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'The world is gray': the heartbreaking story of a Ukrainian refugee trying to survive with her children in London

Olga fled from the Russian occupation. Now in London, she is struggling to find a job and get her two children into school. TheGuardian.

Photo: Shutterstock

When Russian tanks entered the Ukrainian city of Kherson, Olga fled with her children and her cat Venus. The family traveled across the Polish border, through Germany and Sweden, before arriving in London. Now she faces another problem: bureaucracy.

“I am perplexed by the inefficiency of the authorities”

When Olga and her children were fleeing the war, she dreamed of a place where they would not hear the bombs and would not live in fear of being killed by the Russians. “So, on the one hand, we have reached our goal and should be happy, but it is not always so easy or simple,” she says. – Firstly, we lived for weeks under Russian occupation. Then we traveled around Europe while waiting for a British visa. Now we are faced with the daunting task of settling in Britain, which has puzzled me.”

“I burst into tears in the hallway of the hostel”

When they arrived in Brussels to take the Eurostar to London, they told us: “Sorry, cats are not allowed”. Animals are not allowed on the train, not even goldfish. They were told to go to Holland or France and take a ferry or bus instead. Olga tried again and again to call the ferry company, but no one answered.

On the subject: The war in Ukraine caused a new wave of emigration from Russia to the United States: who are these people and why are they unlikely to get along with those who left Russia long ago

Everything was closed in Calais, but a woman Olga met on the street said 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 there, 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, ”Olga said about such an unrealistic coincidence.

“You need a European passport, with stars, for a cat,” she told Olga. “Otherwise, they won’t let you on the ferry.”
After Olga applied, no one was able to tell her how long she would have to wait. Maybe tomorrow, maybe in five days, no one knew. The uncertainty about whether they could actually go to London, and if so, when, completely baffled Olga. She burst into tears in the hallway of the hostel.

The veterinarian suggested that the cat be given blood tests to check for the presence of antibodies and expedite the obtaining of a cat “visa”. They offered this service for free, but Venus is no ordinary cat. After many tries and many scratches, they told her she needed to be sedated.

“After this visit, I cried all day, while Venus peacefully dozed off in her stroller,” Olga said.

After numerous calls and letters to the British Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), the family finally received paperwork and permission to travel to the UK.

"My kids are very lonely"

One of the first questions Olga asked the local council was about the school. Her children have not been able to study since the war began on 24 February. She imagined that her 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. She was sent a page with a list of schools, but choosing from the list what you know nothing about is not easy.

“We started going to schools in the neighborhood, but we were refused. Several times I turned to the council for help. Getting the children to school is now my main task,” says Olga.

“Some schools offer to wait until September to see if they have places, but my children are very lonely, they cannot talk with their peers, they cannot integrate,” the woman laments.

“Finally my daughter received a letter. It was a card with a clear inscription in capital letters: "Work is allowed." World has gone mad? After five weeks of waiting, the 12-year-old received not a school entry, but a work permit,” says Olga.

The situation with the school has an indirect impact on Olga's ability to find a job. Job center staff know that her children won't go to school until September and she won't be able to work until that time. She has three diplomas in various specialties, and the employees of the employment center advised her to apply for a job as a cleaner or stacker at Tesco.

"The world is just gray"

It would seem, as Olga says, that the system should work according to the 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 hitches and some kind of time limits. Instead of the supposed “a couple of days,” as the woman says, the wait becomes without a definite end point.

“If I had come to London a year ago, I would have been fascinated by its beauty and architecture, but now I don't feel anything. The world is just grey. Every morning is a struggle to get out of bed. Then I remember that I have so many things to do with my children. Permanent forms, writing emails, attending meetings,” says Olga.

If she has a free day, she tries to find Ukrainian books (she visits the library, but there are no books in her language) or visits 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 off communication for people in Kherson and I couldn't talk to my family. But now the Internet is restored, you can talk. I send photos of grandchildren. In exchange, they send me a photo of a burned-out car near their house. She was shot with people inside for violating the curfew,” the woman says.

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She becomes more and more disillusioned with forced idleness.

“There is no comfort to be found 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 various demonstrations, help with translations and raise money for the war effort. It’s volunteer work so I don’t get paid, but as long as I can’t work, that’s all I can do to help my people,” she says.

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