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‘Please help get my sister and her kids to safety’: Ukrainian teacher in Aberdeen fears Ukraine family visa system is failing

An Aberdeen woman whose sister had to hang up the phone as bomb blasts were heard near her Kyiv home is pleading with the UK government to help get her sibling and nephews out of Ukraine.

“The system – the Ukraine family visa scheme – just isn’t working. We are desperate.”

Mariya Pavlova, 30, is a primary teacher in Milltimber and lives in Aberdeen city centre. Since the war on Ukraine broke out on February 24 she has spent day and night trying to make sure her family can get to Aberdeen.

Fleeing to safety

“My mum and I have been in Scotland since 2003 and we have been British citizens since 2007. But my sister, her partner and her two children lived and worked in the Obolon region of Kyiv.

Mariya’s sister Valeriya is pictured with her sons Martin Semchuk, 16, left, and Misha, 12, shown far right. Her partner Vadim Shtovobonko is also pictured as they hid in a bomb shelter under an apartment block.

“Despite Putin’s claims that it’s an industrial area and a militarised zone we know it as the ‘sleeping area’ – it’s literally just a residential area full of blocks of flats.

“However, that didn’t stop the explosions. That night my sister had to cut her phone call short as she could hear shelling and bombs near by. She just said ‘I need to go’ and hung up the phone. I heard the bangs too. It was the worst night of my life wondering if I would ever speak to them again.”

Huddled together

Her sister, Valeriya Semchuk, is the lead stylist for Ukrainian TV channel 112. Her partner Vadim Shtovobonko runs his own business. They owned their apartment on the eight floor of a nine-storey building.

“The advice they got was to flee straight away. They have two boys, 16 and 12, and anything landing on such a block of flats would make their home unsafe.

Because they haven't been able to access help from the UK's Ukraine family visa scheme Mariya's family are still needing shelter in Ukraine.
Mariya’s nephews are pictured huddled together with one of 20 families sheltering under the home of a Ukrainian journalist.

“Initially they sheltered in a basement but eventually made their way to a village outside of Kyiv. From there her contacts in television put her in touch with a journalist who was letting 20 families shelter under his home.

“They were lucky they had a car. They’re currently in Lviv sleeping on the floor of a studio flat belonging to a local policeman.”

Ukraine family visa scheme

But the family feel very let down by the family visa system implemented by the UK Government.

“We were elated when we heard that family members of Ukrainians with British citizenship would be able to come over. But what should be so simple, and something full of compassion, is actually a complicated bureaucratic nightmare.”

Mariya and her mum fear the UK's Ukraine family visa scheme is failing.
Mariya Pavlova and her mother Lyudmyla Wilson.

According to the government website, the UK’s Ukraine Family Scheme allows family members of British nationals, UK settled persons and certain others to come to or stay in the UK.

However, while 17,700 applications have been started and 8,900 submitted, only 300 visas have been issued, according to the Home Office. And guidance on how to apply from within the UK still hasn’t been added to the website.

A screenshot from the UK government website showing that no guidance has been added for families trying to apply for the UK's Ukraine family visa scheme.
Still no guidance for families in the UK on how to apply from within Great Britain for the Ukraine family visa scheme, on the government website.

Furthermore, demand has meant it’s difficult to speak to someone using the advertised phone number and Mariya’s sister was informed by the British embassy in Lviv that no more applications are being considered.

‘Kiss your visas goodbye’

Lyudmyla, Mariya and Vaeriya’s mum is a retired scientist from the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen.

She said: “We were so confident in the system, particularly as the day war broke out my daughter had been given a visitor visa to come here for her sister’s wedding in April. The children and her partner were a day behind but everything was paid for.

“Sadly though, when we eventually got through to someone they didn’t have any answers, but after some days were told that if they got to Lviv they could pick up their visas at the British Embassy which had moved from Kyiv.

“However, when they got there they were told they had been lost.”

“No, the direct translation,” added Mariya, “was that they could kiss their visas goodbye.”

Spending wedding money

Since then the family has discovered that the UK’s Ukraine family visa scheme is completely overwhelmed. Not only are they unable to pick up the visitor visas, but they can’t get an appointment to apply for family visas either.

“They spent £500 on the visitor visas and we were told they can’t get a refund on that either. We’re now using the money that should have been to pay for my wedding, which is indefinitely postponed, to make sure they can stay somewhere safe,” Mariya added.

The family feel trapped, worrying that if they enter Poland they’ll forfeit the visitor visas for good with no guarantee they’ll get the family scheme visa.

Now, the two women who recently spoke at a peaceful protest in Aberdeen, are anxiously appealing to their MP and MSPs to remove some of the visa requirements to enable a quick and safe passage to the UK for war affected Ukrainians.

Please help us

“My nephews are absolutely suffering from PTSD. It’s not right that a teenager can recognise which type of bomb has been dropped, by the sound it makes.

“We just want them here, safe. We can support them. Because nobody is asking for anything other than our family, we feel like the system is failing.

Image of Ukrainian women holding anti war signs at a recent protest in Aberdeen.
Mariya, left with Mrs Lyudmyla Wilson, right, at the recent peaceful protest to support the people of Ukraine, in Aberdeen.

“It’s disappointing. It’s a lie to say the UK government is leading the world for its humanitarian efforts in Ukraine. That’s simply not true.”

Mrs Wilson added: “Please contact your MP, don’t give up. We can’t give up. Saying Russian-speaking Ukrainians are being oppressed is a lie. It’s not true that they want freedom. Most Ukrainians were living in peace enjoying a normal life.

“My sister is still in Kyiv and every night I say goodbye wondering if it will be the last.

“Please help us get Ukrainians – my daughter, her partner and my grandsons – to safety.”