How I escaped war in Ukraine with my cat in tow
When 23-year-old Yulia Lapko realised she would have to try to escape the war in Ukraine one thing was at the front of her mind - how would she bring her beloved cat?
The graphic novel artist, from Kyiv, was being urged by her parents to leave the country while she could still travel relatively safely. But everything is more complicated with a pet and there was no way she was going to leave five-year-old Penny behind.
Yulia said: “We didn’t have a bomb shelter but we would go down to the basement and I would take my cat with me. Then we just started going to the corridor outside the flat when we heard the bombs to make sure there were two walls between us and the outside. But it’s so weird and surreal because after a while you get used to it in a strange way. So, sometimes you can't be bothered to go there anymore. Sometimes you just don't care anymore. I guess the mind adapts to everything.
“For the first couple of days of the bombs I couldn't sleep, I was constantly shaky. Then after a while I’d hear an explosion and be like, Oh, that was close. Then I’d make my coffee. It sounds weird.”
Yulia decided to leave Ukraine after speaking with her parents and her brother, who was not allowed to leave as all men have been told to stay and fight.
She said: “My brother is staying with my mum at the moment. They also have a cat, which is very nice because cats help. I knew I needed to take Penny with me if I was going because she is like my baby - I couldn’t bear to leave her.”
A volunteer group took Yulia in a bus from Kyiv to a little village in the west of Ukraine where a man who lived there then drove them to the Romanian border by car. There she met a contact who let her stay in their apartment while she made arrangements to travel onwards with Penny, including getting her pet passport and vaccinations upt to date.
Yulia said: “We took a flight to Paris with a quick change in Warsaw and Penny was in the cabin with me. Then we caught the train to Calais, where our friend Steve from Tunbridge Wells drove in the car by ferry and took us in the car by ferry to the UK.”
The journey took around four weeks and she arrived in Cambridhge on April 10 where she was met by Helen Llewelyn who had offered to be her sponsor through Homes For Ukraine.
“I haven’t let myself feel any emotions yet,” says Yulia. “I’ve just been in survival mode. But I love the UK and I’ve visited London six or seven times because I collaborated on a graphic novel with a writer here. I’m really enjoying Cambridge - it’s even nicer than Paris - and I’m trying to learn to ride a bike so I can be a proper local. I could have arrived much sooner if I hadn’t need to get the documents in order for penny, but it was worth it.”
She’s also learning Welsh thanks to some inspiration from her sponsor Helen who is from Wales and is working on art for a video game and a new graphic novel.
Helen, who works at the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, said: “I signed up to sponsor a refugee on the first day because I used to watch war movies from our grandparents’ time and think why didn't people help? Why didn't people do something? So I thought, well, this is my opportunity.”
They were put in touch by a mutual friend and Helen immediately offered to sponsor Yulia.
“I think we were really lucky that we moved so quickly, because it was before the backlog. So Yulia got her visa in a week,” says Helen. “And we’ve got to know each other very quickly”.