“I can’t find 120,000 refugees on my own,” says Kevin Cabra Netherton. “We need more support.”
In just five days, the founder and managing director of a Yorkshire campervan hire company has connected 18 Ukrainians fleeing war with host families returning to 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 through as possible, but it takes more organizations,” he said. The Independent from his makeshift office, which is little more than a desk in a hallway at the headquarters of the charity Caritas in the city of Lublin, 210 km from the Ukrainian border.
Mr Cabra Netherton left his brother running his business to travel to Poland to intervene and fill a loophole in the government’s Homes for Ukraine programme. Together with his friend Oli Reynolds, he helps people forced from their homes who wish to come to the UK to apply for visas and identifies suitable volunteers who will accommodate them.
Some of the British volunteers who registered on the government’s website have expressed frustration at the lack of an official matching system, which means they have to find their own refugees.
“On one side you have 120,000 UK homes open, on the other you have 4 million people, and in the middle you have 1,000 miles and no one is matching them. That’s the problem,” says Cabra Netherton.
“I traveled to the border with Ukraine and saw that the reception centers and NGOs weren’t there, so I don’t know where they are.
“It would be nice if one of these organizations came here and started doing that.”
But the Goat Roadtrip boss is determined to stay in Lublin doing what he does for as long as it takes.
“As long as we are needed, we will be there.
“I would like to have more volunteers here and in the support office in the UK. I need volunteers.
“As long as we get that, we will either continue until the war is over or another organization steps in and takes over. That would be great.”
And if he finds the job of matching people in need with those who want to provide housing, the families he helps are more than happy.
“They are so grateful,” he says. Because the volunteers his company has found are mostly back in the Leeds area, it means the refugees they help will stay close to each other.
“Today I called a 15-year-old girl whose family is being evicted from their accommodation in Berlin to tell her that we have found a match and that she will be staying near one of her classmates, and she was over the moon – it was the best news in the world for her.
“It’s nice to be able to do that.”
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Mr. Cabra Netherton and Mr. Reynolds do their work online, and word of their work spreads by word of mouth in Lublin. Almost all of those they help are children and women, many of whom are professionals. So far they have spoken to teachers, business owners, an accountant, a chemical engineer and an academic.
They come with few personal belongings but many show photographs of their homes destroyed by Russian bombs and missiles.
Although the Homes for Ukraine scheme has been condemned as too slow, too vague and too bureaucratic – only a handful of refugees are believed to have come to the UK under the scheme so far – the firm’s founder believes that he is in the minority not to criticize the government.
Other European governments, he says, are doing much less – just putting people on a piecemeal basis, he says.
“The UK government’s program is much more longer-term – it’s not just about ‘where am I sleeping tonight?’ It is the government’s responsibility to put in place a legal visa process that is easy to use and to be fair, it is easy to use.
“It is not the government’s responsibility to own the whole process. That’s why I would like to see NGOs here, rather than companies doing this out of a sense of duty.
There are only two bottlenecks. One is waiting for the visas to come – he’s heard of a visa that only takes five days – and if people don’t have international passports they have to travel at least 100 miles to Warsaw or Rzeszów for visas.
The other delay concerns the verification of host families in Yorkshire. “There is no legal obligation to do a check, but three of our volunteers worked in the safeguard.
“I suspect that’s why the big organizations and charities haven’t gotten involved in matching – 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.
Major charities are bringing in trucks loaded with lifesaving aid, he said. But no charitable donations go to matching programs.
“But we need volunteers to help us do that. And we need donations.
” There is so much to do. It’s overwhelming,” he admits.
The Independent asked the Disasters Emergency Committee to respond.
Kateryna, 28, a trustee from Kyiv, who along with her sister Daryna is one of those matched with a family in Guiseley, West Yorkshire, said: “We didn’t want to move. For me it’s a new experience.
“But when I saw the family photo, it was like a miracle. I can get something good out of this horrible situation.
The Independent has a proud history of campaigning for the rights of the most vulnerable, and we launched our first campaign to welcome refugees during the war in Syria in 2015. Today, as we renew our campaign and launch this petition to Following the unfolding crisis in Ukraine, we are asking the government to go further and faster to ensure the delivery of aid. To learn more about our Welcome to Refugees campaign, Click here