Refuge in the dales

Refugees from war-ravaged Ukraine are finally finding sanctuary in UK homes. Despite hold-ups in the system. Roger Ratcliffe tells the story of one such family now living in the Yorkshire Dales

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For sisters Natalia Kovalevska and Iryna Chopko, when the first glimmers of daylight spread over the Ukrainian city of Lviv on the morning of Friday 18 March they were about to begin the nightmare they had been dreading for weeks. What followed was a sequence of events that over the weekend would see them flee the most brutal conflict in Europe since World War Two.

A couple of days later, still traumatised by leaving everything behind, they would find themselves walking beside the tranquil daffodil-decked stream that runs through the centre of Clapham, one of the prettiest villages in the Yorkshire Dales.

They came from an apartment block on the west side of Lviv. Both schoolteachers, the sisters had felt a duty to ignore the war that began with Russia’s invasion on 23 February and continued taking classes for their students.

“The British bureaucracy around visas is so slow, like turning round a giant oil tanker.”

The apartment’s windows overlooked Danylo Halytski International Airport, which after Kyiv’s is the second largest in Ukraine. They knew it was an important strategic target in the war. Every night they and Kovalevska’s children, Maxim, 15, and Anastasia, 11, had gone to bed fully clothed, ready to grab their bags, already packed with a few essentials, in case the devastation suffered by other parts of Ukraine finally came to Lviv.

And then it did. They had got used to hearing air raid sirens and being terrified, wondering what was about to happen. They had seen on TV the devastation wreaked by Russia on other Ukrainian cities. But until 18 March Lviv had escaped damage thanks to the Ukrainian military’s air defence systems shooting down numerous missiles. Speaking with the help of the phone app Collins Talk & Translate, Kovalevska, 37, says now: “I kept expecting a missile to hit. I always lived in stress and tension. We were constantly thinking we might have to go down to the apartment block’s basement to hide. It was very hard.”

And so on that Friday, when dawn was breaking over Lviv 350 miles to the west of Kyiv, the sirens sounded once again. But this time they had no opportunity to make it down to the basement. In quick succession there were four deafening explosions, and fireballs erupted from the airport. The Russians had fired six cruise missiles from a naval vessel on the Black Sea, and while two were destroyed by anti-aircraft missiles four of them blew up a military aircraft maintenance facility at the airport.

It was the moment the sisters were praying would never come. The war had arrived within full view of the apartment. In that single moment, they decided to leave everything behind.

Their mother, Nadia, had previously contacted Tony Walker, a retired Bradford policeman now living in Clapham. He was the husband of her late cousin Maria, and later that day as the two sisters and Kovalevska’s children boarded a train bound for the Polish capital Warsaw, Walker – after receiving a WhatsApp message from Nadia telling him they were on their way – began the process of arranging UK visas.

They were among well over four million Ukrainians driven out by the war since late February. The UK has been criticised for its slow response to admitting refugees, and many have found it hard to untangle the red tape around visa applications. The latest figure for those being granted visas through the UK’s Ukraine Family Scheme, in which family members like Walker offer accommodation, is 24,400, but so far not many have managed to make the journey.

Back in Lviv, every carriage on the train was packed, with many passengers standing as it left for Warsaw at 6pm. When it pulled into Warsaw Centralna Station in the early hours they were met by a sister who lives there.

Meanwhile, Walker was not finding the visa application procedure easy. While the sisters and children were on the train he was struggling to fill in forms online. It took 12 hours of continuously sitting with his laptop at the kitchen table of his modern detached house in Clapham, only to find he had made mistakes on each one and would have to start again.

“The British bureaucracy around visas is so slow, like turning round a giant oil tanker,” he says. “And finding out how to make the applications correctly required a lot of to-ing and fro-ing on WhatsApp. The process took me the rest of the weekend.

“Finally, the forms were accepted and, much quicker than I had expected I was emailed a document called a letter of permission. I sent it to the girls so they could put it on their phones. That was sufficient evidence, apparently. To get over here all they needed now were their passports and £23 Ryanair tickets from Warsaw to Leeds-Bradford. Within 24 hours they were leaving a war zone and coming to the peaceful Yorkshire Dales. Then it suddenly struck me – I now have responsibility for four people from Ukraine.”

Outwardly, they appear to have settled well in Clapham, where another resident has put up a Ukrainian flag in their honour. However, they look a little out of place in their city clothes as they walk Walker’s King Charles spaniel Levko (Ukrainian for Little Lion). Most of the village’s visitors are walkers with rucksacks and trekking poles ready to tackle nearby Ingleborough, one of the Three Peaks, and potholers attracted to the vast labyrinth of underground caves linked to spectacular Gaping Gill, one of the largest potholes in the UK.

It is clear they are unable to relax. Their mother and father declined to leave Lviv, their brother is now part of the Ukrainian armed forces, and many friends have been left behind. They have learned that one of them, a priest in the town of Volnovakha, 40 miles from the besieged port of Mariupol, has been killed by Russian forces.

Sitting in Walker’s kitchen, Kovalevska and Chopko constantly check social media on their phones for any news. Fighting back tears at one point, Kovalevska says: “It is very difficult, really scary, because missiles are being fired everywhere now. On the train to Poland we met a woman with two children who had lost everything. She didn’t know where she was going – just wanted to get as far away from the war as possible.”

Using Walker’s old computer and a new one he recently bought, Maxim and Anastasia are receiving daily online school lessons from Ukraine, beginning at seven in the morning and lasting until lunchtime. Afternoons have been spent exploring the village or visiting the nearby town of Settle.

Adjusting to English food hasn’t been easy. At home they eat meals more often but with much smaller servings, and they were amazed at the large portions of fish and chips that arrived on their plates when Walker took them to sample a traditional English meal at Settle’s chippy, The Fisherman.

In the past week a trickle of other Ukrainian refugees have arrived in the North, but those who arranged their visas echo Walker’s words about the difficult process involved.

Brian Read, a manager with the Highways Agency, whose wife Nataliya is from Kyiv, has succeeded in obtaining visas for seven family members from Ukraine, including his mother-in-law, and they are now living with him in Hartford, near Northwich, in Cheshire.

“The problems are utterly ridiculous,” he says. “The application forms are so complex. And there are questions like ‘have you ever committed an act of genocide?’ and ‘are you a terrorist?’ I mean, these are on a form I’m filling in for a one year old boy.”

In Clapham, Walker’s guests are clear that although they love the peace and quiet, the village is a temporary safe haven. Chopko says: “We very much want to return, if all goes well, and help the country to rebuild. We are true patriots and very sorry to be so far away.”

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