Amir and Alon Michaeli Molian thought they knew the international surrogacy process inside and out. Their 2-year-old daughter Shira was born to a surrogate in Mumbai, so their journey held few surprises the second time around. It was especially easy to think that on a crisp morning in Kathmandu, Nepal, where their second daughter, Maya, had been born nine days before.
Then the ground started heaving beneath them.
“It was a beautiful morning; we were all in the kitchen and Shira was outside when the quake struck,” said Amir Michaeli Molian (see photo above, left). “It was very sudden and very hard. I immediately grabbed Shira as she was eating schnitzel and she was so frightened she started to choke. I tried to take it out of her mouth while I was struggling to stand. The quake was so strong you couldn’t walk.”
He remembered hearing somewhere that a doorframe was the safest place to be indoors during an earthquake, so he stumbled to the kitchen’s doorway and held Shira tight as he shouted to the au pair (who had come with them from Israel) to bring Maya from her crib. Just a day before, Alon had chided him for stacking suitcases on a cabinet above where she slept. “You and your panic,” he had teased his husband. “Those suitcases can only fall if there’s an earthquake.”
The 7.3 earthquake that rocked Nepal on April 25 killed more than 8,000 people and injured twice that many. Among the casualties were nearly 100 foreign nationals, many of whom were killed in a landslide at Mt. Everest base camp or in the collapse of a hotel in Kathmandu’s backpacker district.
But according to the dozen or so surrogacy clinics operating in the country, no clients, babies or surrogates were injured or lost their lives in the quake. According to one report, Grande Hospital, used by several clinics for IVF procedures and neonatal admissions, sustained heavy damage to its upper floors, where its neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) is located. NICU procedures were relocated to the hospital’s emergency facilities on the ground floor. One new father from the United States said that his surrogate spent the first nights following the earthquake with several others in a tent outside their clinic’s Kathmandu surrogate housing facility, but soon returned to their apartment.
Surrogacy clinics began operating in Nepal around the end of 2012, when a change in Indian law barred singles, gay couples and heterosexual couples married for less than two years from the procedure in that country. While accurately estimating the number of intended parents currently pursuing surrogacy in Nepal is virtually impossible, it is believed to be in the hundreds.
Among them are dozens of gay Israeli couples who are unable to contract with a surrogate in their home country. While surrogacy is legal for heterosexuals, it is barred to gay men, prompting would-be parents to head overseas. Gay Israelis unable to afford the high price tag associated with surrogacy in the United States first headed to India, until the law changed. Many later traveled to Thailand, until that country began granting Thai citizenship to babies born to Thai surrogates. Early last year, bureaucratic snarls on both the part of the Thai and Israeli governments trapped a number of same-sex couples with their babies in Thailand, prompting the Israeli government last November to announce that it would no longer assist intended parents there. At the same time, many Indian surrogacy clinics were opening facilities in Nepal in an end-run around their own country’s restrictions.
Most of the babies born to Israeli fathers are the work of a single Israeli agency, Tammuz, named for the ancient Semitic god of fertility. Tammuz says it had about 15 couples in Nepal when the earthquake struck, with a total of about 80 pregnant surrogates. “Two days after [the earthquake], two staff members of Tammuz flew from Israel to check on every surrogate,” said Roy Youldous, the agency’s marketing and business development manager. “They went from one house to another with an Israeli doctor checking on their health and wellbeing, performing ultrasounds.”
Youldous says many of the surrogates were surprisingly calm, in spite of sleeping in tents during the worst of the aftershocks. Amir couldn’t say the same about himself.
He and his family found themselves crouching with three other gay families on the lawn of their apartment hotel. Before the earthquake, he described the atmosphere in the four-unit building, each housing Tammuz clients, as one big party. It didn’t feel that way anymore.
“We had run out barefoot from the building, and while the quake was going on, you could see the walls cracking,” he said. “I realized I didn't have any of the bottles or the formula powder, it was all still in the building, and the aftershocks were starting.”
He ran back in as the ground continued to shake, then “ran like hell” back out again.
"And then the evening came, and it started raining. It’s very cold in Kathmandu,” Amir said. "So we got all the newborns to a van so they could keep warm. Later on, all the other families decided they'd go to the Israeli Embassy.”
Amir and Alon made the difficult decision not to join them, reasoning that the embassy would be crowded, chaotic with people trying to leave Nepal, with no running water or a way to sterilize bottles for his children. They stayed put and headed back inside.
“We didn't know if it was the right decision, and I think those were the hardest hours of my life,” said Amir. “Our shoes stayed on, our packs were on our backs; needless to say we didn’t get any sleep, and the aftershocks never stopped. So whenever there was a slight movement of the ground, we just grabbed the babies and went out.”
The three other families returned a day later from the embassy, saying that they preferred the risk of the hotel to the chaos of the embassy. The four families crowded into the two ground-floor apartments and waited.
Meanwhile, thanks at least in part to Alon’s dramatic posts illustrating their plight on Facebook, the gay fathers trapped in Nepal were becoming a cause célèbre back home. Alon began posting a few hours after the quake, as information came in from hotel staffers about the extent of the quake and the destruction it had caused. “Alon posted on Facebook that we were in panic mode, and the post got a lot of echo in the Israeli media and became a very big issue while we were there.”
Israeli rescue crews were on the ground by now, and it was arranged for Amir, Alon and their family to fly home on a jet chartered by Magen David Adom, Israel’s emergency aid organization.
“By midnight, like in an American movie, four jeeps came to the hotel to take us,” Amir said. “All of us got to the embassy for exit visas for the little babies and went straight to the airport. The airport was a big, big mess because thousands of people were trying to leave the country. It was like the fall of Saigon.”
Ten adults and six babies were on their flight home. Hundreds of people were at the airport to meet them when they landed.
“There were many journalists who wanted to interview us, and we hadn't slept in about 70 hours, but we decided we weren't going to sleep,” said Amir. “We had an agenda we wanted to convey. The attention put light on the issue of the inequality of surrogacy laws in Israel.”
On a pleasant spring evening, chatting via Skype on his balcony overlooking HaYarkon Park just north of Tel Aviv, insight about his experience comes more easily than when he was still in the midst of it in Kathmandu. Amir and Alon hope it was the beginning of a sea change in Israeli attitudes towards gay fathers.
“The incident brought attention of the Israeli public to the surrogacy process, especially for gay people,” said Amir. “Until that time, we were parents who were egoistic and abusive just by bringing our kids into a family that doesn't have a mother. So suddenly, they saw our true faces, of a bunch of men protecting their babies like lions. It had a big impact on Israeli public opinion.”
While Youldous says that attempts to persuade the Israeli government to also fly surrogates to safety in Israel went nowhere, it has expedited citizenship documents for babies flown out of Nepal following the earthquake. Many now hope that legislation to legalize surrogacy in Israel, long stalled in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, will be revived.
Amir says that neither he nor Alon had much of an activist bent before their experience; now, they hope that they and dads like them worldwide can help break down old prejudices through their visibility.
“[We have to] get out of our gay ghetto, in Tel Aviv or San Francisco or London or New York,” Amir. “It is crucial for us to convey this message.”