Bombs and bureaucracy: Grandmothers kept apart by wait for UK-Ukraine visa


  • Thousands of Ukrainian refugees in limbo awaiting UK visas
  • British hosts have opened homes, but left waiting to help
  • British government has promised to simplify the process
  • ‘I can’t wait to hug her,’ says woman helping Kyiv family

STEVENAGE, England, April 7 (Reuters) – More than two weeks after fleeing her home outside Kyiv with her great-grandson and a few possessions, Olena Gordiichuk waits anxiously – not for bombs or tanks, but for British bureaucracy to help them reach safety .

Gordiichuk is one of more than 32,000 Ukrainians who have applied under a scheme set up by the British government last month to link them to Britons who have offered accommodation to fleeing refugees.

Despite the urgency, only 4,700 visas have been issued under the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme, according to government figures, leaving Gordiichuk and others who have lodgings waiting for them in Britain increasingly frustrated.

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“As of now we’re waiting. I don’t know how realistic all of this is,” Gordiichuk, 64, who left her village with 8-year-old Timur taking a bag with just their documents, some savings and a few shirts.

“In some moments I think that we won’t get the visa, because many people wrote that England is a very isolated country. To get a visa even when there was peace, to go there as a tourist, is a huge problem,” she told Reuters.

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has said more than 4 million people have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded its neighbor on Feb. 24. Moscow says it is a “special military operation” to disarm and “denazify” the country. Ukraine and its Western allies reject that as a false pretext for the invasion.

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Most people have gone to neighboring countries, and unlike other European nations, Britain has required people to have visas before they arrive.

For those Britons who have offered their homes and are helping the Ukrainians with whom they have been connected, the process has been slow, complicated and bureaucratic.

“Now we just wait and wait and it’s just so frustrating, frustrating not for me, it’s not my frustration, it’s her frustration,” said Jacky Jones, 60, who will host Gordiichuk and Timur at her home in a small hamlet outside Stevenage, to the north of London, when the visa issue is finally resolved.

‘THAT COULD BE ME’

“Every day messaging, talking, checking, making sure she’s ok when they’ve had blackouts and there’s no electricity. And feeling the frustration in her voice, in her messages and I’m just apologizing for the immigration process and the delay for the visas.”

Explaining why she wanted to help Gordiichuk, Jones said: “I thought that could be me, that could be me with my grandson.”

The Home Office (interior ministry) has struggled to cope with the demand for the Ukrainian refugee schemes – for those with and without families in Britain, leaving many refugees and their British sponsors in limbo. The ministry says it is the biggest and fastest refugee operation in its history.

On Tuesday, the refugee minister Richard Harrington, who was appointed last month, said “things are not good” but has promised to simplify the 51-page visa application and has set a turnaround target of 48 hours.

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“It was difficult to understand why the government has such a wonderful program but our waiting takes so long,” said school teacher Alona Tkachenko, 27, who has traveled to Britain with her brother Vlad, 17, from their home in Dnipro.

They initially fled to Slovakia with just rucksacks and another bag, with Tkachenko tearfully recounting how her father had been worried about their safety.

Kris Talikowski, a local businessman who is housing Tkachenko with his girlfriend in their apartment in Swindon, west England, said it was only the intervention of his local lawmaker which had managed to speed up the process.

“I can imagine there are thousands of people out there furious and angry about the situation because they’ve opened up their homes to Ukrainians and they’re sat there waiting, knowing those people are in desperately bad situations in a war zone and just wanting to leave,” he said.

The government said it was working as quickly as possible to help those using the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme, or a separate one for those with family in Britain.

“We have streamlined the process so valid passport holders do not have to attend in-person appointments before arriving in the UK, simplified our forms and boosted caseworker numbers, while ensuring vital security checks are carried out,” a spokesperson said.

But in the meantime, for those like Gordiichuk and her British sponsor Jones, the waiting goes on.

“I understand that someone is looking at it, that it’s on their desk and they’re going through it, but if they have any questions, they’re not going to be able to ask her because the internet connection is really bad, the telephone connection doesn’t work – she’s in a bomb shelter,” Jones said.

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“I just can’t wait to hug her,” she said.

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Writing by Michael Holden; Editing by Janet Lawrence

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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