‘Refugees can’t afford to wait’: The British company boss filling the hole in the Homes for Ukraine scheme

Charities are taking much-needed aid to victims of war - but only a handful of volunteers are matching refugees with UK host families

Jane Dalton
Saturday 26 March 2022 23:47
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Refugees Welcome: The Independent launches campaign to help Ukraine's refugees

“I can’t match up 120,000 refugees on my own,” says Kevin Cabra Netherton. “We need more support.”

In just five days, the founder and chief executive of a Yorkshire campervan hire company has matched 18 Ukrainians fleeing the war with host families back in Britain, and is busy submitting visa applications for them.

“I’m happy to be here to get the ball rolling and get as many people as we can through but this needs more organisations,” he tells The Independent from his makeshift office, which is little more than a desk in a corridor at the headquarters of relief charity Caritas in the city of Lublin, 130 miles from the Ukrainian border.

Mr Cabra Netherton left his brother running his company to travel to Poland to step in and fill a gap in the government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme. Together with friend Oli Reynolds, he is helping people forced to abandon their homes who want to come to the UK to apply for visas and identifying suitable volunteers who will put them up.

Some of the UK volunteers who have signed up on the government website have expressed frustration at the lack of an official matching system, meaning they have to find their own refugees.

“On the one hand you’ve got 120,000 UK homes opened up, on the other you’ve got 4 million people, and in the middle you’ve got 1,000 miles and no one is matching them. That’s the problem,” says Mr Cabra Netherton.

“I’ve travelled to the actual border with Ukraine and seen the reception centres and the NGOs are not there, so I don’t know where they are.

“It would be nice for one of these organisations to come out here and start doing this.”

But the boss of Goat Roadtrip is determined to stay in Lublin doing what he’s doing for as long as it takes.

“As long as we are needed we’ll be here.

“I’d love to get more volunteers here and in the UK support office. I need volunteers.

“As long as we get that we’ll carry on either until hopefully the war is over or another organisation steps in and takes over. That would be great.”

And if he finds the job of matching those in need with those anxious to offer accommodation, the families he is helping are more than happy.

“They are so appreciative,” he says. Because the volunteers his company found are mostly back in the Leeds area, it means the refugees they are helping will stay close to each other.

“Today I rang a 15-year-old girl whose family are being ejected from their accommodation in Berlin to tell her we had found a match and she will be housed close to one of her classmates, and she was over the moon – it was the best news in the world to her.

“It’s lovely to be able to do that.”

The Independent is raising money for the people of Ukraine – if you would like to donate then please click here for our GoFundMe page.

Mr Cabra Netherton and Mr Reynolds carry out their work online, and word of their work spreads by word of mouth in Lublin. Nearly all those they are helping are children and women, many of the latter professionals. So far they’ve talked to teachers, business owners, an accountant, a chemical engineer and an academic.

They come with few belongings but many show photographs of their homes destroyed by Russian bombs and missiles.

Despite the Homes for Ukraine scheme being condemned as too slow, too vague and too bureaucratic – it’s thought so far only a handful of refugees have come to the UK under the programme - the company founder believes he is in a minority in not being critical of the government.

Some other European governments, he says are doing far less – simply putting people up piecemeal, he says.

The extent of the Russian invasion of Ukraine

“The UK government scheme is far more thinking longer term – it’s not just about ‘where am I sleeping tonight?’ It’s the government’s responsibility is to have a legal visa process in place that’s easy to use and to be fair it is easy to use.

“It’s not government responsibility to own the entire process. That’s why I’d like to see NGOs here, as opposed to businesses doing this out of a sense of duty.”

There are just two bottlenecks. One is waiting for visas to come through – he’s heard of one taking just five days – and if people don’t have international passports they have to travel at least 100 miles to either Warsaw or Rzeszów for visas.

The other delay is vetting host families back in Yorkshire. “There’s no legal requirement to do vetting but three of our volunteers have worked in safeguarding.

“I suspect this is why big organisations and charities haven’t got involved in matching – doing background checks would take months.

“But it’s about being pragmatic and realistic. We can’t afford to wait - people have nowhere to sleep. It’s too urgent.”

The big charities are bringing lorryloads of vital aid, he said. But no charity donations are going towards matching schemes.

“But we do need volunteers to help us do it. And we need donations.

“There’s so much to do. It is overwhelming,” he admits.

The Independent has asked the Disasters Emergency Committee to respond.

Kateryna, 28, an administrator from Kyiv, who with her sister Daryna is one of those being matched with a family in Guiseley, West Yorkshire, said: “We didn’t want to move. For me this is a new experience.

“But when I saw the family’s photo it was like a miracle. I can take something good from this horrible situation.”

The Independent has a proud history of campaigning for the rights of the most vulnerable, and we first ran our Refugees Welcome campaign during the war in Syria in 2015. Now, as we renew our campaign and launch this petition in the wake of the unfolding Ukrainian crisis, we are calling on the government to go further and faster to ensure help is delivered. To find out more about our Refugees Welcome campaign, click here

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