BY ELLIE HENSLEY
A Midtown lawyer dedicated her time away from the office this year to aiding Ukrainian refugees forced to evacuate their homes due to the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war.
Litigation attorney Lynsey Barron recently spent a week at the Ukraine-Poland border - 5,200 miles from home - volunteering for World Central Kitchen, whose mission is to be first on the front lines, providing meals in response to humanitarian, climate and community crises. It specializes in cooking comfort foods that are local to the area it is serving.
We spoke with Barron about her experience feeding thousands of displaced Ukrainians — mostly women, children and the elderly — and how she’s continuing to help those affected by the war.
Offering More than Thoughts and Prayers
Barron once lived in Washington, D.C., where she was familiar with Chef José Andrés, who would go on to found World Central Kitchen with his wife, Patricia, after a powerful earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010.
When Ukraine was invaded by Russia in February 2022, Barron felt called to do something to help. She was considering setting up a fundraising page, until she saw on CNN one night that a Russian missile had destroyed a WCK restaurant in Kharkiv, Ukraine.
“I didn’t know if it was intentional, but I was crying, I was enraged,” she said. “I decided I need to go and do something and help this organization in a way that was not just raising money on social media.”
Figuring Out Logistics
In the five months since Russian forces invaded Ukraine, WCK has built the largest food relief operation serving Ukraine, crossing the milestone of 100 million meals served to refugees as of July 17. The organization has meal distribution sites at all eight border crossings in Poland that now operate 24/7, as well as other countries where refugees are fleeing Poland such as Romania and Moldova.
When Barron went online to book her trip, they weren’t accepting volunteers to travel to Ukraine directly, but she was able to volunteer to travel to Przemysl (push-SHEH-muh-shl), a city less than 10 miles from the Polish-Ukrainian border. WCK requires volunteers to commit to a week of serving meals, and team members are on their own to figure out travel plans and book lodging.
“It’s not easy to get to this town, but once I figured out logistics, I felt such a compulsion to go,” Barron said.
Although she doesn’t speak Polish, she had little trouble with communicating with others on her trip — her fellow volunteers were mostly from Canada and the United States, many Polish people spoke English and younger Ukrainian refugees had taken English classes in school.
From 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Barron assisted WCK’s professional chefs in the kitchen by doing prep work such as making sausage and sandwiches. At night, her team would go to a refugee shelter, often in places like a converted shopping mall, to help with cleaning tasks such as sanitizing cots and taking out trash. Once she finally returned back to her lodging to rest, she had worked a 16- to 18-hour day.
Finding Joy in Small Places
On a few occasions, Barron greeted trains from Ukraine whose passengers had been traveling hours without food or drink.
“That was the most powerful thing to me was seeing them get off the train, carrying as much as they could in rolling bags and plastic bags, with children who were too exhausted and overwhelmed to cry,” she said. “A lot of people would come to Poland without a plan, and they were stuck.”
With the shelters overflowing, often people would sleep in the train station or even on the sidewalks.
“You can’t see something like that and not be moved by it,” she said. “As sad as it was, the Ukrainian people and their capacity for joy is unparalleled. They are the most grateful people I have ever seen, finding joy in small places and anywhere they could find it.”
The shelter she visited most often had an out-of-tune piano, and she saw a teenage refugee sit down and begin to play Ukrainian music beautifully, drawing a crowd of people around him.
“Anything in the world that has ever bothered me seems incredibly small when compared to what I saw and the resilience of these people,” she said. “You realize that it’s not your tragedy to cry about, so you don’t break down or get sad. You just do as much as you can, as much work as you can in the time that you’re there for, and you process your emotions when you get home.”
Direct Service Feeds the Soul
Although she’s volunteered in various ways throughout her life on a smaller scale, Barron has never traveled abroad to volunteer before. She didn’t know a single person she’d be traveling with when she booked her trip to Poland, but she was surprised to find her group formed a tight bond very quickly.
“I was very nervous about being isolated, but our group gelled so fast, and we all had similar values and were there for the same reason,” she said. “I expected the service part to be rewarding, and it was times a million, but I did not expect to meet a group of friends I’d have for my entire life.”
Before going on her trip, Barron opened a fundraising page to benefit WCK, and she raised about $5,000 in the first 24 hours. She eventually raised over $10,000, and Barron is a regular donor herself. But she is already planning to volunteer again for another WCK relief effort as soon as she is able. Barron recently left her job at Miller & Martin LLP to start her own criminal defense firm, which she looks to locate in Midtown early next year.
“I came back a different person,” she said. “I want to find a way to do more of this kind of work, direct service. I have to do something like this fairly regularly to feed my soul.”
Learn more about World Central Kitchen’s mission by watching “We Feed People,” a documentary by Ron Howard. If you’re interested in volunteering for World Central Kitchen, you can find details on their website.