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I'm a Ukrainian who fled to the UK. This is what the journey was like, from fighting for a visa to waiting 23 hours at the border.

Maria Romanenko   

I'm a Ukrainian who fled to the UK. This is what the journey was like, from fighting for a visa to waiting 23 hours at the border.
  • Maria Romanenko and her British boyfriend fled Ukraine after the Russian invasion.
  • She managed to travel to the UK when she obtained a visa waiver.

When my partner Jez woke me up early on February 24 to tell me my country had been bombed, and that we needed to get up, pack, and leave the country, I struggled to believe him.

We had left Podil, the hipster district of Kyiv where we lived, the night before and stayed at my father's house, 17 miles outside of the city center, as a precaution. We planned to head west to Lviv, stay overnight, then make a dash for the Polish border.

My dad is fighting as part of the Territorial Defense Forces. He was always firm that he would defend Ukraine if needed. My brother must stay because no men between 18 and 60 can leave the country. My mum decided to stay with my brother and his wife.

I was reluctant to flee. I didn't want to leave my friends, family, and life behind, but Jez was adamant we should go.

In hindsight, it was the right decision to leave, but you don't always see things clearly when you're so emotionally invested.

My father drove us to Lviv. It took us 10 hours, double the usual time.

We saw hour-long queues at petrol stations that still had stock, and lines snaking out of supermarkets.

We managed to get fuel en route but staff weren't letting anyone buy anything other than gas and water to keep the line moving swiftly.

I'm a journalist, and I spent the car ride getting back-to-back requests from other journalists for interviews.

I was thankful to be doing them. It kept my mind busy, even when I saw military trucks, which I'd only seen before in parades, heading the other way toward Kyiv.

My father dropped us just outside Lviv and we took a taxi to a friend's house. The driver said we were his final trip before he joined the army the next day.

Early the next morning, the friend in Lviv offered to drive us to the Polish border. The drive should only take an hour and 15 minutes but took six hours.

Ten miles from the border, traffic came to a standstill, and we had to travel 60 miles to find another crossing. We were only let through to the pedestrian crossing because my partner showed a security guard his UK passport.

There, we queued another 23 hours in below-freezing temperatures and with no access to food, drink, or a bathroom. Any time anyone could push a few inches closer to the barrier, they did.

The crushing made it hard to breathe, with some people collapsing or fainting. The pushing led to fights, while mothers with young children cried out to be given priority.

After finally making it through, and into the welcoming arms of an army of volunteers, I began to think about our next move.

I could stay in Poland but my partner couldn't. We decided to head for England.

We traveled to the British Embassy in Warsaw

I've visited the UK a few times since I finished my studies there eight years ago, so I was used to applying for the visitor visa I knew I'd need.

We traveled from Krakow, where we had been recovering, to visit the British Embassy in Warsaw.

Upon arrival, the embassy was busy and had a lot of security in place. We later found out that Boris Johnson was scheduled to arrive for a meeting and a press conference.

We spoke with the embassy staff and explained the situation with the visa. They said they would look into it. My boyfriend's MP's office also called the UK's Home Office.

It transpired that while the visa had passed the initial checks and been "granted," nobody really knew or could tell us where the physical copy was. The document-tracking system said it needed to be redirected to another center as I was no longer in Kyiv.

Perhaps it was in Kyiv, where the center was now closed, or in Lviv, where a skeleton staff remained, I still don't know. At the time, we were informed that it couldn't be reissued and I might have to reapply for a new one, which would have been nearly impossible without key documents I had left behind.

Throughout the day, journalists who'd interviewed us were calling the Home Office, asking for an update on our visa for articles they were writing.

Late in the afternoon, we received a call from the embassy — the Home Office was prepared to grant a waiver that would allow me to travel without physical proof I had the visa. There is no documentation, just a note on the systems in the UK and with the company we were flying with that I had the waiver. It could only be used on the exact flight from Krakow to Manchester we booked for the next day.

But at check-in, the Ryanair desk agent couldn't find our visa waiver on the system

Our hearts sank.

She checked again. Still nothing, despite the embassy's assurances it would be there.

Her colleague however had noticed that a waiver was on the system and had simply been missed by the desk agent. A ticket was issued.

Upon arrival, we went to the immigration desk to explain I was traveling on a visa waiver.

We had to wait for several hours while the UK Border Force confirmed with the Home Office that the visa waiver was legitimate, which we had been told might happen.

We were also joined for a period by two suited middle-aged men from the counterterrorism police, and having answered some basic questions about our journey, they were satisfied I wasn't a terrorist.

Apparently, they were speaking to every Ukrainian entering the country.

We were finally allowed to pass through. My passport is still bare, but I have been told that I can stay until August 25, the standard six months after the visitor visa has been granted.

The visa comes with a number of restrictions. I cannot work, or use the NHS, or access benefits.

My lawyer, who was provided for free through a local initiative, hopes we can convert the visitor visa into a family visa

That would let me reside, work, use the NHS, and claim any benefits for three years.

For Ukrainians without family here, they have to use the recently announced scheme, which gives Ukrainians the ability to live and work in the UK for an initial period of 12 months, if they can find a sponsor.

There are currently no plans to introduce visa-free access to the UK for Ukrainians fleeing the war, a position which is out of step with every other country in mainland Europe.

Once I get my visa, I'll look for work as a journalist here, while continuing to volunteer and advocate on behalf of Ukraine and Ukrainians.

I'm no fighter, I'd be useless with a gun, but as a writer I can bring the stories of others to wider attention.

And one day, soon, I will return to a free Ukraine and a free Kyiv. Putin will be defeated. And I can't wait.


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