A happily married couple who defied the odds to be together during the coronavirus pandemic have been torn apart by the war in Ukraine.
Steve Bullock, 61, from Middlesbrough, married his Ukrainian wife Lyuda – who Steve affectionately calls Lucy – in September 2020, after borders to the country briefly reopened during the pandemic.
The couple, who will have been together five years in May following a chance meeting in a Facebook group called Namaste, spent the first lockdown together, as Lucy was in the UK on a holiday Visa when Prime Minister Boris Johnson closed the borders in March 2020 As a result of the pandemic, Visas for visitors like Lucy, 53, were extended until August 2020. Lucy returned to the Ukraine on August 1 2020, but Steve, who can stay in the Ukraine for 90 days during a 180-day period , followed.
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The couple got married in Lucy’s hometown of Zasullya, just outside Lubny, the following month. When subsequent border closures resulting from the pandemic were lifted, the couple continued to split their time between the UK and the Ukraine, with Lucy using holiday Visas.
Steve said: “We planned to start the Visa process for Lucy when I got out there during one of my visits in May 2021.
“I got to the airport but, due to a mix-up with the 72-hour fit to fly test that was in place then, I had to come home and change my flight. When I eventually got to Ukraine, we took the easy option and got another holiday Visa allowing Lucy to spend six months in this country, which took us to December 3.”
In the meantime, Lucy, an English teacher, was asked to stay on at the Ukrainian school where she works until June 2022 – and the couple thought nothing of delaying her permanent Visa application as Steve’s wife until March of this year.
“We worked out if we put the application in for March, it can take three months, so by June when she finished her job, Lucy should have her Visa,” Steve said.
Steve spent five weeks from January to February in Zasullya this year, with the intention of returning again in March and later, May. He left the country on February 18 – a week after warnings started to be issued for British citizens to leave the country – but he says he and his Ukrainian friends and relatives genuinely didn’t expect the talk of war in the British media to become a reality.
He said: “When I was in Ukraine, I still got a bit of British news on my iPad. I was hearing things out of England that weren’t consistent with what I was seeing and hearing in Ukraine.
“Biden was saying war was imminent, Putin was saying ‘I’m not going to attack.’ Zelensky was saying ‘there’s going to be no war here,’ so, to be honest, nobody really expected a war.”
Needing to get back to the UK to start Lucy’s Visa paperwork and fully expecting to return this month, the couple said their goodbyes and Steve left.
“We were just keeping to our plan when I left on February 18,” he said.
“We didn’t change anything because we didn’t think there was any reason to change. But at this point, I would rather be there – and I can fully understand why she needs to be there.
“If the war had started when I was there, there is no way I would have left.”
Lucy, who also runs a shoe shop with her sister-in-law and provides tuition for Ukrainian adults wanting to learn English, is continuing to teach children via Zoom lessons.
However, these frequently get interrupted by sirens warning of an impending bombardment. At the moment, the village of Zasullya remains relatively safe, although worryingly, rocket fire can be heard at night.
Lucy is one of a number of women in the village making “camouflage netting” to go over the top of vehicles in the hope that they won’t be seen when being driven through the night.
Much of the media has focused on people fleeing cities like the capital Kyiv to the border and neighboring countries, but many people are fleeing to places like Zasullya and require baby milk, medical supplies and basic provisions when they get there.
Steve has supported Lucy and the community with money for petrol, pharmacy supplies and baby milk, but quickly came to realize thousands of pounds were going to be needed to support people throughout the village and neighboring towns.
He has set up a JustGiving page to help anybody who needs money for basic supplies in the place he calls home when in Ukraine – and wants to raise awareness of the plight of the people there.
He said: “Buildings are not getting burned there, but the challenges and stresses of living in a country at war are evident. My friends look so tired.
“Shops have shortages of certain foods and nobody knows what is going to happen in the short-term. He adds the generosity of people in the UK who are sending supplies to the Ukrainian border is “tremendous”.
“There are a lot of people at the border, so they need a lot of help,” he says.
“But I can’t imagine how any of the aid is going to get from the border into other parts of Ukraine, where millions of people are still stranded.”
As for his contact with Lucy, Steve says he can videocall her three or four times a day – but admits it’s hard to know what to talk about.
“It’s hard to put into words,” he says. “What you feel is almost like a numbness really. It’s hard seeing the other people in Lucy’s community as well – it’s not just her.
“At the moment, people are coming to her town for safety, but we’ve got to acknowledge that it’s possible that the area could become unsafe.”
He adds, reluctantly: “We don’t know what the end game is. We don’t know where we go from here.”
At the moment, Lucy wants to remain with her family and her community. There is also the practical side of what it would take to get to the border, should she decide to leave.
Lucy’s is with a friend whose 76-year-old mother can barely walk, so it’s difficult to see how she would be able to endure the trip. Trains are still running, but because they fill up at their starting station, they now bypass Lubny and other towns, so the idea of any travel by public transport seems impossible.
“Sometimes she wants to get out and other times she says “everything will be OK, don’t worry,” Steve says.
“If she said “get me out of here” I wouldn’t know how she would get to the border 1100 km away, but I would drive to the Ukrainian border wherever she was at the drop of a hat.
“When there was the fire at the nuclear power station, it did frighten her. A group of about 10 of them were looking seriously at heading to the border after that – they were going to use her sister-in-law’s car which I wouldn’t guarantee would have even got them to the next town 11 miles away.”
However, the next morning the nuclear power station fire was out and the group had changed their minds.
The sun was shining and Lucy went to the school to continue making camouflage netting after telling Steve, ‘we’re all OK’.
Steve’s JustGiving page has achieved £1,800 in donations, which will be accessible to “everyone in the community” imminently.
“Every penny that is raised through the JustGiving page will be spent on the people in Zasullya,” Steve says.
“My aim is simply to help that small community and I’m going to have to look at how I can fundraise to achieve that.
“At the same time, I live in hope that Putin will call it a day – or other countries get involved to help him call it a day – or Lucy just decides it’s time to leave.”
Anyone who wishes to help the people of Zasullya can donate to Steve’s JustGiving page here.
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