School worker Ginny Parkes, 43, is one of many volunteers across the UK willing to sponsor a visa for Ukrainian refugees with an offer of accommodation, but has so far been left frustrated.
As required by the Home Office, she is linked to a particular applicant, Svetlana, and her two young daughters, who are currently journeying to a refugee shelter in Romania after escaping their home in Kharvkiv.
Ginny said: “It’s something we talked about at great length as a family. We don’t think it will be an easy thing to do, but it is the right thing to do.
“It’s a situation where you can feel completely helpless, we felt a real desire and need to do something. We’re blessed to have spare rooms. It’s a good way to teach the children about empathy, compassion and helping people in their hour of need.”
Ginny and Svetlana found each other via a Facebook group matching refugees and potential hosts all over Europe.
Ginny, from Chapel Milton, said: “We put an advert up for our family and Svetlana replied with a post about hers, saying they were looking for somewhere in the UK.
“We had 140 other families contact us, but I think because we both have daughters around the same age, it seemed a good match. Her youngest, Evelina, turned eight this week, which feels horrific given the circumstances. They’ve had some English lessons, it’s their only second language, so Svetlana thought the UK might be the easiest place to adapt.
“We’ve been messaging every day, sharing photos and telling each other about our families and situations. Our children have been talking too.”
Svetlana and her daughters initially travelled to stay with family in the city of Chernivtsi as it was away from the frontline fighting.
Ginny said: “Their apartment complex was hit by a shell, and they spent six days in a shelter in Kharkiv until they couldn’t stand it any longer. Her husband stayed behind.”
With many Ukrainians now fearing the possible use of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, Svetlana feels compelled to leave the country altogether in search of safety.
Their desperation is weighing heavily on Ginny – unable to offer concrete hope on when they might be able to travel to the UK.
She said: “If the Home Office said it would take four weeks, I’d tell Svetlana to get to France and we’d get her an Airbnb, but how can I encourage her to leave where she is without any guarantee.”
That is not the only problem Ginny has had with the visas, which she is managing on the family’s behalf.
Ginny said: “I started working on it the day the scheme opened. When it went live, the forms were still saying that the application was for people to bring over family members, and that the visas would need to be collected from a centre in Poland.
“You have to complete separate applications for each person, rather than a family, but each application has to reference the others, which means you are putting in all the same information again and again. It sends you round in circles.
“Then there was a section which required you to upload digital evidence, I had photos of their passports but the system would only accept PDF files. In another place, you need to show consent from both parents.”
She added: “Bearing in mind that most people doing this will be on their phone in a shelter or refugee camp, in a distressed state and separated from loved ones, instantly many of them will fail.”
After submitting the applications Ginny realised that she had made an error only when reading about other sponsors’ frustrating experiences – but there was no way to edit or withdraw what she had done, so she began all over again.
With two sets of applications now lodged with the Home Office, Ginny is terrified the duplication may disqualify Svetlana and her daughters – and so far she has been unable to find anyone to set her mind at ease.
Ginny said: “I tried contacting the office of our MP, Robert Largan, and they provided a phone number, which then referred me back to the website.
“The former MP, Ruth George, provided a number for another helpline, but the person who answered could only apologise as he had no access to any systems and had only been trained the day before. He thought it was a complete joke the way we were treating people in a warzone, and just wished me luck.”
While Ginny and Svetlana now face an anxious wait, Mr Largan says his office has now taken up the issue.
He said: “Unfortunately, there has been a delay with this case because Ms Parkes made a mistake with the initial application. However, the Home Office have assured me it is being processed as a matter of urgency.
“Hundreds of thousands of British people have signed up to the scheme and, obviously, this takes time to process. Ukrainians arriving in the UK will go through security checks and sponsors will also need to undergo necessary DBS checks. I am sure people can appreciate that such safeguarding is needed, as there is a danger of vulnerable Ukrainians being exploited by criminal gangs, including sex-traffickers.”
He added: “Together with several other Conservative MPs, I wrote to the Prime Minister last month to call for the Government to urgently put in place a flexible, pragmatic and compassionate policy for Ukrainians seeking temporary refuge in the UK.
“In the meantime, the Government have sent over £400millon in humanitarian aid to help those Ukrainians who have fled over the border to countries like Poland and Slovakia. We’ve also sent humanitarian experts, including doctors to help provide immediate support on the ground.”