‘I locked my flat in tears’: The diary of one Ukrainian refugee’s two-week journey to the UK
With just a suitcase, 72-year-old Luba Bilko began a two-week journey, braving British bureaucracy and bathroom floors, to reach her family in the UK. Here, she and her daughter Lana document the ordeal.
They face an impossible choice: stay, endure the shells and missiles, and hope home will still be there when the treaties are signed. Or flee, grabbing a bag with just the clothes they could carry, and make for sanctuary.
Almost three million people in Ukraine have chosen the latter, making their way beyond the country’s borders. One of those who fled is 72-year-old Luba Bilko. She left her home near Kyiv, hoping she would be able to quickly join her daughter, Lana, in London.
But it turned into a terrifying two-week odyssey, with Luba sleeping on floors and passing between countries as she was left in the dark. In the UK, Lana struggled to access help.
Their incredible testimony recalls a battle with bureaucracy, frustration with politicians’ promises, and the suffering of a mum trying to join her daughter.
Thursday February 24
Russia began its invasion in the early hours of Thursday. Soon after, Luba is on the phone with Lana, who is screaming: “get out of there NOW.”
Luba: Our town, Korosten, is just a few miles from a military base.
Heavy military flights were flying over my head. There was panic on the streets, and people were queuing for hours to get food, medicines and money from the bank.
In November I fell and broke my vertebrae. Just two weeks ago I had my gallbladder removed. I couldn’t lift anything heavy after the operation so I packed a very small bag in a hurry.
I locked my flat in tears. I didn’t know if I could ever get back there, or even if it will still be there.
At midday, my daughter’s friend and her son started driving us towards the border with Poland at Zosin.
Friday February 25
Luba: The journey to the border should have taken five hours, but it took us 12.
Everywhere there were lots of tanks – on the roads, and in the forests alongside the road. It was very scary.
The queue to cross the border was hardly moving. We managed less than two miles in 10 hours.
We decided to leave the car and try to walk the rest and cross by foot. But at the border we were told that there was no crossing by foot.
After waiting for two hours in the freezing, windy weather we got on a bus taking people from the Donbas region. It was full of women with crying kids, and only had standing space. It took us seven hours to pass the Ukrainian and Polish passport controls.
Lana was calling every half an hour.
Saturday February 26
As the invasion continues, Boris Johnson appears at a Ukrainian church in London to announce that only Ukrainians with “immediate family members” in the UK will be able to gain visas.
Luba: By midnight we were finally in Poland. We hadn’t slept or eaten for 36 hours, so we got a lift to a hotel in Lublin.
Lana: I had relaxed a bit as mum was in a safe country. I got news the military base near our town had been bombed by Russians, with lots of casualties.
I called the Home Office hotline to get information on how to bring my mum to the UK – only to find out “immediate family” doesn’t include parents, only children and spouses.
I called again to be told she needs to apply for a general visitor visa which includes lots of paperwork, waiting for up to six weeks, and of course money.
I’d been calling and emailing Boris Johnson, our local MP, for guidance and information.
Sunday February 27
Luba: I was still in Poland, where lots of kind Polish people were helping us. My daughter’s friend’s daughter lives in Germany, so I was thinking of going there – but she has four children so it could be tight.
Lana: I called the Home office hotline twice. Again, I was told to apply for a general visitor visa.
The third time, crying on the phone, the woman advised us to get my mum to the country illegally and ask for asylum. I was absolutely shocked, crying, and feeling absolutely hopeless.
Luba: I reached Germany and was staying with the family with four children in Düsseldorf. They had a small flat, and I was sleeping on the floor next to the bathroom. Lana said that she will come and get me in a couple of days.
Tuesday March 1
Priti Patel announces the Ukraine Family Scheme, with 100,000 expected to be eligible, as long as they are family members of Ukrainians living in the UK. Unlike the EU, where visas have been waived for those fleeing the war, refugees must undergo security checks before being granted a visa.
Luba: The family was very nice, but there were only three bedrooms and eight of us. Their next-door neighbour found me a hostel so I could have my own bed.
Lana: I tried to drive to the supermarket and had a mental breakdown. I called my husband to pick me up as I couldn’t drive home. All the rest of the day I cried, feeling hopeless. I didn’t know what to do.
The people on the hotline still knew nothing about how to apply, despite Priti Patel explaining in detail about a new scheme. They were still telling me to apply for a visitor’s visa.
I finally got an email from Boris Johnson’s case worker – he was advising my mum to “apply for a visa” and “make herself known to the visa centre”.
Wednesday March 2
Luba: I was not happy at the hostel. There were drunk people living there and I felt scared sometimes. I kept calling Lana but she wasn’t answering my calls.
Lana: Mum kept calling me and asking when I could bring her to the UK. I didn’t want to answer the phone as I didn’t have anything positive to tell her.
I called the hotline four times but they still didn’t know anything. They were still saying to apply for a visitor visa – costing £600.
Luba: I had left home exactly a week ago, and had no clothes to change into and not much money left for food. I can’t speak German, so I didn’t know what to do. The hostel was absolutely horrible and I was scared to leave my room.
Lana: Mum was crying on the phone, asking me why I forced her to leave, saying she would rather be in Ukraine, even if she died. She didn’t care any more.
She was getting more and more depressed. I didn’t know what else I could do to help her. All my emails, calls, tweets to Boris Johnson and Priti Patel went unanswered.
I still couldn’t go to work and had hardly slept or eaten.
Friday March 4
The Ukraine Family Scheme goes live. Refugees must apply for an appointment at a Visa Application Centre, and travel there to complete biometric security checks.
Luba: I felt very weak. I’d hardly eaten anything in the last eight days. I felt suicidal: why had I left my home to be in a strange environment and strange country? I was crying all the time. Lana got me a hotel, so hopefully there would only be a few more days left.
Lana: I was so desperate to apply for a visa and get my mum here that I stayed awake till midnight in the hope the application page would go live then. I kept refreshing and refreshing, but by 8am there was nothing. I went to sleep for a couple of hours, woke up, and kept refreshing.
Eventually the scheme opened at 1.30pm. I managed to apply and got the first appointment on Monday, March 7. I told my mum we will be going home on Monday.
Thinking back to Priti Patel saying it will take a couple of hours to get a decision, I was hoping my mum could be with me by the end of the weekend.
Saturday March 5
Lana: I flew to Germany to be with my mum. When I arrived, I could hardly recognise her. She had lost so much weight since she left Ukraine, and was in a very deep depression.
Monday March 7
By Monday, just 300 visas had been issued under the Ukraine Family Scheme.
Luba: I didn’t sleep as I was very worried about my appointment. What if I got refused? What am I going to do? Where can I go then?
Lana: Our appointment was at 9am, but we got there at 8.30am.
The official at the visa centre told me they were sending everything to the UK by courier. After the Home Office received everything and made the decision, they would send the visa back to Germany. As this scheme is fast tracked it usually takes approximately five days.
I was shocked – what happened to Priti’s promise of “within hours”?
My mum said she was not staying there any more and she was going back to Ukraine. She didn’t care any more if she got killed.
Tuesday March 8
Lana: We stayed in the hotel all day. We were sleeping, eating, and cuddling each other.
Luba: Even though there was uncertainty about my situation, I felt much more secure with my daughter there.
Wednesday March 9
Lana: We got an email saying the visa has arrived and the passport will be ready later on. By the time we got hold of the visa, plane tickets were over £600 each.
Thursday March 10
Two weeks after the invasion began, Luba and Lana are finally able to return to the UK. The same day, in a U-turn, Priti Patel announces refugees can apply for visas entirely online.
Luba: The woman at the airport check-in was tearful when she saw my Ukrainian passport. She was asking me if she could do anything else so I could feel comfortable.
Lana: When we landed at Heathrow the border control officer was very nice and explained everything. My husband, Dave, was waiting with flowers.
Dave: When mum saw me she just fell into my arms and broke down in tears. I said: “Everything is fine mum, you are safe, you are here with us, you don’t need to worry about anything any more”.
Luba: Exactly two weeks to the minute since I had left my home in Ukraine, I got to my new home. After all the uncertainty, I had a bath and a shower. Lana took me shopping to buy some clothes.
Now at their home in Uxbridge, some normality is returning for Lana, Dave, and Luba. They all worry for Ukraine, but are glad to be able to sleep and recover after their experience.
Luba is still stressed and worried, but doing better. She does not know whether she will be able to return to Ukraine, and speaks daily to her friends who stayed behind.