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South Florida chef helps prepare meals for Ukrainians fleeing war

Cooks use long paddles to stir a giant pot of food simmering over a burner.
Courtesy of World Central Kitchen
The non-profit World Central Kitchen is preparing an average of 250,000 meals per day for refugees fleeing Ukraine after Russia's attacks.

A local chef from South Florida is on the front lines of the Ukraine-Russia crisis, helping to provide meals to people fleeing war.

Chef Karla Hoyos is working with the non-profit organization World Central Kitchen.

Hoyos was the chef de cuisine at The Bazaar by José Andrés in Miami Beach. Andrés is a renowned Spanish-American chef and the founder of World Central Kitchen.

She arrived at the Ukrainian-Polish border just days after the attacks began about a month ago and has been there since.

Most recently, during her time working as a chef in South Florida, she has been working to open a new restaurant called Tacotomia in Downtown Miami.

Hoyos joined Sundial from Przemyśl, Poland, and spoke with WLRN’s Luis Hernandez about her experience.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

WLRN: How did you get the news about the opportunity to go there? And what was that decision like?

HOYOS: On a Monday I got the message like, ‘Hey, we need you in Poland as soon as possible.’ So I called my mom, first thing. Just to make her feel that I was going to be safe. You know, it's not normal that you're calling your mom and like, ‘Hey, I'm going to war to feed people.’ I bought my ticket and I was on my way the next day.

I love to cook. I love to help people. I got the opportunity to do it. It was a big challenge because you're coming into these empty warehouses that had no electricity, no gas connection, not enough power. I mean, it was an empty block. And in less than six days, we have a kitchen that can feed up to 250,000 meals a day.

Courtesy of World Central Kitchen
Miami chef Karla Hoyos is working with the non-profit World Central Kitchen on the Poland-Ukraine border, helping prepare meals for people fleeing war.

What's a day like for you?  

I start normally at 5 a.m. We make hot chocolate, we make food [and] we make baby food from scratch. We make either banana bread or apple bread, stuff that people can carry with them. Every two hours they're giving me updates. For example, a train came in and you had a thousand people. So we need to send a thousand meals right now to the train station. Every day it changes.

We start serving the first meal at 7 a.m. [and] the last one at 9 or 10 p.m.

You cannot even explain it. A lot of these women are bruised. And of course, you don't ask. The children are crying, either they're cold or miss their father because the father stays [in Ukraine]. You want to say so much, you can’t. I don't speak Polish. You're just trying to make sure that they know that you want to give them hot chocolate. It’s different. Day number four, I was like, I don't know if I can do this.

You’ve worked with World Central Kitchen in other crises. You were in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria; Haiti, after the most recent earthquake; the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian. This is the first time you've been near a war. What have you learned from these experiences?

The first thing you [learn is] empathy. I’ve learned to appreciate simple things that I think we take for granted. There's a lot of bad in the world, but it's overwhelming to see how much good there is.

Courtesy of World Central Kitchen
Chefs from around the world have joined the effort to help provide meals to those affected by the Russia-Ukraine war.

Medyka is one of the biggest border crossings with Ukraine. We have three points of distribution there. You have to walk through the same part that the refugees walk through when they're crossing. So I was like, I'm going to walk back with this perspective. I want to see what is the first thing they see when they're crossing [into Poland]. I mean, I couldn't even understand it because you're talking about people that have been walking for days. Me, I just crossed and came back. But still, I want to see. I was almost crying, but of joy, like this is... it's so amazing. People are amazing and we don't talk enough about that.

Whatever is happening in this horrible war is horrible. What these people are going through, I think no one deserves to go through that, but I think we need to talk more about how amazing people are. Like just volunteers there to help [the refugees] carry their stuff [across the border]. There's this lady from California. She set up a tent where she helps mothers with babies because mostly you're seeing mothers with children. And she gives them the opportunity to warm up, to give milk to the babies or if they need to breastfeed.

So many amazing people that just want to help. You have a food truck doing Indian food, vegetarian, for whoever doesn't eat meat. You have people making cotton candy for the kids. Humanity is amazing.