World Central Kitchen partners recovering after attacks in Kharkiv

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Nate Mook stands between two buildings in what was once a street in Kharkiv, the war-torn city in northeast Ukraine. The road is littered with debris and the charred skeletons of once-operable vehicles. The windows of both buildings have been blown out, and the walkway between the structures looks as if it would collapse with the weight of a single human being.

On Saturday, around noon Ukraine time, a missile hit this section of Kharkiv, and Mook, chief executive of World Central Kitchen, is explaining that, once again, Russian forces have attacked a civilian area. This time, it was a restaurant operating as a relief kitchen with support from WCK, the organization founded by chef and humanitarian José Andrés. Four staff members of the ghost kitchen, part of the Yaposhka chain of restaurants in Ukraine, were hospitalized with burns, some severe.

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It’s the first time, in the 12 years since WCK was founded, that one of its relief kitchens has come under attack. It’s also the first time WCK has operated in a war zone.

“As you can see, tremendous amounts of damage. There’s still a fire in the building there,” Mook narratives via a video on his Twitter feed. “There’s a lot of damage to the kitchen as well.”

“In this area, there are offices. There are residences. People live here. People work here, and people cook here. And that’s it,” adds Mook, his outrage palpable. “I don’t really know what else to say. Just absolutely horrific brutality.”

Two days later, Mook is on the phone, talking from Kharkiv, where the city has been under near-constant shelling from the Russians. He has visited the injured women at the hospital — he only knows their first names and isn’t sure they want their full names made public — and they’re in good spirits. One has already been released. Another, Yulia, got the worst of it: She suffered burns on her hand and arm, which Mook believes to be third-degree burns.

The remaining three women are expected to be released from the hospital in the next day or two, Mook says.

“The sad part is the hospital needs the beds because so many people now are getting injured,” he adds. “Even tonight, Russia just dropped more shells into the city center. They hit yesterday in the city center as well. A couple of days ago, they hit a park where people were just out walking their dogs and sitting around. I mean, it’s pretty brutal and violent.”

It could have been worse, Mook says. The missile appears to have hit the building across the street from the restaurant. About 30 to 35 people were working at the time, preparing the 3,000 to 4,000 meals that are made daily from this particular Yaposhka kitchen. Most of the workers were well away from the windows that face the street.

“The kitchens are a little bit back from the street,” Mook says. “It’s kind of miraculous that more people from the restaurant were not injured or killed. Imagine if 10 people from the staff were out on a smoke break, standing out front right when the missile hit, all of those people would be dead.”

All four workers were Yaposhka employees, not staffers or volunteers with World Central Kitchen. WCK is, at present, working with more than 400 restaurants, food trucks and caterers, which together produce about 320,000 meals per day to feed the hungry in Ukraine. WCK doesn’t allow its volunteers to work inside Ukraine.

Typically, Mook says, WCK pays its partners a set price per meal, a price that is supposed to cover not just ingredients, but also rent, utilities, labor and more. Yaposhka, for example, was one of the first partners in Kharkiv, Mook says, “in the early days when it was very dangerous to be out here, not that it’s not dangerous now.”

José Andrés and his World Central Kitchen feed refugees fleeing Ukraine

Yaposhka’s ghost kitchen was all but destroyed in the missile attack. Walls crumbled. It looked as if “the hand of God smashed into the front of the restaurant,” Mook says. Despite the destruction, however, workers on Sunday were already moving usable equipment and supplies to a new location. They hoped to be back online Tuesday.

The founders of Yaposhka, Mook says, “asked the staff what they want to do, and the staff said, ‘Let’s go. Let’s get another kitchen up and running. Let’s get cooking. People need to eat.’ ”

Yulia, the worker with severe burns on her arm and hand, was among those who want to return.

Only a handful of WCK employees actually operate inside Ukraine, including Mook and, on many days, Andrés himself. Both men serve as witnesses/reporters as much as relief workers, providing a direct pipeline to information on the ground via their Twitter accounts. WCK also has a number of workers who spend a fair amount of time gathering information from the military, civic leaders, journalists and the many residents who remain in Ukraine.

“Information is the most valuable thing,” Mook says, “because it’s the way you stay safe, or as safe as possible. Again, you can’t stop a cruise missile landing at a train station or outside your restaurant.”

WCK has been able to feed people in cities that have taken the brunt of Russia’s attack. The organization has relied on trucks and trains to carry supplies and equipment into the places still under siege. On the morning of the Yaposhka missile attack, for instance, a truck dropped off rice cookers, induction burners and big pots at the kitchen.

The only location currently off limits for WCK is Mariupol, the battered port city where Russian and Ukrainian forces are still fighting for control.

“At this point, nobody is really able to get in,” Mook says. “The routes that you could access within the last week or two have been cut off.”

“People are probably starving to death in Mariupol,” he adds. “It’s really a horrific, horrific situation.”

Nearly two months into the war, Mook acknowledges it can be exhausting to deal with the daily challenges. Sometimes, he doesn’t even know what day it is.

“What keeps me going, what keeps José going, what keeps the team going is the Ukrainians that we’re surrounded with,” Mook says. “This is what drives us: the spirit and the strength and the resilience of the Ukrainians. We look at them and say, ‘Well, we’re here to stand by their side. They’re going through this, and we got to be there to support them.’ ”

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