Two young waitresses in jeans and black T shirts quietly shuttled burgers on the back deck of the Dory to a group of boaters on a picturesque Tuesday afternoon on Shelter Island.
As the lunchtime rush wound down, Dory owner Jack Kiffer polished the bar while the waitresses headed into the kitchen, whispering with heavy accents in a language not often heard around here. The two 20-year-old servers, Olga and Nataliia (they preferred not to give their last names) hail from the other side of the world. They call Mykolaiv, Ukraine home, a city of 500,000 in the southeastern part of that war-torn country.
While tensions between Russia and the Ukraine continue to escalate halfway around the globe, a microcosm of the conflict can be found beneath the blue-and-white striped awning of the Bridge Street restaurant. Mr. Kiffer hires young people from abroad to wait tables each summer, providing them an opportunity to improve their English, learn American customs and enjoy an Island summer. By pure coincidence, he chose this year to hire four young women, two from Russia — who were not available for interviews — and Olga and Nataliia. All four live with Mr. Kiffer, sharing a bedroom in his house.
Silence about events back home seems to be keeping the peace. “We don’t speak about politics, we avoid the situation,” Olga said.
The “situation” began on February 26, when pro-Russian troops invaded the Crimean peninsula. A referendum held the next month determined that 96 percent of voters in the region would prefer Russian annexation; President Vladimir Putin obliged their wishes two days later with a treaty of accession. The United Nations proceeded to invalidate the seizure of Crimea, though Russia has taken numerous measures to assimilate the wealthy region bordering the Black Sea. Fighting broke out. Hundreds have been killed.
On Thursday, tension escalated further when a Malaysian jetliner was shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people aboard, according to news reports. The crash in Grabovo, Ukraine was a little more than 150 miles from Mykolaiv.
Olga and Nataliia arrived on Shelter Island in May, as the crisis in Ukraine grew ever closer to full scale war. The news from home is troubling, but there is one consolation. “We are happy that we are safe here,” Nataliia said.
Neither girl knew they would be working with Russians until they arrived. “When we told our parents, they thought we would box with them,” said Olga, but thus far no bouts have erupted.
Both Olga and Nataliia thoroughly enjoy their job, noting in particular the beauty of Shelter Island. A travel agency first connected the pair with the Dory. After talking to an American friend, they searched for the Island on Google. “We saw a lot of pictures,” Olga added, “and knew we wanted to come here.”
Each woman paid the agency $2,000 to live in the United States for a summer. Despite the high cost, Olga and Nataliia agree that the experience thus far has been positive. “The people here are very different from our home, but they are so kind,” said Nataliia. Both also raved about the local beaches, a luxury nonexistent in Mykolaiv.
The most significant benefit provided by the United States to many foreign students, including the two Ukrainians, is the opportunity to learn English. Both girls can hold a conversation (Olga appeared more comfortable with the language) but neither is completely fluent.
Study abroad programs provide American students with a similar opportunity to fully immerse themselves in a foreign language, though most also take classes while overseas. As Olga explained, however, students at her Ukrainian university can’t afford to miss a semester. Travelling in the summer is the only way Ukrainian students can live abroad. As an added bonus, the money Olga and Nataliia earn at the Dory helps offset the $2,000 they paid the agency for room, board, and travel expenses.
Although they live and work in the U.S. neither girl can forget the crisis in Ukraine. They Skype with family members from the Shelter Island Library and receive updates on their homeland. But as Olga said, “My mother cannot watch television anymore because she starts to cry.”
By all accounts, the situation in Ukraine is worsening. A cease fire reached in late June has fallen apart within the past week, as Ukrainian forces launched an offensive on Russian separatists. President Petro Poroshenko declared, “Termination of the cease-fire is our response to terrorists, insurgents, marauders … and (those who) deprive people of normal peaceful life.”
At one point, Olga struggled to describe the situation. “Its … it’s a new Cold War,” she concluded.
“No, it’s not,” Nataliia interrupted, with a certain fatality in her voice. “This is just war.”