‘We feed everyone’: How a vegan restaurant in Lviv is helping hundreds of Ukrainian refugees every day

‘People are dying because of hunger’

Gino Spocchia
Sunday 20 March 2022 07:47
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<p>Vega Room staff members before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine</p>

Vega Room staff members before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

It has never been busier for 26-year-old Vitaly and his Vega Room restaurant in Lviv, western Ukraine. The numbers at Vega Room have risen tenfold since Russia invaded on 24 February, which forced a wave of women, children and older people to attempt to leave the country.

Around 200 people will arrive at his restaurant’s door daily for a hot meal, which Vitaly admits is more than Vega Room has ever had. On the menu? Buckwheat, grains and simple food, he said.

“It’s just regular soups, or we’ll do some cereals like buckwheat, rice, and some meat substitution; we just use tofu, falafel, which are very useful, actually. And people are very satisfied with them,” Vitaly told The Independent. “But on the other hand, there is actually a problem with those products, especially with tofu and with some meat substitution, because it’s difficult to find them right now.”

Vitaly said his Ukrainian supplier in Kharkiv has been effectively shuttered by the war. “Nothing works now, so yeah, we cannot get all the needed products from Ukraine. And now I am asking my friends to send me some products.”

A month ago, Vega Room would see about 30 or 40 customers come and go in a single day, with people enjoying plant-based pierogi, cabbage rolls and even a vegan stroganoff.

“It’s not really big,” Vitaly said from his home in Lviv, where he has taken in two families from Ukraine’s east. “It has six tables, so at the same time there could be 20 people maximum. Now it’s something like 200 a day, so for us, it’s a huge amount of people.”

The only difference now is that these people aren’t paying. Vega Room has become a vital part of the humanitarian effort underway in Lviv and elsewhere in Ukraine.

“Maybe not all of them are refugees but we don’t ask them to show passports,” said Vitaly of the Monday-to-Sunday restaurant operation. “I don’t think people are trying to take advantage here – we just feed everyone.”

Inside the Vega Room restaurant in Lviv, that has been feeding about 200 refugees a day

About a month ago, Vitaly had announced the closure of his Vega Room business because of the threat of Covid and a war with Russia. “We were hearing, like almost every day, that Russia is going to attack us. But we didn’t take this seriously. No one actually expected that,” he said. “And after the war started ... I didn’t know what to do, or what the future with the restaurant is going to be because I was really surprised.”

That was when he was approached by Vegan Ukraine, a charity that wanted to turn Vega Room into a kitchen for refugees fleeing Russia’s assault. He said it was spearheaded by two sisters who were regular customers of his restaurant, and who organised funding for his refugee vegan kitchen. It has provided Vega Room and now thousands of refugees with a lifeline.

People eating at Vega Room, among the businesses in Lviv that have turned to helping refugees from eastern Ukraine

“When the war started we lost our workers because some of them went to Poland. We had a waitress and she went to Poland…they were scared of the war and so we didn’t have any choice. We decided to close it. But then this initiative came up,” said Vitaly, who has signed up to be a Ukrainian army volunteer.

And his rent has been suspended by Lviv’s authorities too, which has been bracing itself for a Russian assault on one of Ukraine’s westernmost cities after an attack on a nearby military base on Sunday. The bombing just miles from the Polish border sent shockwaves through Lviv, which has seen little of the war waged by Russia.

Ukrainian refugees at the train station in Lviv

“It was horrible,” said Vitaly, “because many people didn’t expect that, you know. Until today, we live here in a peaceful place. We didn’t expect something like this to happen.”

Like all businesses in Lviv, Vega Room has been forced to adapt to the vast number of people fleeing war, with estimates suggesting some 200,000 people have settled temporarily in Ukraine’s seventh biggest city.

Lviv normally has a population of about 740,000, with close ties to nearby Poland and Hungary. Estimates from the UN have said some 1.85 million people have left Ukraine, and up to 4 million could still do so.

Vega Room volunteers

“There is a huge problem with humanitarian problems in the east,” explained Vitaly. “People are dying because of hunger there and the worst part is you’re totally helpless. You know, I want to contribute to those people.”

Describing himself as “cosmopolitan”, the long-time vegan and business owner said while he couldn’t imagine fighting five years ago, this war is “already the second conflict because the war started in 2014 when Russia occupied Crimea”.

He added some comforting words: “But to be honest, in 2014, people weren’t as united as they are now.”

And he said that the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has “inspired” people. “I think if it was our previous president or the previous president like Petro Poroshenko, for example, no one would fight that strongly for the country.”

This map shows the extent of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

As for the future, Vitaly says he hopes to fully reopen Vega Room when the war ends and that his customers – new and old – will return. “Actually I want to open as soon as possible. But right now I think we can have two conditions; the place can be closed and give some taxes, or the place can be open and feed refugees and I think this is what is most appropriate for us right now.”

“I hope when the war will finish, of course, we will reopen this as a normal business place,” he said. Anybody wanting to contribute funds to Vega Rooms refugee kitchen can contribute with donation details here.

The Independent has a proud history of campaigning for the rights of the most vulnerable, and we first ran our Refugees Welcome campaign during the war in Syria in 2015. Now, as we renew our campaign and launch this petition in the wake of the unfolding Ukrainian crisis, we are calling on the government to go further and faster to ensure help is delivered. To find out more about our Refugees Welcome campaign, click here. To sign the petition click here. If you would like to donate then please click here for our GoFundMe page.

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