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Britain’s pick-a-refugee program had one Brit flying to Poland with Cadbury bars

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses by video link a security meeting in London on March 14. (Neil Hall/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

LONDON — Max Fox arrived in the Polish border town of Przemysl with suitcases full of gifts for refugees and their pets — Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate bars, toy London buses, dog chews — and high hopes of finding a Ukrainian who would like to come back to Britain to live with him.

Fox, a 32-year-old British singer who belted out Disney songs as he handed out chocolate bars, putting smiles on faces, is among the 150,000 Britons who have signed up as potential hosts through a Homes for Ukraine program.

But Britain’s largely do-it-yourself asylum plan requires hosts to name a Ukrainian when submitting paperwork. And because many Brits don’t know a Ukrainian personally, they are scouring social media, contacting charities, churches, community groups, friends of friends. Or in cases like Fox’s, they are getting on planes.

“I’ve been a bit spontaneous, but I can’t sit down anymore and watch this war unfold and do nothing,” said Fox, who has a two-bedroom apartment in Poulton-le-Fylde, a market town in northern England.

British singer Max Fox, 32, sang a song from Disney’s “Frozen” while handing out chocolates to refugees in Przemysl, Poland in March 2022. (Video: Max Fox)

He flew to Poland on Thursday to identify a refugee he could sponsor.

“It’s not like an interview process to find the best candidate,” he stressed. “We are very very open and would welcome anybody,” but he did want to see whether they would “have a bond or be able to create one.”

He wanted to make sure they were comfortable with the fact that he is gay and married, with a pet cockapoo dog named Canela.

The British government has been widely criticized for not doing enough to help with the fastest-growing exodus of refugees in Europe since World War II. Unlike other European countries, Britain is not waiving visas for refugees. Only 10,200 visas have been granted, according to the latest figures. That number will likely rise sharply once the first refugees arrive, possibly this week, under the new visa pathway that will see the government pay people about $450 per month for hosting a refugee for at least six months.

As Europe opens it doors to fleeing Ukrainians, Britain adopts a ‘do-it-yourself’ asylum plan

Lisa Nandy, a lawmaker with the opposition Labour Party, said having to name a refugee on the visa application forms was an unnecessary roadblock and asked whether ministers expected refugees to “get onto Instagram and advertise themselves.”

Some have resorted to exactly that.

Overnight, social media pages have sprouted up with Ukrainians posting pictures of themselves, often in happier times — at cafes, on family vacations or at their kids’ birthday parties. Most are women and children. Some posts are jarring, describing harrowing scenes from within Ukraine, alongside an upbeat write-up about what their family is like.

Brits message back with pictures of their homes, details about local schools, transportation links and descriptions of their area.

“Our village is beautiful with a river running through [and] hills to explore and we are not far from Alnwick where Harry Potter was filmed,” wrote one potential host in Britain on a Facebook page.

A Ukrainian mother with three young children responded that she had fled her village after hearing “terrifying sounds every day every night.” She added that her kids spoke good English and that her son was into soccer and her daughters liked gymnastics.

To be sure, Brits offering a lone spare room in northern England are not universally appealing.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman Chris Melzer said the vast majority of refugees pouring into Poland don’t want to go that far from Ukraine. And most of the refugees are in family groups, not traveling as individuals.

How Ukrainian children understand the war

Marina Saveka, a Ukrainian scientist, said she would be interested in going to Britain after having studied here. But she needs to find someone who will also sponsor her mother, 60, and grandfather, 86. They left the besieged city of Chernihiv together in a van, driving through fields amid reports that civilian vehicles on the main roads were being shot. She said in a phone interview that she doesn’t have a reliable Internet connection and hasn’t had time to sift through Internet postings or advertise herself.

Yegor Lanovenko, a 30-year-old who lives in London and is originally from Odessa, Ukraine, is among those trying to connect people. After pulling several all-nighters, he and a team of volunteers set up a database where Brits and Ukrainians can connect with each other. About 2,500 Brits and 1,500 Ukrainians have signed up for his Opora network.

He said the British Home Office, known for its bureaucracy, was right not to attempt to play matchmaker in a situation that requires a speedy response. But he said the government could have done a far better job supporting civil society and laying the ground rules. For instance, he said, it would be nice to have clarity when the program was announced on how and when sponsors will be vetted — there’s nervousness on both sides. Over the weekend, officials emailed some British sponsors to say that they would be carrying out various checks on them, but that these may not be done before the refugee arrives.

Harvard teens made a website matching Ukrainian refugees with people offering places to stay

Lanovenko anticipates that some people in his database may be disqualified following security checks and clarification on eligibility requirements. “And rightly so, there needs to be some serious safeguards on both sides,” he said. “But it would be really helpful to have some of this detail before announcing the scheme.”

Jessica Rooney, 40, a lawyer who lives in northwest London, found a match on Facebook with a Ukrainian mom and her young daughter. “I don’t think it’s possible to see some of the images you’re seeing and not want to do all that is in your power to help,” she said. Rooney said she requested a criminal record check on herself but that it hadn’t been required in any of the paperwork to date.

With mostly women and children fleeing Ukraine, European authorities fear a surge in human trafficking

Writing in the Independent, Taban Shoresh, founder of a charity that supports women and girls affected by conflict, said open questions about security checks were among the many issues needing resolution. “These checks are especially important for women and children, who habitually face violence, sexual abuse and trafficking after conflicts,” she wrote. And, she asked, “what happens if a household decides it wants its space back, a family is moving away, or it just doesn’t work out? Will the government step in to support those refugees, or will they be abandoned?”

Fox, with the Cadbury bars, said he and his husband were committed hosts.

He spent his first day in Poland at a sorting center at the border, attaching himself to a charity, handing out treats and helping with luggage. But he said it didn’t feel like the type of environment where he could “go around with Google translate” and ask people whether they wanted to come to Britain. The few English-speakers he found already had plans to go to Germany or the Czech Republic. Most people, though, were waiting to be processed in Poland.

On Friday afternoon, he took a train to Krakow to meet a 26-year-old refugee he had met online that day who said he was keen to come to England. The man, from the Ukrainian city of Dnipro, was in Poland when the war broke out and didn’t want to return, as he would face conscription.

Asked if they had an instant bond, Fox said, “I’m not too sure because of the language barrier,” but “I saw him, the complete exhaustion and desperation in his eyes, and there was no way I could say no.”

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in an address to the nation on Sept. 21, framing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that seeks to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.” Follow our live updates here.

The fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Annexation referendums: Staged referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are set to take place from Sept. 23 to 27 in the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Another staged referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson starting Friday.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can help support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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