Photographer and Twickenham resident Cathy Cooper shares her experiences of volunteering at Prosperity Café, the Ukrainian restaurant that has become a
local hub for humanitarian aid to the people of Ukraine.
I call it the Pavement of Tears. I have seen so many people, their eyes welling up with emotion when they stop to offer donations or just to see what is going on inside this little family-run Ukrainian café and restaurant in Twickenham.
Even the volunteers shed a tear or two when they have time to reflect on the ongoing situation, especially if they have friends or relatives who are affected.
Alina, who is a friend of the café owners Alex and Galyna, says she has no more tears left. Her 85-year-old disabled mother is still back in Ukraine on her own and although Alina phones her five times a day, it is a situation not many of us over here can comprehend.
Like most of the volunteers, I turned up to donate at Prosperity and the emotional effect was so profound that I didn’t hesitate to offer my help the next day.
I almost wished I had put a letter inside one of my large donated backpacks asking the recipient to contact me and let me know how they were. A sort of message in a bottle. But
Instead the next morning I just got stuck straight in. I was on nappy duty with a Russian girl taping up bundles of nappies to go directly into the vans as they can be squished into small spaces. I spent the following day in the basement on rucksack, blanket and power-bank duty and another day on medicines.
The atmosphere was electric, especially when huge amounts of donations came in from schools and clubs. Items were quickly sorted and distributed into assigned boxes. When a box was full, it was taped up and labelled in both English and Ukrainian and then stacked near the door for transportation. Once the van was outside, a voice would shout ‘human chain’ and we would form a queue to pass along the heavy boxes to the men loading, the contents being ticked off on an inventory.
Often the contents of the bags were mixed so you would hear shouts across the room such as ‘sanitary towels’ or ‘pet food’ with a voice responding ‘over here’. The room was crowded with willing volunteers all sorting through the huge piles of goods while outside people were queuing with more offerings. The team further along the pavement were making up flat-packed cartons at top speed as there was no room inside.
Prosperity started doing fundraising lunches when the conflict first began but by the end of February, it had taken down its menu and changed into a local hub for donations to the Ukraine.
The whole operation is running more efficiently now as generous businesses (both local and nationwide) are offering their services by providing boxes and tape and printing. With so many more donations and volunteers, space is now at a premium and a meeting room in York House and St Mary’s Church have been offered for the overspill.
The handwritten lists that were originally taped to the window are now posted on social media platforms to get the message out about what is needed. Trucks are driving directly to the Ukraine border via Poland to distribute the aid and one local man, Tony, even offered to drive a donated ambulance filled with goods to the Polish/Ukraine border, getting a flight home the next day.
Word is spreading as more and more television crews and journalists turn up to report the story of how this humble family restaurant in Twickenham inspired a whole community to take action.
All photos: Cathy Cooper.