Maks Chmerkovskiy, Peta Murgatroyd Open Up About His Experience in Ukraine: 'I Wrote a Goodbye Text'

"There were so many awful things that I experienced while I was there," Chmerkovskiy tells PEOPLE. "But I think the worst was the idea of my being able to have a safe place to stay while others had no choices"

What Maks Chmerkovskiy saw in his native Ukraine in the early days of Russia's ongoing invasion was — in a word — devastating for both him and his wife, fellow former Dancing with the Stars pro Peta Murgatroyd.

"The whole experience was terrifying," Chmerkovskiy told PEOPLE on Thursday in Miami Beach, Florida. "My life has changed forever."

The talented dancer/choreographer joined Murgatroyd for New You magazine's seventh annual Beauty Awards at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach. She was awarded for her product "Peta Jane Tanning Mousse" in the magazine's Good Day Sunshine category.

Chmerkovskiy, 42, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1994, was visiting Ukraine as part of the judge's panel for the country's new World of Dance series when Russia began its large-scale attack on Feb. 24. He almost immediately began documenting what he saw on social media at the same time that he was taking steps to keep himself safe.

"To get the phone call and to see him frantically packing his bags trying to get out of the hotel was just like, I had a heart attack nearly," Murgatroyd told Entertainment Tonight at the event on Thursday. "I had to sit myself down and calm down for him. And then the next eight days were life-changing. Absolutely life-changing."

At one point, Murgatroyd said, "I literally wrote him a text, almost a goodbye text like if something happens."

For his part, Chmerkovskiy tells PEOPLE: "There were so many awful things that I experienced while I was there. But I think the worst was the idea of my being able to have a safe place to stay while others had no choices. Some were older people and others were young with children. It was bad … I felt terrible."

Maksim Chmerkovskiy and Peta Murgatroyd
From left: Maksim Chmerkovskiy and Peta Murgatroyd. Jose Devillegas/Getty

While her husband was in Ukraine, a nervous Murgatroyd, 35, called him each morning (6 a.m. his time) to see how he was doing. Distressing as it was, she tells PEOPLE, "A good thing is that it has brought us closer together."

After hearing constant air raid alarms and seeing the destruction of everyday life, Chmerkovskiy was finally able to leave Ukraine for the neighboring nation of Poland, arriving in Warsaw in early March via a stressful train trip.

"I had forgotten about my feelings of living on the edge," he says of his younger days when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. "There were so many dangers."

Chmerkovskiy finally made it home to Los Angeles for an emotional reunion with Murgatroyd and their son, 5-year-old Shai. Fortunately, neither parent had to tell their son anything about the war and the dangers that his dad faced.

"Over the years, Maks has traveled to Ukraine a great deal, and he is often away working," says Murgatroyd. "So this absence didn't seem unusual at all for Shai."

Chmerkovskiy says he knows he was blessed to flee Ukraine in safety — and his attention quickly turned to doing good for others. Soon after he was back in L.A., he offered his help to refugees in Poland and flew back to help those affected from the war.

He teamed with humanitarian Michael Capponi's Global Empowerment Mission and Bethenny Frankel's BStrong Foundation.

Maks Chmerkovskiy
Maksim Chmerkovskiy. Michael Loccisano/Getty

"I have always supported charities, but this was different," Chmerkovskiy says. "I really wanted to help others after experiencing a life-altering situation during the bombing in Ukraine."

After returning home for the second time a few days ago, this time from Poland, Chmerkovskiy has formulated more extensive plans to help others in need, he says.

"My everyday life is different now after personally experiencing the war," he says. "I intend to use this life change to help others in a bigger way than ever before."

The Russian attack on Ukraine is an evolving story, with information changing quickly. Follow PEOPLE's complete coverage of the war here, including stories from citizens on the ground and ways to help.

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