Feeding Ukrainian Refugees in Spain
It's not what you'd think
As a food writer, it’s my tendency to write about places and moments where food takes center stage. A restaurant, a farm, a Thanksgiving feast, a recipe. For people who love and live to cook and eat, it’s energizing and affirming to talk about food as if it’s the most important thing in the room. And sometimes it actually is. But what happens when it’s not? What happens when the food itself is not only not the most important thing in the room, but the least by a mile? Let me explain.
Back in the beginning of May, I was supposed to travel to Poland for a week to volunteer with World Central Kitchen cooking meals for Ukrainian refugees who were spilling across the border from Western Ukraine. I’d help prepare food during the day, write at night, meet who I met and see what I saw. My tickets were booked; my bag half-packed. Then two days before my flight I got Covid.
And that was the end of that.
Even after the virus was done meandering its way through our family of four and I was cleared to travel again, I couldn’t carve out enough time to make the Poland trip happen. So, it was on to plan B: Spain.
According to an assessment released in late June by Spain’s Minister for Inclusion, Social Security and Migration, since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Spain has granted temporary protection to more than 124,000 Ukrainian refugees as of July. In response to the influx, World Central Kitchen, the global food-relief organization founded by chef José Andres, set up operations in Málaga, Madrid and Barcelona to help feed refugees fleeing Ukraine. So earlier this month I set out for Barcelona to join up with World Central Kitchen, volunteer for two days and report back.
All that I “knew” going in was gleaned from this description on the website: “World Central Kitchen has installed a food truck in Barcelona to provide food relief to refugees fleeing Ukraine. Volunteers will be helping our team prepare meals for refugee centers in Barcelona.”
As often happens, I let my mind run wild. I envisioned myself in a hot kitchen in the blazing Barcelona sun, wielding knives, wrestling massive pots, pressing to keep pace, high stakes and high demand. I guess it’s good to be reminded every once in a while that the gap between what we imagine and what we experience can be pretty damn big.
I showed up for my first shift at 7:45 a.m. The processing center where I’d be working, known as a CREADE (Reception, Care and Referral Center), is housed in a beautiful old building in the Barcelona convention center complex, just down a mighty set of stairs from a stunning neo-Baroque palace. By the time the doors opened at 8:00 a.m., there was a small line of people queued up in front waiting to check in. I slipped past and headed to the back of the massive room where a black food truck was parked. It was covered in World Central Kitchen signs, along with a note in Spanish and Ukrainian that said “All of the food is free. Take what you want.”
There were big boxes of croissants, muffins and sandwiches waiting to be put out. Inside the truck there were two large boiling water dispensers for making coffee and tea, and behind it a food warmer and an oven for heating up prepared meals. It didn’t take long to realize that the rhythm of the day would be a little different than I imagined. Rather than cooking the food and having it doled out offsite to those who might want it, we’d be serving pre-prepared food out of the truck to everyone at the reception center. The rest of the gaps were filled in when the boss arrived, Fernando Quindos Lopez, who is in charge of the World Central Kitchen operation at the CREADE in Barcelona. He explained that the kitchen is in Madrid, not here, and that the food we’d be serving is made and delivered by the same company that does the catering for Barcelona’s airport.
Fernando is from Seville and has been working for World Central Kitchen in Spain for several years. It wasn’t long before we were hunched over his phone watching a video of him in a gas mask in front of an erupting volcano on La Palma, one of Spain’s Canary islands off the Northwestern coast of Africa. While he seems perfectly comfortable standing next to a lava flow, his appetite for danger has a limit; he has two young girls at home and would understandably rather not travel to active war zones if he has the choice. Instead, here at the reception center in Barcelona, the people from the active war zone have travelled to him.
As we stock the shelf with water, juice boxes and fruit, and shield the baked goods from the peckish pigeons that have made their way inside, Fernando explains how it all works. The Ukrainians who come to the reception center are there to obtain documents that will grant them temporary protection in Spain, including work and residency permits. Workers from the Red Cross meet the refugees out front to facilitate the application, while in a room in the back, government officials from the Ministry of Inclusion, Social Security and Migration process the documents in a matter of hours. If they don’t have a place to stay, there are beds and showers in the back. The role of World Central Kitchen in all of this is simple: feed anyone in that building who wants to eat: the refugees, the Red Cross workers, the government, the police, everyone.
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, over 20,000 Ukrainians, the majority women and children, have been served at the reception center in Barcelona. About 40 percent arrived by plane, with the rest making the trip from Ukraine to Spain in cars, buses or trains. What was once a steady stream —often 200 to 400 people a day back in May— has slowed to a trickle. According to numbers collected by the government, 89 people were processed during the two days that I volunteered. Some arrived with suitcases, some with strollers, and others with shoulder bags; and sooner or later, as they waited for their documents to process, they all made their way back to the truck.
Most everyone needed coffee —a heaping spoonful of instant crystals topped off with scalding hot water— or tea, the Ukrainian words for which I learned from a Red Cross worker first thing in the morning. People grabbed pastries from the bins and filled up shopping bags with jamón and cheese sandwiches. At lunch, we scooped pasta Bolognese and albondigas (meatballs with vegetables) into cardboard containers for people to eat onsite or take home. It all reminded me of my first high school jobs working coffee counters and hoping to God I didn’t screw anything up. (In Barcelona, I made chocolate milk for a Ukrainian boy and nervously watched him drink it for five minutes because I was terrified I didn’t mix in the powder well enough.)
The same people returned to the truck again and again over the course of the day. There was Lilly, the Red Cross translator who was headed back home at the end of the week to visit her family in Western Ukraine, where she said things were stable for the moment, but could turn at any time. There was the young woman who was more excited about a cup of coffee than anyone I’ve ever met, bursting into laughter and skipping back and forth from the truck to the table where she sat with her friends. There was the boy kicking a soccer ball through a toy tunnel in the giant kids play area to our left, throwing his arms up in the air as if he had just scored the game-winning goal in the World Cup.
Sometime in the afternoon there was music reverberating through the massive room; melancholic, beautiful. Up against the far wall Fernando was perched at a small piano. I honestly don’t know how long he’d been there, the notes receding gently into the air as soon as they were played. For the people waiting there that day for the tickets to their unexpected new lives in Spain to be punched, that music was meant to comfort; not urgently, but quietly in the background.
And, when I think about it, that food truck was no different; a constant, comforting presence perched modestly in the back. Those instant coffees, boiling hot teas, chocolate-laced croissants and steaming bowls of pasta were never the difference between life and death, but a source of small joys for those who had come that day with much bigger fish to fry. Not nearly the most important thing in the room, but essential nonetheless.