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‘When you’re running for your life you’re not thinking of visas’: British-Ukrainians hit out at UK visa scheme

April 13, 2022 8:25 pmby Sofia Fedeczko
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Christina Senechko (R) with her cousin Solomia Kaplun (L) and aunt Natalya Popovych. (Courtesy)

As Ukrainians endure the destruction of their homes and livelihoods at the hands of Russian troops, their relatives in the U.K. are battling British bureaucracy and rallying to help from afar. 

One of those Ukrainians is Marina Boyko, 28, who was born in Ukraine but moved to the UK as a child. Together with her husband Anton Boyko, 32, she has successfully applied for visas for her mother-in-law Maria, who lives in Ivano-Frankivsk. 

She believes that the UK has been “accommodating” when it comes to Ukrainian refugees – but describes the complicated application process as “unfair.”

“When you're running for your life, there's rockets and things and shelling, you're not going to be thinking about visas,” said Boyko.

The UK opened its borders to extended family members of UK citizens in early March and more recently rolled out its Homes for Ukraine sponsorship scheme. 

This is a welcome move to many of the 37,530 Ukrainians living in the UK, but many say the process of getting them to safety has been difficult.  

Iryna Piwniuk’s parents Olena and Stepan Kuzma. After the war started, they came from Ukraine to Manchester to reunite with Piwniuk. (Courtesy)

Iryna Piwniuk lives in Manchester with her husband and two sons. As an only child, she is concerned about her elderly parents, Olena and Stepan Kuzma, who have arrived in Manchester from their hometown Lviv in western Ukraine. 

Piwniuk’s parents did not want to move, but the situation in Ukraine had become too uncertain. 

“We don't know what to expect and what another day will bring,” she said.

Even though the U.K. has simplified the application process in recent weeks, Piwniuk says the form took her all day to complete after facing several issues. 

“At the start, the system had not been updated, then the system was down,” she said. “Then I ended up having to complete the application for my mum twice. Called the number provided on the website, and they have no clue what the process is.”

Christina Senechko, 25, from Manchester, had similar issues securing visas for her family members. 

Her cousin Solomia Kaplun, 31, from Kyiv, and her baby son are among the 28,500 refugees who have obtained visas through the UK’s family scheme so far. But in order to do this, her family had to seek advice from lawyers and embassy employees. 

It was also unclear whether another cousin’s wife, who is not blood related, would qualify for the extended family scheme.

“It was difficult to know what we needed to submit, how we were to do it,” Senechko said.

Marina Boyko (2ndL), with her husband Anton (L) and in-laws Maria and Stepan. (Courtesy)

Some 11 million Ukrainians have fled their homes since Russia began its assault on their country on Feb. 24, with 3.9 million of them headed for other countries, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. 

However, there are still millions more who either cannot or will not leave. And for family members abroad this is tougher to face than red tape. 

Senechko’s aunt Natalya Popovych lives in Drohobych, Lviv Oblast. As a dentist, she decided to stay in Ukraine, where her medical background may be of use to the war efforts. 

“She turned to me and said, ‘This is my home, this is my village, these are my neighbours, my everything is here. My husband can't leave, I'm not going to leave him, my son can't leave. This is my home’,” Senechko recalled.

Her father Oleh Senechko is now also considering going back to Ukraine to help deliver military supplies. Before moving to the UK in his mid-twenties, he served in the Ukrainian Armed Forces and now his daughter worries he will join the fight. 

“He said he wants to go over and stay, which, to me, means he wants to get involved,” she said.

For Marina Boyko, the real “turning point” was a phone call from her grandfather.

“He called my mum on the Thursday when they started bombing, even in Ivano-Frankivsk,” she recalled. “And he was like, ‘If I die, don't bother coming to bury me. Somebody will bury me. Don’t bother coming’.”

Boyko has also had difficulty speaking with family in Omsk, Russia, who accused her of lying about the Russian soldiers’ atrocities in Ukraine.

“They just don't believe it,” she said. “They're so brainwashed about what their agenda is.”

Watching the war progress from afar hasn’t been easy for Ukrainians living in the U.K. Some, like Iryna Piwniuk, find comfort in participating in the British-Ukrainian community’s volunteer efforts.

Piwniuk was able to help her former classmate in Lviv by directing military supplies gathered in the U.K. to his location before his deployment to the military reservists.

“I'm just trying to get involved in everything that's going on here in the U.K., just to see and do everything we can from a distance to help our people, to help these boys on the frontline,” Piwniuk said.

“I know the mentality of our people. It is either we win, or we will die. I think this is a principle that we have in our blood as a Ukrainian nation.”

Sofia Fedeczko
Author: Sofia Fedeczko

Sofia Fedeczko is a British-Ukrainian journalist based in Manchester. She was previously based in Kyiv, where she worked as social media editor for the Kyiv Post and, prior to that, producer for Hromadske International. She is currently studying for her NCTJ qualification in the UK.

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