When Kateryna Gorodnycha set off driving for the UK from her home town in Ukraine, she still did not have her UK visa. Driving 1,800 miles from Kyiv, through Poland and into Germany before arriving at Calais, Kateryna wasn’t certain she and her 13-year-old son Timur and their two cats would be able to make it.
The day she left with her life packed into her car was the day the Russian missiles started falling on her hometown. She does not regret taking the risk in the slightest.
Settled in her new home in Pendoylan in Vale of Glamorgan, Kateryna is one of the “lucky” ones, she says. She chose the UK simply because of the language – she speaks Ukrainian, Russian and English – and wanted to find refuge where she could speak and understand the language.
“I realized that if I went to any other country in Europe, I’d be helpless,” she said. “The UK was my only chance to do something and understand what’s going on around me and be part of life.” She arrived in the UK on April 1 and in Wales two days later. Her cats had to be quarantined.
So far, that new life has seen the locals welcome her and Timur with open arms, sending them both gifts and cards to help them feel at ease. Timur even got a signed football shirt from Gareth Bale and the pair enjoyed celebrating Timur’s 13th birthday with pizza in Cardiff city center. Kateryna was overwhelmed by the homemade cookies and cakes that arrived on her new doorstep.
Her words demonstrate just how much that has meant to them both: “All of Glynis and Martin’s friends and neighbors have done more for us in the past two weeks than we could expect,” she said. “They came and picked us up, took us wherever we needed to … A football star gave a shirt for Timur and a brand-new Wales tracksuit too. A family friend drove us around cities and towns for two days in a row and then drove the same routes with me so I could drive. To babysit us. Me. Honestly. No one has ever babysat me since childhood. A new feeling. Wonderful. “
It took Kateryna two days to fill in the forms and get the process started on March 18, she said. “I was in the middle of Ukraine, it was quite safe but a later missiles came there. I filled in the forms when I realized the war wasn’t going to stop quickly.” Before even sending the forms off, Kateryna started her journey west: “Maybe I was not too clever to do this because I wasn’t sure I’d get my visas,” she said.
She waited in Lviv, a city on the western Ukrainian border, and just hours before they crossed into Poland, the Russian missiles started falling there too. “I guess there is no totally safe place in Ukraine,” Katya said.
Her journey – which lasted nearly two weeks – took her to Poland and then Germany and then Lille in France all the while staying with friends and friends of friends. While in Lille, here appears arrived.
“I was very lucky,” she said. “Because I have many friends who are still waiting for their visas.” Hers took just 10 days to arrive. From Lille she headed to Calais and boarded the ferry to Dover. She found Glynis Lloyd on Facebook after her friend, an editor in chief for the BBC in Ukraine, told her about a group set up matching refugees with UK hosts. After posting a description of herself and her son Glynis offered her home. It was a perfect match Kateryna said, because Glynis said it might be possible for her to get some work as a producer and her son, an avid football fan, would be near to the Welsh national football team.
“I thought it sounded like a paradise,” said Kateryna. “It was really exactly the right decision, because we are really, really happy to be here.” Her son’s father has stayed in Ukraine.
“My life is starting from the beginning again,” said Kateryna. “I’m 43 and it’s pretty weird to do something for the first time like this.” Her son is enjoying the experience of a new country, new school and new friends, she added, saying they used to travel to different countries in Europe before the Russian invasion. He is most excited about learning Welsh.
Her Facebook profile shows her enjoying a normal cosmopolitan life in Ukraine that many of us would recognize – trips out, relaxing in their home city, meals with friends – something that is now a distant memory.
She would return to her home country but it would depend on “the result of how the war ended,” she said. “If in some way Russia will dominate our territory, I do not want to live in tyranny,” she said. “So I accept the thoughts about staying here but I can not accept the thought that Ukraine will fall.”
A history graduate and successful producer before the war started, Kateryna still can not believe the way her country has fallen. For all the latest news about what’s happening in Ukraine, read more here.
“I’m a historian by education so I knew that we were definitely not brothers with Russia, I knew we definitely had a huge history of struggling and the threat of the Russian empire, but I could not even imagine that in 21st Century, we could have such a barbaric war. I thought it could be political pressure trying to manipulate, but not missiles over my house. “
“Who could imagine what we’re seeing? It’s something from history. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a war of civilizations. Barbarians versus progress, tyranny versus democracy. In the modern world, in the 21st century, it is unthinkable to imagine that a European country can be bombed with Russian rockets, Ukrainian children could be killed, our women – and children, unfortunately, too – can be raped by enemy soldiers, and Russian TV spreads propaganda.
“In Russia they’ve created a country with a population that wants to kill neighbors in order to demonstrate their dominance to the world. Nothing more.”
She has a friend from Bucha who chose to drive through Russian roadblocks in a desperate attempt to escape the massacre there. They wore kitchen pots on their heads to protect themselves from Russian bullets, she said. She used metal cooking trays to protect her children inside the car.
“She’s from that place where awful things happened,” said Kateryna. “She was under occupation for a week but she was lucky to leave before those awful things. Now she is in Ukraine but in the west.” The wait for her UK visa is taking so long, she’s debating whether to apply for a Canadian one instead, in case that speeds things up.
“She told me she can not go home because she’s not sure if her home exists,” said Kateryna.
Stories like this are sadly not uncommon as more than 10m Ukrainian refugees have fled their home country, according to the UN. Vladimir Putin seems determined to continue his barbaric war despite pressure from NATO and the world.
For Kateryna, her visa application took just 10 days. for others who applied on March 18, the day UK visa applications opened, they’re still waiting. The lack of certainty means many simply can not plan anything. Katya’s friend has been waiting 17 days so far. “She does not know what to do,” she added. “People are waiting for visas, sometimes too long, and they get really frustrated about it.”
People have been frustrated by the UK Government’s “embarrassing” process of homing Ukrainian refugees. Read more about that here. It’s a frustration shared by Glynis too, who is highly critical of the council’s pre-arrival assessment of her home to determine if it’s suitable. She said: “They have to check the height of windows and the size of rooms. But I do not think the people coming here are going to worry about things like that. The bureaucracy is getting in the way – if people are willing to help then let them help. ”
She accepted Kateryna and Timur ahead of the Vale’s council checks, adding: “I can have whoever I like in my home. If I can give sanctuary to someone who needs it then I will.” The impact Glynis has had on her two Ukrainian guests is palpable, even if life on a Welsh farm is a different life from life in the capital of Ukraine, Kateryna said. “There was a lot of action around us but there is silence around us now,” she laughed. “It’s not a difference between Ukraine and Wales, it’s the difference between a megapolis and a farm.”
She added: “Today we are forced to use the help and support of the whole world. And Ukrainians are very grateful for the opportunity to take their children away from bombs and missiles.
“When Ukraine defeats this invasion of evil, we will return home, rebuild our country and invite all our new friends to visit us.”
Vale of Glamorgan Council has been contacted for comment.
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