A restaurant on the frontline of war: Londoners mobilise for Ukraine
Prosperity, a Ukrainian restaurant in south London, is a very different place compared to what it was one month ago. Once an intimate family-run restaurant, it has now been transformed into a donation hub to support Ukraine after Russia’s invasion.
Chairs and tables, a stream of food and customers; they’ve gone. Instead, the place is teeming with volunteers. Brits, Ukrainians, Russians, Poles and many more offer their time and services to collect, sort and pack donations for people directly impacted by Putin’s war.
During this bleak and uncertain time, the restaurant is a testament to the depth of humanity and power of the grassroots in the jaws of conflict. It is also an insight into how the war in Ukraine has captured the national psyche.
“The restaurant has been in the area for a few years,” said Cathy Cooper, a longtime Twickenham resident and volunteer, to The New Arab.
“It was homely, I felt like I was on holiday when I visited,” she said.
Cooper explained how the donation centre sprung into action.
It all started with a few nappies.
Originally, the restaurant was offering a special lunchtime menu to raise funds for Ukrainians. Local families then brought along a few donations, such as hygiene products. As word spread, more and more gifts came flooding in.
In the last three weeks, there has been an endless flow of passers-by dropping off bags filled with clothes and toiletries. Schools, such as Collis Primary and Hampton school, have given tonnes of goods and equipment. Volunteers say that they’ve received support from the council, church and police.
It was “make-shift,” said Cooper. As the size of the donations grew, so did the operation.
Once donations are boxed-up and sealed downstairs, they are crammed into the back of lorries and shipped off to eastern Europe.
So far, Prosperity has shipped off 18 lorries, filled from floor to roof. Five lorries, The New Arab was told, are on their way to Ukraine.
“It’s making a big difference,” said Cooper. “It’s a very emotional experience,” she added.
Alina Lutf, a Ukrainian who is now coordinating efforts at Prosperity, told The New Arab: "When I saw the video of our donations arriving in Ukraine, I could cry."
When asked why volunteers felt compelled to help? Why now, why this crisis?
Cooper, a Brit, said that the invasion “sent a shockwave when Putin sent in troops and this unreasonable behaviour could also have an impact on the UK”.
"Having a Ukrainian restaurant in Twickenham made it more personal," she added.
Cooper is one of around 125 volunteers who joined the humanitarian efforts. She said that many people like her – who are not Ukrainian – offered their assistance without really thinking about it. “I thought I’ve got to go and help,” she said. “The other volunteers I met there, that’s exactly how they felt as well.”
Coordinator Lutf said "people of all ages and backgrounds come to help. They're such an amazing, cool crowd."
For those with direct links to Ukraine, their reasons for getting involved are far more personal.
Adam Lazowski, a Ukrainian-Polish professor of EU law at the University of Westminster, told The New Arab about his family and friends still in Ukraine.
Lazowski said he is motivated to help because he knows donations will reach people in need, like his cousins. "I received a heartbreaking phone call from my cousins, who thanked me for our donations.
"People are running out of food in the middle of winter. These are ordinary people who need help," he said.
Lutf, also a Ukrainian, has taken time off work as a ballet teacher to do all she can at the restaurant. "Donations kept coming in and they needed someone to organise things," she said.
Her 85-year-old disabled mother is stuck in Kyiv.
“I communicate with her multiple times a day. I just pray every day that her building is not bombed.”
Ukraine’s capital has been bombarded by Russian shelling for several days. Kyiv is now under a 35-hour curfew in what its mayor called a “difficult and dangerous moment”.
Supported by an army of volunteers, Lutf said Prosperity will "keep sending off lorries as long as the donations come.
"It doesn't look good [the situation] and we don't know what's going to happen next. But that's the plan."
Further Analysis: Can Britain step up for Ukraine? Yes. But is that the wrong question
In a largely disunited Kingdom, the invasion of Ukraine has prompted a rare moment of unification.
Two-fifths of Brits think the government should be doing more to support Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees, according to a YouGov poll from March 24.
Around a quarter say they’ve donated money to relief efforts for people caught up in the fighting, and 34 percent say they will probably do so in future.
Indeed, the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) – 15 leading UK aid charities – managed to raise an astounding £55 million on its first day “following [an] extraordinary outpouring of public support”.
Britain, it seems, wants to step up for Ukraine. Scenes like the one found at Prosperity can be heralded as the manifestation of this view.
However, among these stories of community support coupled with images of individualised heroism, there is arguably an important debate that is missing.
Rather than can Brits step up, surely it is, should they? Should it be a choice or a long-term commitment?
This debate should not undermine the material as well as symbolic significance of grassroots mobilisation, but neither should it be sidelined at such as critical time. Its central thrust: how can a groundswell of public support be translated into something long-lasting in a world of multiple crises that can sprawl on for decades? Ukraine, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen.
The UK government’s “Homes for Ukraine” scheme, which opened on March 14, was lauded by some as a way to turn sympathy into tangible support. It allows “individual members of the public to sponsor a guest from Ukraine”. Around 100,000 people signed up on the first day and the website crashed within minutes of going live.
Yet, days later, there are stories of families willing to open their homes but frustrated and saddened at the slowness of the process, according to BBC.
Ultimately, is this just another example of government outsourcing; relying on voluntary generosity with systems that can’t sustain the people who really need help?
There is also the unfortunate prospect of waning public support as time passes and Putin continues his bombardment of Ukrainian cities.
“Event-driven Liberalism” – a term used in The Economist by Rob Ford, a professor of political science at the University of Manchester – is nothing new. In the wake of Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban, or the outbreak of Covid-19, people in Britain lept to action to offer help and support. As time passed, unfortunately, attention shifted elsewhere.
Of course, there are racial and contextual differences that must be taken into account when discussing these comparisons. But again, it circles back to this fundamental debate that Britain keeps glossing over: should it be a choice or a commitment?
As restaurants like Prosperity offer tangible help and give those far from family and friends agency during this crisis; alongside this, a humane migration system and a long-term pledge (accompanied by a sizeable purse) from the British government and its people to Ukraine, like people in Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen, is needed.
Rose McCabe is a staff journalist at The New Arab