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Ukraine invasion / ‘They make you feel at home’ – first Ukrainian refugees arrive in the isles

Scottish Government ‘super-sponsor’ scheme should make it possible for more Ukrainians to come to Scotland

Tatyana Safronova (left) and her son Serhii Vladimirov with their sponsors Helen and Tony Erwood at their home at Lunna, in Shetland. Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

AS FIGHTING in south eastern Ukraine is expected to further intensify, it is impossible to imagine what hardship and trauma the civilian population in the area must be going through.

More than 4.6 million people, mainly women and children, have left Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion six weeks ago. There are also several million Ukrainians displaced within their own country.

Most have chosen to seek refuge in neighbouring countries, mainly in Poland, and some have now started to arrive in Scotland, despite the bureaucratic hurdles imposed by the Home for Ukraine scheme.

Tatyana Safronova and her 14-year-old son Serhii Vladimirov were among the first to be flown to Scotland at the end of March, having been granted visas under the Home Office scheme.

They have found a home at Lunna House where Tony and Helen Erwood have been instrumental in making it all happen. In fact, it wouldn’t have happened without their tenacity and the help of Helen’s brother Steve who works in the Ukraine for a European aid agency.

Tatyana says that shortly after the start of hostilities her partner Oleksandr had implored her to leave their home city of Dnipro and take herself and their son Serhii to safety while there still was a chance to do so.

“He said it would be easier for him to serve in the army knowing that we are safe,” she told Shetland News – with a little help from Google Translate.

“There really was nowhere to go, no friends and relatives anywhere. I was left alone with Serhii, and I had to make some decisions. What to do next, and how to continue to live,” Tatyana says, as she describes the circumstances she found her herself in.

“I was scared. Then the wife of my husband’s brother, Irena, called me and said that her good friend Steve was ready to help a family from Ukraine. We were offered a trip to Scotland and told that we would be safe there.”

Showing solidarity with Ukraine. Photo: Shetland News

At that time Steve Tupper had just escaped from Kyiv and was trying to find a safe route for himself, the agency’s employees and their families to Lviv, the city closest to the Polish border.

Meanwhile in Shetland, Helen and Tony were watching in horror the growing refugee crisis unfolding on their television screens and knew they had to get involved. “We saw the awful news on the TV, and knew we had to do something to help,” Helen says.

So it was thanks to Steve that Tony and Helen could be ‘matched’ with Tatyana and Serhii, a pre-condition that has been widely criticised as “shameful” by international aid agencies and most European countries.

The UK is the only country in Europe where refugees require a visa to enter, a requisite that falls short of the UK’s obligations under the 1951 refugee convention, which gives refugees the right to enter any country even if it is against individual countries’ immigration rules.

Helen says that after having spent hours of filling in visa applications, which are in English with no Ukrainian translation available, she had “come away from it believing firmly that the Westminster government does not want Ukrainians coming to the UK”.

The Scottish Government has stepped in to act as a ‘super sponsor’ which removes the requirement for Ukrainian visa applicants to name a host. The matching process will now be carried out by the Scottish Government for refugees willing to come to Scotland.

The Erwoods are also making their Glasgow flat available to a young Ukrainian mother and her child who has been to the city during the COP26 climate conference last November.

Meanwhile, Tatyana and Serhii are trying to find their feet in a country they had no previous intention to visit and now are living on a group of islands they probably had never heard of.

“We feel like being children again, when you visit your relatives in the village. They feed us deliciously and are helping in all our questions; help you to understand everything and make you feel at home,” Tatyana sums up her feelings.

Serhii is still attending school in the Ukraine via online classes while arrangements have been made for him to join Brae High School as an exchange student after the Easter holidays.

This week, Shetland Islands Council will call along Lunna House to assess whether the accommodation is suitable and to hear what other services such as language lessons need to be provided.

This actually should have been done prior to any refugees arriving but with the Erwoods applying to the scheme the moment it went live on 18 March, the UK bureaucracy has been playing catch up ever since.

Council chief executive Maggie Sandison confirmed this week that there were several families in Shetland who had offered to host a Ukrainian family. Once a match is confirmed the council will be informed by the Home Office and be able to offer any help that may be required.

Since arriving in the isles, Tatyana has already been registered as an ‘islander’ with NorthLink and has been issued a leisure centre card, while Helen has been working the phone to get her registered for the Air Discount Scheme so that the family can benefit from cheaper flights when they have to travel south should they have to extend their initial six-month visa.

Tatyana has no idea for how long she and her son will stay in Lunna. And while it is clear they are looked after very well, it is equally obvious that no refugee wants to be a refugee, and that they would rather be at home.

More than 870,000 Ukrainians have returned since leaving their country, the UN confirmed this week.

“We certainly don’t know for how long we will be here”, the 36-year-old mother says. “I really hope that hostilities near our city will end. The Russians’ target is Donetsk, Luhansk and Mariupol. They are not very interested in Dnipro, at least not now.”

She says she is in regular contact with her husband Oleksandr who is currently undertaking training to join the Ukrainian army. “He reassures me that everything is fine with him and that all men in the unit are determined to win this war at any cost,” she says.

“I am shocked by the reasons given for this war. Calling it a ‘rescue operation’ is complete nonsense.

“Ukraine is a beautiful and free county that has its own problems, but a country in which everyone lives happily and plans their own future. I sincerely believe that this injustice will end and will not go unpunished.”

There is no doubt that the key for survival is to stay optimistic. Serhii was very interested in the idea of going to the UK, Tatyana explains, as it offers him new opportunities he hasn’t had before.

He also has plans to apply for a foreign language course at a high school for international relations in Dnipro. “We are optimistic”, she says with a smile, “and have signed up for the entry exams in July.”

But for now, though, they will be introduced to the delights that is Shetland Folk Festival later this month and have also just booked tickets for variety charity concert to raise funds for Ukraine, in the Sound Hall on Saturday, starting at 7 pm.

One of the organisers, Annalie Irvine of local band Odesa, said the band will exclusively be playing Ukrainian folk music, and she will also be performing a resistance song popular in the Ukraine at this very moment.

And Tatyana hopes she will be able to meet up with people from a budding Ukrainian community.