Scotland has provided more than just respite for 19-year-old Mariia Zobenko.

The 19-year-old law student was forced to leave friends and family behind in Dnipro four months after the war in the Ukraine started, with her aspirations of becoming a full-time referee firmly put to one side as conflict raged around her.

Scotland was seen as a safe haven for the teenager, but there was something fatalistic about where she found herself when she landed in Edinburgh in June.

“I arrived on June 10th and I was living in the campus at Heriot-Watt as the students were away,” she said. “I didn’t know then that next door [Oriam] was where some of Scotland’s referees train together every week.

“The first few days were horrible. I was very home sick and it was hard not having my family with me. I was worried about not being able to speak the language well enough or know where to go or what to do – and I was worried about my family at home too.”

Zobenko, who had started a refereeing course at the age of 15 and mostly been in charge of boys’ football, continued: “I did not really know what to expect, but I found an email address for the SFA whom I wrote to.

“I was so happy when I got a reply from Tommy Murphy, their deputy head of refereeing. Tommy explained who I should speak to at a local level in Edinburgh and what options were available to me.

“That first night at training was like the first day of school. I was nervous but felt better when I realised I wasn’t the only girl there.”

Those same girls on the course were the ones who turned out to support her as she took charge of her first game in Scotland, a women’s summer friendly between Livingston and Kilmarnock.

“That was an emotional moment for me,” she said.

She has since been an assistant in the SWPL, running the line in a game between Hibs and Motherwell but it has not all been plain sailing.

Aside from the practicalities of uprooting and settling into a new culture, there is also the challenge of doing it alone.

An only child, Zobenko had shared an apartment with her parents while her grandparents and an aunt and uncle stayed in the same block. Leaving was a decision that had to be taken swiftly.

“I applied [to come to Scotland] and within four days I had my visa which I couldn’t believe,” she said. “I packed my stuff and decided I would buy a ticket for Edinburgh. I was lucky that I could leave because all the boys who were over 18 could not in case they were needed for the war.

“My parents understood why I wanted to leave Ukraine and they said I could apply for the visa. They said, ‘go to Scotland. Try. If it doesn’t work you can come home to Ukraine.’ They were also stressed too as I have never been away from them for so long and I suppose, I am still their little girl.

“At first they called me all the time – every two minutes ‘how are you?’. Now I get a quick call and it’s like ‘okay, have a nice day!’.”

The dialect, too, on the East coast has proved to take a little time for Zobenko’s ear to adjust to.

“Sometimes girls ask me something and I have no clue what they are saying to me!” she laughed. “And Scottish English is very different from ‘normal’ English! I am reading as much as I can in English and I am even reading my law textbooks in English. Sometimes I just need a few minutes to settle my mind and find the right words when I am refereeing – and when I am writing up my reports!

“But I know that my goal is to become a professional football referee and I am so happy to have had this opportunity to come here and develop my understanding of the game. I think it will make me a stronger person for having had this experience.

“I would love for my parents to come and watch me referee but the visa programme is closed so they will need to apply for a tourist visa. Maybe one day.”

Zobenko does not know yet what will come next for her but her long-term ambitions remain clear. It remains to be seen whether they can be fulfilled in her homeland or in Scotland.

“I hope one day to work in the Champions League,” she said. “I’d like to start with the women’s Champions League and if I am successful then hopefully I will also be selected for men’s matches.

“I have a really good example to follow in Kateryna Monzul, a female referee from Ukraine. She has been an inspiration for me and hopefully I can be an inspiration for other girls.

“It would be amazing to go to a World Cup and I am excited to watch the games and how the referees perform over the next few weeks.

“I don’t know what will happen tomorrow because the war is still on and there is so much uncertainty still. I don’t know whether I will go home and continue my career there.

“If I can find a job and afford to rent accommodation maybe I will be here in Scotland longer. It is hard to live without my parents because I miss them very much.”

Scottish football can do so much good and help people in their day-to-day lives in ways in which very little else can. To find out more visit