OCEAN CITY – Paul LeBrun said he didn’t want this story to be about him.
“What I want to do, I really want to promote World Central Kitchen,” said LeBrun, returning to Ocean City after spending three weeks in Poland near the border with Ukraine, helping feed a steady stream of people fleeing the Russian invasion. .
Spanish-born leader José Andrés founded the organization, which grew out of disaster relief efforts in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria hit the island in 2017.
Since then, the organization has fed people after storms and fires, including the 2018 Campfire in California, as well as stranded cruise ship passengers and people in New York and Washington during the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19.
This year, World Central Kitchen has established many sites in Poland along the border with Ukraine. In April, an emergency kitchen operated by one of the group’s partners in Kharkiv, Ukraine, was hit by a Russian missile, according to several news reports.
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LeBrun was far from the conflict. A retired federal worker, he lives in the small town of Red Feather Lakes, Colorado, and spends time in Ocean City with his girlfriend, Cynthia Hart.
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“We go back and forth in the summer,” he said of his time in Ocean City.
The two communities are separated by 1,645 miles and approximately 8,240 feet of elevation.
LeBrun, 70, said he also spent about 10 years traveling from Little Egg Harbor Township to New York, working for the Federal Transit Administration on environmental compliance and historic resource development as part of the reconstruction of the World Trade Center.
Like much of the world, LeBrun watched the humanitarian crisis unfold after Russia invaded Ukraine.
“After seeing all the refugees crossing the border, I knew I had to do something,” LeBrun said. He applied to volunteer with several organizations, including World Central Kitchen, but grew impatient after getting no response.
So he bought a plane ticket to Poland and headed for the border, reaching a town called Przemyśl (pronounced roughly like Sheh-mih-shuhl, with the accent on the first syllable). The city in southeastern Poland is a few kilometers from Ukraine and dates back to at least the 8th century.
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“I’m going there, without registering with any organization, which is probably a little daring. I didn’t know who I was going to work for,” LeBrun said.
LeBrun arrived at the station knowing no Polish and with a few Ukrainian phrases learned in a few days of classes. Near the station was the distribution site for food prepared by World Central Kitchen.
He entered the tent and told the crew he wanted to help. He said he was told to apply for the kitchen tent in a separate location, but to wait a minute. In the meantime, LeBrun said, he started emptying the trash cans and doing the things he saw as necessary.
He was put to work, helping out in the kitchen tent. There, the chefs prepared hot meals for people getting off the trains, as well as sandwiches and other supplies for their continued journey further into the European Union.
Most of the people he saw were mothers with young children and elderly people. The men he saw leaving Ukraine were mostly from other countries. Men between the ages of 18 and 60 have been banned from leaving Ukraine, according to the Washington Post, in anticipation of being called up to fight. Most of those who left the country were from eastern Ukraine, where intense fighting continues. The west, near Poland, is relatively peaceful, LeBrun said.
When he first arrived in Przemyśl, he said, a train had arrived from Ukraine.
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“That’s where it hits you, that these people, they get off the train, try to find their bearings, they don’t speak the language, their children may have been on a train for eight hours,” he said. he declares. “These are people who leave their husbands, their sons, their brothers in a war zone and cross over.”
At one point, he said, he saw a boy of about 10 who uses a wheelchair. A Polish policeman helped him off the train.
“I could see him looking into that police officer’s eyes,” LeBrun said. He imagined the boy wondering if everything would be okay, but then the boy smiled at the officer, he said.
LeBrun said most volunteers spend about a week. He spent three weeks, mostly in the kitchen.
“It was awesome,” he said. He added that these few sentences in Ukrainian made a big difference. Even though communication was limited, he could greet people in their own language.
“They knew I was trying to speak their language and that was the bond we had,” he said.
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Many of the volunteers were Americans, he said, with others from across Europe and other countries.
He and a few other Americans visited the Ukrainian city of Lviv, spending the night there.
“You would never think that Lviv was in a war zone. It was amazing. It was full of life. It’s an incredibly beautiful city,” he said.
There were signs of the conflict, including protective coatings on statues and stained glass windows, with messages that they would be seen again “after victory”, and a 10 p.m. curfew in the event of bombardment.
Often described as a “celebrity chef,” Andrés owns restaurants in several cities, including Washington and New York, ranging from food trucks to Michelin-rated gourmet restaurants. He has been credited with popularizing small-plate meals in America.
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