. But now their only focus is returning home to Ukraine.

“It’s still so emotional,” Mr. Tsebenko said Thursday while taking a forced break from his humanitarian work because of car problems. “We could not image now what happened. When it is over, it would be easier to understand what was happening than now.”

His mother still lives in Sambir, but his 22-year-old sister, Veronika, has joined the couple in Przemysl. She too is now part of the humanitarian cause and volunteers at a sprawling refugee shelter in a vacated Tesco supermarket on the outskirts of the city. Mr. Tsebenko’s employer, Swiss-based software firm Virtido, has helped more than 450 employees and their families leave Ukraine, and the company is considering opening a new office in western Poland. The Tsebenkos are considering moving to wherever the branch is eventually set up, but they may stay in Przemysl, which is closer to home.

Ms. Tsebenko is still in touch with her former work colleagues at the centre in Lviv. The kids at the centre would usually stay there for a few months while their parents received counselling, typically for alcohol or drug abuse. But it ceased operations after the war began, and the building is now being used to house more than 200 children who have fled the fighting in eastern Ukraine. Ms. Tsebenko hopes she can return to teaching there one day. “I really liked this job,” she said. “You feel you are really doing important things.”

As for Vira, she’s blissfully unaware of all that has happened and barely caused a stir during a two-hour visit Thursday. Her mother has high hopes for her daughter. Maybe she’ll be a mathematician like her parents. Maybe she’ll find her own path. But Ms. Tsebenko knows one thing for certain: “She will be Ukrainian.”

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