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'I miss home so much': Ukrainian refugee on life in UK two years into Russia's bloody war

Luba Bilko endured a gruelling journey to get to the UK. Now she dreams of a return home

Ukrainian refugee Luba Bilko, who fled her home near Kyiv in February 2022

Luba still speaks to friends and family in Ukraine, who live with constant danger and missile sirens. Image: Supplied

As war broke out, Luba Bilko packed a suitcase and left her home near Kyiv. During her gruelling two-week journey she slept on floors, battled bureaucracy, and passed through countries, eventually reaching her daughter Lana in London. Two years on, as the anniversary of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine comes around, she is learning English, adapting to the UK, but like tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees, dreaming of a return home.

“My home is still in one piece for now but lots of buildings in my area have been destroyed or damaged and many people left homeless without their hard earned possessions,” she says.

She speaks to friends and family regularly, hearing stories of children sleeping in baths most nights while missile sirens blare. 

“Lots of people who left Ukraine had to come back as it was very difficult for them to integrate as they didn’t know anyone, and also the language barrier,”  she says.

“Life in Ukraine is very difficult, there’s no happiness anymore.”

Were Luba to flee today, she wouldn’t be able to come to the UK in the same way. Her route is no longer available – this week, with the anniversary looming, the government quietly scrapped the Ukraine Family Scheme.

“Despite a very warm welcome I miss my home so much and as soon as the war is over, or safe to return I will be on the plane back home,” Luba says.

“It is very sad to see how Russians, who we always considered as our friends, are slowly destroying our country and lives.”

Bureaucracy delayed her path, with uncertainty over whether she would be allowed to enter the UK. It took over a week for then-home secretary Priti Patel to announce the Ukraine Family Scheme.

Lana Bilko and her mother Luba. Image: Supplied

As of 20 February, 56,900 Ukrainians have joined their families in the UK under that scheme. Of those, 38,700 have applied for an extension, unable to return home.

“The West has been very helpful with everything they can help with but it is very shame that most of the time it is very slow due to bureaucracy,” she says.

“But overall we are very grateful to the government for allowing us to stay safe, and to the people here who make us feel comfortable and are very welcoming and hospitable.”

Ukrainian refugees without family in the UK often arrived under another visa scheme, the Homes for Ukraine scheme, which required host families to sponsor them. However, MPs on the Public Accounts Committee have warned that many are at risk of homelessness as relationships between hosts and guests break down. Dame Meg Hillier, the committee’s chair, warned that the government risked having little idea of the extent of the crisis.

Back in Ukraine, Luba hears how children are sleeping in bath tubs. Image: Supplied

Whether Luba can return home any time soon depends, in large part, on the support given to Ukraine by its allies. But this has wavered. UK foreign secretary David Cameron has been drawn into a row with US congressional representatives – one even told him to “kiss my ass” – after uncertainty over whether the United States would pass a bill containing new funding for the country.

Donald Trump, who hopes to regain the White House, has pressured Republicans to block the funding, which would represent millions in military aid.

“We all can’t believe that such a powerful country as America, who have been known for their humanity, always helping the countries that are in difficulties, could fall into a trap of Russia’s influence in politics, who are trying to block support for the country in need,” says Luba.

“Donald Trump is well known as a friend of Putin so it’s not surprising about his comments.“

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