Belsize Park man's journey to rescue Ukrainian disabled grandmother
- Credit: Viktor Ieromin
A Belsize Park man has told of "extraordinary generosity" and "wasted days" while trying to rescue his disabled grandmother from war-torn Ukraine.
Viktor Ieromin convinced his 72-year-old Babushka Halyna Larina to leave Kyiv but it took eight days instead of three to get her safely back to the UK.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine began on February 24.
Viktor, who will be telling his story at an event at Fellowship House in Hampstead Garden Suburb on Sunday, got Halyna out of the capital Kyiv on March 10 but it was not until March 18 that she reached UK soil after tackling the challenges of the visa system.
She is currently staying in Devon with a friend of Viktor, but will soon be joining her son in his one-bedroom flat in Haverstock Hill.
"It was all very hectic," said Viktor, who flew to Poland on March 10 having booked a visa appointment for Halyna the following day.
"Originally she did not want to leave, saying: 'If I die I die...'
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"It took me a while to persuade her to go. She didn't want to leave her business selling clothes in the market or go into the shelters which were full of people."
But things were getting worse, the Russians were dropping bombs and his friends were risking their lives to help her get the medication she needed as she suffers from osteoporosis of the spine and knees.
"She had a call from the [local] church, and was told she had half an hour to pack her things and take a bus to the train station for direct transit to Chelm, in south-east Poland," said Viktor.
"The trains were packed like sardines. Her church had agreed with the drivers that the disabled and elderly could board the trains at the depot, otherwise they wouldn't stand a chance.
"They were in darkness, told to close the blinds and switch off their mobile phones to not attract attention as they were travelling through many checkpoints, some Russian controlled, which could be dangerous.
"I think it was a day later, one of the conductors died because they just opened fire."
Viktor had taken a flight to Lublin and a taxi to Chelm where he picked up his mother and returned to a hostel near Lublin airport.
The following day they took a taxi to the visa appointment in Rzeszow, three hours away, and were told they would receive a text message when the visa was processed.
They received a message three days later, and were told the visa had actually been processed the day after their visit.
"All that time wasted," said Viktor.
They had to travel to Warsaw to get it printed in the passport because the Rzeszow office did not have the necessary equipment.
In Warsaw they joined "about 200 people" queuing for visas to be placed in passports.
"My grandmother was sitting next to a woman who had come the day before. That's when I started panicking. Parents were called but not their children, or children and not their parents. There was no queue, no order at all. They just scooped the passports, it was like roulette, just whoever was called.
"I was relieved when my grandmother was called four hours later. It was 6pm by then and we were starving as we hadn't had lunch. You couldn't leave the queue in case they called your name.
"We flew out the following day, on March 18."
In an extraordinary piece of luck, a Polish couple Viktor had approached for advice at Luton airport on his outward journey, lived in Rzeszow.
"Me and my babushka were invited into their home. Marcin and Agnieszka let us stay in their flat while they stayed with his parents. It was the most extraordinary hospitality."
He added: "She's still a bit traumatised by the things that are happening in Ukraine and also worried about the place where she lives and whether it's safe or not.
"She's finding it very difficult to adapt to this British environment and standards."
He said he has a sofa bed in his living room where his mother will sleep.
"She needs access to a doctor. She has osteoporosis of the spine and knee, and was due to have surgery but Covid came and then the war."
Viktor, who is starting a new consultant post at Price Waterhouse Cooper in September, said: "We have to figure out the benefits she's entitled to. It's about juggling everything."
A government spokesperson said: “In response to Putin’s barbaric invasion we launched one of the fastest and biggest visa schemes in UK history.
"Over 86,000 visas have been issued so Ukrainians can live and work in the UK.
“The changes the Home Office has made to streamline the visa system, including simplifying the forms and boosting staff numbers, are working and we are now processing visas as quickly as they come in – enabling thousands more Ukrainians to come through our uncapped routes.”
Viktor will be telling his story at a fundraising Song of Hope concert on Sunday (May 1), at the Fellowship House, Willifield Way, Hampstead Garden Suburb, hosted by The Garden Choir. The evening, at 7.30pm, is hosted by Gordon Griffin OBE.