Victor's story

Victor Ullman's team has cooked 6,000 hot meals for refugees passing through Croatia.

UNHCR/Igor Pavicevic

A Swedish Chef Serves Hot Meals to Refugees

When he heard about the refugee crisis in Europe, Victor Ullman packed his knives, drove to Croatia and started cooking.

Victor's story
  • Written by
    Mark Turner
28 September 2015 28 September 2015
Croatia

After serving up 6,000 piping-hot meals for refugees, the Swedish chef’s big wooden spoon is looking worse for wear. “It wasn’t broken when I began,” says Victor Ullman, a 27-year-old from Lund, displaying a large wedge-shaped hole as he pulls it from a simmering pot.

But long days and nights serving stew to thousands of Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis and many others have taken their toll. “As long as I am awake, I am cooking,” he says. “I have no perception of time here. No watch, no telephone.”

In his white chef’s coat, hair tied back in a bob, he rushes back and forth from a kitchen tent marked ‘Jamaica’, and gives instructions to his fellow travellers.

“Use the paper cups!” he says. “The food is too hot to use in the plastic ones. Do you need more disinfectant? OK. Dirty mouths but clean hands!”

We’re in Bapska, Croatia, a few hundred metres from the border with Serbia, where tens of thousands of refugees have crossed since last week, seeking safety in Europe.

They arrive by foot, in baby strollers, in wheelchairs, hour after hour, day after day, wet, hungry, exhausted, on an epic trek towards the unknown.

And all along the way they are met by an army of volunteers from across Europe, drawn by an overwhelming desire to help.

There’s Florian, the small farmer from Austria; Ghais, a Syrian who made it to Europe last year; Livija, a trainee pizza maker from Berlin; Stefan, a long-distance walker (“3,200 kilometres in 82 days!”); Danjella, a former refugee from Bosnia.

There are activists and BMW workers, students, sociologists and physiotherapists, sporting fluorescent yellow waistcoats marked with their name and spoken languages, reassuring the crowds, united by a sense of shared humanity.

Victor came with a crew of seven cooks, called ‘Alla är Kockar’. “I worked 15 years in the restaurant business, but now I’ve retired,” he says. “Next I want to be a fireman. Something physical, which helps people.”

He leans over and tastes the stew. “We have meat and vegetarian,” he says. “We got a batch of halal food. We are getting donations from everywhere.”

“Some were eating baby food, they were so hungry… They are so happy for some hot food.”

Further back, on the other side of the border, the refugees received apples, milk and biscuits, but no warm meals. “Some were eating baby food, they were so hungry,” he says. “When they get here they are saying ‘Allah, Allah!’ They are so happy for some hot food.”

It’s not just for refugees either. He also feeds the aid workers and the Croatian police, who he says are good guys doing their best. “They call me the crazy Swede,” he adds.

Victor shows me a pair of boots given to him by one policeman, after he’d given his own shoes away to a refugee. “I love these shoes,” he says. “They’re like a memory from here – one of them. Spread the love!”