OWhen Russian tanks entered the Ukrainian city of Kherson, Olha fled with her children and her cat, Venera. The family crossed the Polish border, crossed Germany and Sweden, before arriving in London. Now she faces another challenge: bureaucracy.
“I feel baffled by the inefficiency of the authorities”
When we escaped the war, we dreamed of a place where we would not hear bombs or live in fear of being killed by Russians. So on the one hand we have achieved our goal and should be happy, but it is not always so easy or straightforward.
First, we lived for weeks under Russian occupation. Then we crossed Europe while waiting for a British visa. We now face the overwhelming challenge of settling in Britain, which left me conflicted.
“I burst into tears in the hallway of the hostel”
When we arrived in Brussels to travel by Eurostar to London, we were told: “Sorry, cats are not allowed”. They don’t let any animals on the train, not even a goldfish. We were told to go to Holland or France and take a ferry or bus instead. Tried to call the ferry company many times but no one ever answered.
In Calais everything was closed but a woman I met on the street told me she would introduce me to another Ukrainian woman, who had also applied for a pet passport. She was staying at a hostel and surprisingly when we arrived I saw that it was my friend Alina. We knew each other when I worked in the Kyiv region and our daughters even went to the same school.
“You need a European passport, with stars, for a cat,” she told me. “Otherwise they won’t let you on the ferry.” Once I applied, no one could tell me how long the wait would be. Maybe tomorrow, maybe five days, nobody knew. The uncertainty about if and when we could actually go to London completely stunned me. I burst into tears in the hallway of the hostel.
A veterinarian suggested blood tests on the cat to test for antibodies and speed up the cat’s “visa”. They offered this service for free but Venera is not a simple cat. After many tries and many scratches, they said she should be sedated.
After this visit, I cried all day as Venera finally fell asleep peacefully in her cage.
After many calls and emails to the UK Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) we finally got the license and with it the green light to travel to Britain.
“My children are very lonely”
One of the first questions I asked the city council was about the school. My children have not been able to study since the start of the war on February 24. I imagined that my children would go to school immediately after their arrival because there were more than two months left before the end of the school year. But no. I was sent a page with a list of schools, but it’s not easy to choose from the list something you don’t know anything about.
After waiting for answers, we started visiting schools in our neighborhood but were turned away. I asked for help from the council several times. Putting my children in school is the main priority right now. Some schools offer to wait until September to see if they have places but my children are very lonely, they can’t talk with their peers, they can’t fit in.
Finally, my daughter received a letter. It was a card with a clear inscription in capital letters: “Authorized work”. Has the world gone mad? After five weeks of waiting, a 12-year-old boy received not a school admission but a work permit.
The school situation also has repercussions on my ability to find work. The Jobcentre staff know that my children won’t be in school until September and that I won’t be able to work until then. I have three degrees in different specialties and the employment agency staff told me to apply for cleaning or shelving jobs at Tesco.
“The world is only gray”
It would seem that the system should work according to an algorithm – to get A you need to do B, and in extreme cases C. Psychologically it would be easier if there was at least a warning about problems and some kind of Range of time. Instead of the supposed “a few days”, the wait becomes “week after week” with no defined endpoint.
If I had come to London a year ago I would have been mesmerized by its beauty and architecture but now I feel nothing. The world is just gray. Every morning is a struggle to get out of bed. Then I remember that I have so much to do for my children. Constant forms, writing emails, appointments. If I have a free day, I try to find Ukrainian books (I go to the library but there are none in my language) or go to the local gym, which is free for Ukrainian refugees.
I’m afraid I won’t see my parents again. The worst days were when the Russians cut communications with the people of Kherson and I couldn’t talk to my family. But now that the internet is back, we can talk. I send photos of their grandchildren. In return, they send me a photo of a burnt-out car in front of their house. He was shot with people inside for violating a curfew.
I’m growing frustrated with enforced idleness. It’s impossible to find solace when your friends and family are on the front line and busy. I feel an irresistible desire to do something useful and help Ukraine even from here. I take part in different demonstrations, helping with translation and raising money for the war effort. It’s volunteering so I don’t get paid, but until I’m able to work that’s all I can do to help my people.