Ukraine-Russia: 'Every night, I still dream of the bomb shelter', says teenage refugee living in Scotland

Three weeks ago, teenager Varvara Shevtsova was living in a bomb shelter in a metro station close to her home in Kyiv.

"The bomb shelter was the best choice,” says Ms Shevtsova, an 18-year-old social work student.

“However, it wasn't so well equipped for the first couple of days. We slept on the floor and we didn't have enough food and water. And there were two-and-a-half hour queues for the toilet. I almost fainted many, many times.”

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This week Ms Shevtsova moved to the coastal town of Montrose in Angus, where she has just taken a walk with her host “mother”, retired teacher Catriona Smart, who with her husband, Harry, has become one of the first Scottish families to take in a refugee under the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

Varvara Shevtsova, from Kyiv, takes her first selfie with her Scottish host family, Harry and Catriona Smart, at Edinburgh's Waverley Station. Picture: Valvara ShevtsovaVarvara Shevtsova, from Kyiv, takes her first selfie with her Scottish host family, Harry and Catriona Smart, at Edinburgh's Waverley Station. Picture: Valvara Shevtsova
Varvara Shevtsova, from Kyiv, takes her first selfie with her Scottish host family, Harry and Catriona Smart, at Edinburgh's Waverley Station. Picture: Valvara Shevtsova

"I like Montrose,” she says. “I hadn't heard of it before when I started talking to my host family, so I just looked it up on the internet. Today I went for a walk around it with my host and it has charm, it is very green and very cosy and has a lot of fresh air.”

After a week living underground after the invasion began, Ms Shevtsova and her mother fled Kyiv, first to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, then on to Poland and into Germany, where they stayed with relatives. However, the journey was not easy.

Ms Shevtsova describes outbreaks of illness in the bomb shelter, where hundreds of people were packed together. Some people contracted a stomach bug, while others suffered an illness she believes to be Covid.

"Everyone was coughing, we don’t know it was Covid, but we think it was,” she says. “I got sick and felt terrible when we were on the train to Lviv, it was awful.”

The pair were also forced to travel without Ms Shevtsova’s father, as men are not allowed to leave Ukraine in case they are needed for the war effort.

"My Dad stayed in Kyiv, where he works for the emergency services to help people to get out if their buildings fall down, putting fires out and so on,” she says.

While staying in Germany, where they were living in cramped conditions in Ms Shevtsova’s grandparent’s house, along with a number of other relatives who had also fled Ukraine, Ms Shevtsova’s mother heard of a potential visa scheme for her daughter to live in the UK. Although full details had not by then been announced by the UK Government, websites had already been set up to match Ukrainian refugees with potential hosts.

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She speaks fluent English, but barely any German and realised her opportunities in Germany – if the war continued and she was unable to return to her life in Kyiv – were limited.

"I had no job opportunities there due to my low level of German language,” she says. "I was studying for my bachelor’s degree in social work at university in Ukraine and I love this job. I was first in my class at university and I want to be qualified and work in social work.”

Her mother began to look at matching websites, where hosts from across the UK had posted with details of what they could offer.

"I had already been thinking of doing my Masters degree in Scotland,” Ms Shevtsova says. “I love British culture. When I was 16, my parents gifted me a trip to London, which was my dream, and we went there, but I had never been to Scotland before.”

Meanwhile, in Montrose, the Smarts, both 66, had begun talking about the potential of hosting a refugee.

"Early in the war, when it was pretty obvious that they were going to be a lot of refugees, we started thinking about it,” says Mr Smart, a published poet.

"We don’t have any pressing work requirements, we are both essentially retired and we have space in the house, so we thought ‘why not?’”

The couple signed up to the website and after receiving an initial message from Ms Shevtsova’s mother, they arranged a WhatsApp call where they all spoke for the first time.

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"We just clicked and that was when we decided that we would move forward with this,” says Mr Smart.

Although details of the Homes for Ukraine scheme had not been finalised, they decided to get organised.

Ms Shevtsova had documents translated into English and made copies of her passport. By the time the scheme was announced, they were ready to go and her visa was processed quickly – despite being “overwhelmed” by the level of bureaucracy.

"It was a nightmare when you actually went through the process,” says Mr Smart. “It took us two-and-a-half hours to fill out the initial form, then Valvara realised we had made a spelling mistake in her name, but there was no way to correct that, you had to do the whole thing again.

"There was 30 pages of stuff to go through and a lot of questions we would have never imagined like ‘have you ever worked for the intelligence services’? It was just kind of absurd, there was a slightly mad quality about it all.

"When we first met her at Edinburgh Airport, it was quite an emotional moment. Obviously we were all a little bit nervous of meeting each other, but we just jumped on the first bus and got to Waverley Station, where we hung out in Pret and took the first selfie of us all together and sent it to her parents.”

Despite her new beginning in Scotland, Ms Shevtsova is still haunted by her time in Kyiv during the war.

“What was most difficult was not having any end point,” she says. “You don't know when the war will end and how long you will have to stay in that kind of shelter and live like that – how many weeks or years. That kind of condition is such a nightmare.

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And every night, I still dream of the bomb shelter – and somehow the underground is the main figure in my dreams, and that is horrible. I don’t think I will ever want to go on the Metro again.”

However, she is hopeful for the future. Ms Shevtsova plans to find a job and also apply for university in Scotland to continue her social work studies.

"My hosts have given me my own bedroom and bathroom, it is the first time I am living normally in a long time,” she says. “The idea that I am here in Scotland and that I have my personal space is insane. I still can’t believe I am here.”

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