Catholic Herald director and former MP Brooks Newmark has helped thousands of refugees to safety during the war
Former MP Brooks Newmark has spent the last two months organising buses to move women, children and the elderly out of Ukraine to safety. To date, he has transported 7,692 refugees. Initially, he started moving people from the Polish borders, but then moved inside Ukraine, first to Lviv and Kyiv, then to Vinnytsia and Zaporizhia to take people from besieged Mariupol. After that, as pressure from Russian troops moved further east, he moved his operation to Dnipro and Kharkiv. He has become something of hero for his efforts, attracting the attention of the national press.
A civil servant friend of mine joked that the headline about Newmark in the Times – “Former Tory minister Brooks Newmark saves thousands from Ukraine” – is perhaps the most positive that any minister or former minister has achieved in decades. But the headline is, of course, true, which is why I am speaking to him.
Newmark was in Kigali, Rwanda, completing research for his PhD in Education Policy at Oxford, when he saw a post on social media by a Latvian friend who had taken a bus to the Polish border to help move people out of the refugee centres to safety. He asked to come out and join his friend, “to do something practical for a few days”. Those few days soon turned into eight weeks and the establishment of a fully operational bus service.
“When I first arrived on the Polish border, there was someone charging $40,000 for a bus to Belarus, so we contacted one of the Ukrainian national bus companies,” he explains. Soon, at $2,000 per bus, they had con- tracted a few buses along with their drivers to drive people to Warsaw, Berlin, Riga and Paris. Most refugees wanted to stay in Poland because it was close by and the language was similar. The Poles, he adds, have been ex- tremely hospitable, “in a way that I could not have imagined”.
He says with some amusement that his biggest challenge was persuading Ukrainians that someone was genuinely trying to help them. The mentality of “there is no such thing as a free lunch” is hardwired into the people of the former Soviet satellite states, and rumours had spread around Kharkiv that people were being bussed into Russia against their will. Newmark went straight to the local mayor and they made a video about Newmark and his buses – “about a crazy Brit on his own journey,” as he puts it which was then shown on local television to reassure the public. “The Brits – and especially Boris – are incredibly popular in Ukraine,” he adds.
Newmark, who is a director of the Catholic Herald, has seen and heard terrible things on the ground – the destruction of civilian areas in Borodyanka and Kharkiv, a mass grave in Bucha for 412 victims, who had been executed, stories of rape and violence in Izyum. He tells me about a woman he met from Izyum, who was on live chat with her daughter as bombs were dropping all around her house. “She saw her daughter bombed in real time.”
These stories of mass murder and wanton violence are all too familiar to Newmark, whose family, Polish and Lithuanian Jews, were victims of the Holocaust. “It is important that Putin is held to account in one form or another,” he says. “The great thing about social media is that people can video things as they happen, there is a huge catalogue of the war crimes which have taken place.”
A successful businessman, and former Tory MP and government minister, Newmark has both money and influence in abundance. Why not just write a cheque? “I have an immense urge to be active, to do something,” he explains, “It makes me feel energised and alive.” His business background was in rebuilding failing companies and making them profitable, and when he was a minister, he was praised by Michael Gove for his problem-solving abilities. The eldest of ten siblings, he describes himself as a natural “fixer”. He says his family – he has five children – know that being in the thick of things makes him happy. As long as he checks in regularly, they are supportive.
They are also used to his enterprises – this is not the first time Newmark has done something like this. Over the years, he has worked at a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey, helped rebuild an orphanage in Pakistan, redecorated a children’s home in Sarajevo and, most recently, built a playground for displaced Ukrainian orphans in Poland.
His most substantial project, however, has been in Rwanda, where he opened a primary school for 300, a teacher training centre and an education charity, all of which have been active for the last 15 years. On a visit to Rwanda in 2007, struck by his experience of a post-genocide environment, he decided to try and help “rebuild Rwanda through education”. “Rwanda has no raw materials, only people, and so I realised the only way to rebuild it was through human capital, through educating Rwandans.” Newmark is indeed a problem-solver to the core.
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