Two young children who were rescued from a besieged region of Ukraine have now been waiting for weeks to join their parents in the UK, in what their father has said highlights the Home Office’s “awful” visa system.
Ethan and Emily, aged three and two, stayed in a Moldovan refugee camp for two weeks and have been sleeping in a Romanian church for nearly a week while waiting for visas, despite the fact that their mother and father, McDonald and Olga Majawala, have UK visas under the family scheme.
The siblings had been staying with their grandparents in the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, 340 miles from their home, when Vladimir Putin’s invasion started.
Their parents, who were at the family home in Kyiv, traveled to the border where they had planned to meet their children and Ms Majawala’s 74-year-old grandmother, Hannah Reznichenko.
But Kherson train station and airport were taken by Moscow’s forces on 2 March, and fuel was near impossible to find, leaving the grandmother and youngsters unable to leave the city.
The couple could not enter the city to collect their children. They applied for visas under the UK’s Ukraine family scheme to join Mr Majawala’s father, who is settled in Britain. By the time the visas were granted their children were still trapped.
They traveled to Britain on 15 March, and moved into temporary accommodation in Deptford, close to his father’s home.
On 19 March, the couple traveled to Romania in a bid to collect their children. Mr Majawala, a Zimbabwean national, was denied entry to the country on the basis that he does not have a Ukrainian passport, and had to return to Britain.
Through information on social media, the couple discovered a route out of Kherson and Ms Majawala’s parents, Ms Reznichenko, and the children managed to get out and drive to Odessa.
From there, Ms Majawala, 31, drove from Romania to Moldova and into Ukraine to meet them close to the border. Her parents de ella chose to stay in Ukraine and she took the children and her grandmother de ella back to Moldova.
“We were so happy when we got the kids. We thought it would take two or three days to get their visas, considering we submitted our applications on 3 March,” says Mr Majawala, 29.
“The UK government changed the system to that you don’t have to go to a visa application centre, so we had to resubmit the applications on 16 March, but we thought it would be quick.”
But a week passed and they received no decision. Ms Majawala, the children, her grandmother and the family cat stayed in a refugee center in Moldova while they waited.
Ms Majawala said: “We were fed there, but hot water was a problem because it was never enough for all people, so we had to wake up during the night to take a shower and for the kids heat the water and wash them in basin .”
In the hope that all the visas would have arrived by 30 March, Mr Majawala booked flights from Romania to the UK for that day and the family traveled to Romania.
Emily’s visa arrived on 29 March, but Ethan’s and the grandmother’s visas had not arrived by the time of the flight, so they could not travel.
Eleven days later, they are still in Romania, staying in a room at the back of a church.
Speaking from the church with her children crying in the background, Ms Majawala said: “Every day is the same. The kids cry because they haven’t slept properly. They’re sick and tired of being in the same place.
“Romanian people are very kind. They’re trying to help us get what we need, but we’re still on the journey. I can’t unpack my clothes from the luggage. I always keep it there because we might finally leave tomorrow.
“I want to just stop and be able to stay somewhere, restart my life, but I can’t relax.”
Ethan’s visa arrived on 5 April after Mr Majawala contacted his local MP who sent a letter to the Home Office. But they continue to wait for a decision on Ms Reznichenko’s application.
Ms Majawala added: “I can’t leave my grandma behind, so we need to keep waiting.
“This doesn’t look like help from the UK government. Help should mean emergency, but they’re treating these visas as standard. This is not a standard situation. They have to solve this problem, hire more people or something.
“Ethan is very smart and he asks me a lot of questions. He always asks me when we are going to see Daddy. All the way I’m telling him every step we take is for him to see his Dad from him, but I’m out of answers.
Mr Majawala said: “It’s day 47 that I haven’t seen the kids, and day 18 I haven’t seen my wife. Nothing it getting solved here, so maybe the best way is to wait together, or just forget about the UK and wait it out in Poland in the hope that everything goes well and we can go back to our country.
“We all just want to be together. Now I’m thinking, what’s the plan B? I might just relocate back to Poland. There are refugee centers, people are offering homes. We will find something I guess.”
The father-of-two, who ran a small business with his wife in Kyiv, described the Home Office’s approach to family scheme visas as “awful”.
“You submit an application as a family, but they look at each member on an individual basis, disregarding the fact that they are traveling together. They disregard family ties. That’s the worst thing you could ever do given these times and circumstances,” he said.
“The Home Office needs to do better. It feels like my family is unwelcome. My mental health is not well right now. The only thing I need right now is to be with my family, my kids.
“I keep saying to myself it will just be a couple more days, but days have turned into weeks now. The tide is working against us […] If I don’t get anything by Wednesday, I’m leaving for Poland.”
A government spokesperson said: “In response to Putin’s barbaric invasion we have launched one of the fastest and biggest visa schemes in UK history. In just four weeks, over 40,000 visas have been issued so people can rebuild their lives in the UK through the Ukraine Family Scheme and Homes for Ukraine.
“We are continuing to speed up visa processing across both schemes, including boosting caseworkers and simplifying the forms and we expect thousands more to come through these uncapped routes.”