Ukrainian refugees in County Durham say their 'hearts are still with Ukraine'

A family of 11, who arrived in County Durham on Saturday after fleeing the war in Ukraine, have told ITV News Tyne Tees their "hearts are still with Ukraine".

Stalina Shuba said her life was turned upside down when Vladimir Putin's Russian troops invaded her country.

She said: "My life changed completely on the 21 February. I got woken up by my daughter's phone call saying pack your bags and get to the bomb shelter.

"When we were leaving the house a bomb had dropped so we had to travel through roads that had been completely destroyed.

"We’re here. It's calm here and it’s safe here, but our hearts are still with Ukraine."

Stalina Shuba said her life was turned upside down when Russian troops invaded her country. Credit: ITV News Tyne Tees

Her daughter, Karina, said the family had to leave Ukraine in such a rush, they had no time to gather their belongings.

She said: "My hands started shaking. I didn’t know what valuable things I was meant to pack and at that time I didn’t realise that was the last time I was going to be there.

"When we were running to the metro to the sounds of sirens surrounding us, there was a lot of panic. Everyone was panicking. I had to say 'goodbye' to my friends and that was the last time I saw them."

Her family first fled to the Polish border, where they had to bunk down with thousands of other refugees at a train station. Paul Aitchison and Helene Kell had matched with the family online and offered them accommodation at their farmhouse in New Brancepeth, County Durham.

The couple travelled to Poland to pick the family up, after spending two weeks helping them fill in their UK visa paperwork, which was required for the government's home sponsorship scheme.

However, the family were denied entry to the UK initially due to the children not having biometric passports. They were forced to stay for a further couple of weeks in a hotel in the Netherlands whilst they waited for the UK authorities to process their visas.

The family are now in the safety of the North East and school places have been secured for the children. Credit: ITV News Tyne Tees

After more than 30 days, they finally received their documentation and were allowed to board a ferry to the Port of Tyne, where they were met Paul and Helene.

Karina said: "When we saw Helene and Paul all I wanted to do was hug them and say 'finally'!

"When we arrived to this amazing house, that is cosy and has little symbols of Ukraine in every corner of the house to remind us of our homes, we were really grateful."

Helene said she is pleased the family are now in the safety of the North East and has already secured school places for the children.

She said it has been "a little bit emotional for them, overwhelming more than anything, but yeh, they’ve settled in great. We took them to Durham yesterday, to the cathedral and they absolutely loved that.

"If we take them out for a couple of hours and they go for a walk, Karina is always saying 'thank you' for taking a couple of hours out of the day to get rid of bad thoughts."

Karina says the family had no time to gather their belongings when fleeing their home. Credit: ITV News Tyne Tees

Karina said, following her experience of the visa system, she hopes other Ukrainian refugees can make it to the UK without too much hassle.

She said: "I would really want the process of getting a UK visa to be re-looked at, because a lot of families are living in unknown conditions and they’re waiting to get this visa right now."

Her main focus is praying for her dad, who makes her very "proud", and the other men left defending their country, adding "our father is defending our country right now and every single day we pray for my father and we pray for our country."