This is the third in our blog series from our conversation with celebrity chef Steve Cassarino, aka Chef Roc, as he reflected on his month of volunteering with World Central Kitchen. In the first blog, he shared his experience of working 12 hour shifts in the kitchen in Poland to supply thousands of meals a day to refugee centers at the border and satellite kitchens within Ukraine itself. In the second post, we focused on his personal encounters with displaced Ukrainian children, and his ongoing efforts to raise funds and awareness to support some of the on-the-ground organizations and facilities that he connected with.
Here, we want to share some of the personal, human stories from the Ukraine/Poland border that have most moved and impacted Chef Roc. These stories paint a vivid picture of the human cost of war, and the impact on individual lives – the fear and trauma, the suffering and uncertainty. But they also celebrate the strength of the Ukrainian people and the resilience of the human spirit, and give us hope as we see compassion in action.
1. Missing Children
The chef told us a story about something that his friend witnessed while volunteering in Ukraine for several months. She is now back home in the US, but this experience still gives her nightmares – and it’s easy to see why.
She was working in the kitchen during the day, and then volunteering at the train station at night, as refugees came over the border. One night, as people disembarked a train and headed up the stairs, she noticed a woman dragging a heavy suitcase and weeping. At one point, the suitcase fell part of the way down the staircase and the woman was absolutely hysterical, crying and screaming. Chef Roc’s friend ran over and tried to comfort her, while calling for a translator. Eventually they understood that the woman was yelling for them to open up the suitcase, and when they did they found a small boy inside. He was passed out cold, and at first they didn’t think he was still alive. Chef Roc explains that “at the beginning of the war there was news spreading – and it probably was happening – that there were people at the train stations to steal kids.”
It’s true that, as early as March, news outlets were reporting that children were going missing in the chaos of the mass border crossings, and that human trafficking was a serious concern. In mid-March, Ukraine’s foreign ministry declared that 2,389 children had been kidnapped by Putin’s forces and transported across the border from Donetsk and Luhansk. In May, “Missing Children Europe” drew attention to the fact that during the first two months of the war there had been an enormous increase in the reports of missing children, with more than 2100 recorded cases of children going missing inside Ukraine. So if this woman’s actions seem extreme, it’s not hard to understand why she felt she had to take such drastic measures.
Chef Roc told us that he had just recently spoken to his friend again and that she is still dealing with the post-traumatic stress of what she saw: “It just broke her heart.”
2. Going Back
There is one story that stands out to the chef as a “shining star” in his memory. Watch the video to hear Chef Roc tell the story in his own words.
Chef Roc was at the border handing out food and supplies, and he rushed to help an elderly woman who was attempting to push an extremely heavily laden and precarious cart up the steep slope to the border crossing. The Chef could see that there was no way she would make it up, so he offered to take over for her. He grabbed it, and it felt like it weighed 500 pounds. He thought, “how the heck is this lady pushing this thing?”
He managed to push it all the way up, with a lot of sweating and panting, and the woman was finding the whole thing very funny. Then she smiled and the chef noticed that she had one gold tooth – “I swear that when the light hit it, it just glistened, you know? Like a toothpaste commercial.” He helped her up the slope to get across the border, but after that she was on her own again.
And then it hit him – right there at the border – that this woman was going back. She was in her eighties, alone, pushing this 500-pound cart that probably carried everything she had left in the world. And she was going back. Chef Roc says, “That’s what hit me – not the load and how we interacted. She loved the fact that I helped her. It was the fact that she was going back – and back to what? I don’t know, and I don’t think she knew either.” It really made him think about those people who are choosing to return, because that’s their home. He says, “People are going back…they’re going right into the fire again, right into not knowing.”
The chef also shared a story about one of his friends who had some close connections in Kyiv and Lviv, so he would sometimes take a few days off to go across and see them. This gave him an intimate insight into the reality of living in a war zone, and actually being in the city when missiles hit. Chef Roc asked his friend what the Ukrainian people do when they hear a siren – most of us can’t even imagine it. He replied, “They’re so used to it. When they hear a siren they just look up to see where the missile is going.” In the words of his Ukrainian host, “If it’s not near us, we just keep doing what we’re doing.” As Chef Roc remarked, it’s pretty scary when someone has just become used to that happening.
When the sirens sound and the bombing starts, some people stay and others run. Near the end of his time volunteering in the kitchen, the chef heard first hand what it means to run for your life. A girl of about 22 years old arrived in the kitchen and said she had come from Odessa, which was being bombed heavily every day. He says, “She told me that she literally ran with nothing. Ran out of the city, ran to get to where the train was, and bombs were flying. She doesn’t even know about her relatives. She had no belongings, no phone, nothing. She literally ran out of the house and then the house blew up.” Sadly, there are so many stories like this.
4. Walking On
There was a man who arrived for food at the border crossing who stood out to the chef as a striking example of the resilience and strength of will of the people of Ukraine. He approached on makeshift crutches because he was missing a leg. Chef Roc says, “The guy had to walk 35 miles to get to the border.” It made the chef wonder whether he would have the same determination if he ever found himself in such a position: “You don’t know until you’re in that situation, but I just felt the strength of the Ukrainian people.”
5. Stepping Up
In the chaos and crowds of the train station, the chef encountered all types of people. But another that really stood out was a man in military uniform who was coming over the border from Ukraine: “He had all this beer with him, and as he walked by I asked if he needed water.” He gratefully accepted the drink and told the chef, “I’m from Belfast. I’m a soldier. I volunteered and I’ve been on the front for the last four months, but I need to go home. I’ve seen too much.”
Like this man, many thousands of military men and women from the US and Europe have volunteered to support the Ukrainian army and the Ukrainian people against the Russian invasion. Back in March, President Zelenskyy reported that more than 16,000 had so far volunteered – either to fight or as military paramedics. Many have even lost their lives to the cause, including two American volunteer soldiers just in the last few weeks.
And this is just one example of stepping up in solidarity, of compassion in action, across borders and nations. Chef Roc reflected on all the people he met in the World Central Kitchen – “I met chefs from Japan, from Australia, from Greenland… I mean, we had them from all over.” He also speaks with great admiration of the many networks of people on the ground, working together to get organized and to do what they can to help – particularly the Polish people he encountered.
These are the things we can hold on to when we feel ourselves losing faith in humanity in the face of such horror: the selflessness, the goodness, the generosity, the unity and collaboration of the volunteers who step up to help and to stand with those who are suffering. It would be understandable for Chef Roc to feel hopeless, helpless and despairing after all that he has seen and heard, but thankfully the stories of human resilience and human kindness have the power to shout just as loud as the sheer pain and destruction. Reflecting on these stories and memories, he is all the more motivated to keep going, to do more.
Save The Children of Ukraine
We covered Chef Roc’s fundraising activities back in the US in our second blog. He recently hosted a fundraising event and continues efforts to raise money for Poland Welcomes, a refugee center near the Ukraine border that is housing, on average, 500 refugees at a time. His fundraising efforts are also supporting an orphanage in Lviv, Ukraine. If you’re interested in learning more about Chef Roc’s fundraising campaign and donating, find more information here.