From Mariupol's bombed streets to a safe place on the Irish border

UK's visa first scheme poses complications for those looking to shelter Ukrainians in divided Ireland

The Dundalk Town Hall is lit up in the blue and yellow colours of the Ukrainian flag. Photo: Louth County Council
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For Slavik Bobkov, the war in his home city of Mariupol was a brutal ordeal that forced him into a journey of thousands of kilometres by land to Ireland, where he is now hoping to make a new life with his wife and son.

A carpenter and furniture maker, Mr Bobkov drove his black Mitsubishi sedan on a route that took him across the front lines, through annexed Crimea, across Russia and northern Europe, on a ferry over the Atlantic to the foothills of the Mourne mountain range.

The family of three are now staying on a communal space on the floor at a sports and community complex in the town of Dundalk, north of Dublin and only a few miles from the border with Northern Ireland. The car, which is parked by an all-weather pen of football pitches, still has a dent in its roof where a chunk of masonry fell from Mr Bobkov's house.

A commercial town with a port and a manufacturing base, Dundalk has welcomed an estimated 800 Ukrainians in recent weeks since the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the exodus of about six million of its citizens, the UNHCR says.

Before the war, Mr Bobkov ran a workshop making furniture. He pulls out his phone and shows me a video that starts in his living room, where there is rubble and dust caused by a Russian shell landing on his house strewn everywhere across the room. A shaft of light comes in from where the roof collapsed on one side.

The car that was driven from Ukraine to Ireland by the Bobkov family. Damien McElroy / The National

A month after the conflict the war came to his street and it was not long before the family decided to flee in the grip of terror. The videos on his phone show his garden and when he opened the iron front gate, dazed neighbours in the aftermath of the strike walking into the street. A plume of smoke rose from a nearby building.

"There were Russian soldiers patrolling in my street," he recalled, as he stood in a comfortable pair of flip-flops on a sunny morning near the town's Muirhevnamor Sports Centre, where the family is waiting to be resettled. "I walked past the tank that was doing the damage with my son. There was nothing for us, not even a water supply.

"This was my home for 30 years, the neighbourhood I had grown up in but on March 30 I decided to go," he said. "You see my home, my sofas, the rubble. There is even the bricks that came down on my car."

Unlike many men of his age, Mr Bobkov was able to take his family and leave the country. He was already in an occupied part of Russia. Mariupol is close to the Russian-occupied enclave of Donetsk and is a prime Russian target. The city has been flattened in an artillery and rocket barrage that Moscow's army unleashed to gain control of the strategic port.

Heavily damaged buildings in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine. Reuters

Leaving through Russia was not without danger but the Bobkov family pushed on, driving for 10 days with stops only to pick up fuel and food. The route took them north across the Russian motorway network and then into the European countries that had opened their borders to Ukrainians.

Now, Ireland is offering a home to anyone who arrives by ferry or plane. The municipal authorities in Dundalk, a town of 40,000, are scrambling to provide for the new arrivals by finding homes and providing school spaces for the children. Officials say 173 people have been granted accommodation there so far.

One proposal to convert a former residential complex for a special needs school into a base where the Ukraine people can regroup and build their own lives lies in Drumcar, 20 minutes south of the town. It is set in rolling hectares and can be reached only by a single-lane road off the main Dublin motorway.

Moved by the plight of those fleeing war, the locals are happy with the idea that a secluded part of the community can play a role. Chris McGlynn, the manager of the nearby FSP gym, said there would be a welcome for the Ukrainians when they come, pointing out that his neighbour was flying the country's yellow and blue flag. "I feel like the country wants to help and these are people that we don't know yet but will make welcome," he said. "If the old grounds can be used this way and it can be a place of help, that is a great use of what is now dead space."

The outpouring of offers of help is equally as strong over the border in Northern Ireland. Ukrainians finding shelter there must first apply for a visa from the UK government. The main scheme, a sponsorship system known as Homes for Ukraine, has been dogged by complaints about bureaucratic delays and verification failures. Latest statistics indicate that 28,531 Ukrainians had come to Ireland by May 8, while the UK, which has 10 times the Irish population, had taken in 27,903 through Homes for Ukraine sponsors by May 10.

In the city of Newry, which sits over the border from Dundalk and is of a similar size, the figures show that only 13 Ukrainians have now registered, despite the fact that it hosts one of the four main Northern Ireland reception centres for those displaced by the war.

A sign at Belfast Airport to welcome Ukrainians. Damien McElroy / The National

One woman who had applied to the Homes for Ukraine scheme to provide space in her three-bedroom house in Northern Ireland spoke of her frustration over the failure to process her application. "Time is urgent for these people and I want to get matched with someone so that they can come to be safe and well here," she said. "I know I can qualify because I am a former social worker and the checks will be a formality for me but I have not even heard when my application will go forward. It is so frustrating to watch the news knowing that I could be helping out."

Andre Stokes, a Newry man who is half-Ukrainian and the son of a local councillor, is doing all he can to help deliver the aid and funds raised in the area to those in need. Since February, he has travelled three times to the Polish border with Ukraine and has brought back to Ireland groups of people seeking a safe haven.

Relatives from near Kyiv have travelled back to the island with Mr Stokes, including those who fled the frontline villages caught up in the initial Russian advance. "People in Newry have been very helpful and given very generously," he said. "Just last night, a Ukrainian woman who lived in this area for 15 years was able to receive some of her relatives and people arrived with supplies, including food and bedding, to her house as they heard.

"We brought a convoy back with us, among whom were children needing treatment and others following in a car, back the full way across the continent."

There is a growing realisation as the conflict has continued that many of those forced out of Ukraine are in for a long haul outside their homeland.

"On an individual basis, people are starting to get settled," observes Mr Stokes. "The children are already attending school, younger people are going to find employment and they are far away from home as part of what is now a big Ukraine diaspora."

For Mr Bobkov, the craftsman's future lies in his hands and his hopes for his son. "We have been through fire and have lost much from our lives but I am not complaining," he said. "We are wanting to settle here and get my son into school. I am grateful to Ireland and this is very much where my family will, in time, find its new life and something to live for again."

Updated: May 13, 2022, 1:05 PM