Last week, I sat in the ice cream shop in Boothbay Harbor as a bright-eyed young woman told me she liked to pick up her cell phone and call her mother.
“If I call her and she doesn’t pick up, I think something’s up,” she said.
This is Alina Pushkariuk, 28, a transplanted Ukrainian ballroom dancer who works as a hostess at the Harborside restaurant, halfway around the world from her home and the war. Next to her sits her smiling friend, Oman Eser, 31, from Turkey who runs the port’s ice cream factory.
Although their names sound strange to me, their history is as old as humanity itself. A boy meets a girl. It all started four years ago in Cyprus when a smiling bellhop met a dancer and, well, you can tell the rest of the story.
Like many young Europeans, they have found work outside their country of origin. For them, it started in Dubai and then in Cyprus, where they connected.
Eser, who likes to be called Ozzie, left to work for a large hotel chain in Houston, Texas. When the pandemic hit, he was fired. After a while, friends lured him to Boothbay, where they worked in restaurants.
Meanwhile, Alina has returned to Donetsk, a region embroiled in a war with Russia since 2014.
As the war drums got louder, she said she wasn’t worried.
She worked in show business. Explaining the situation in tortured English, she said she moved, went to Bulgaria, Poland and back to Kharkiv. Politics was not on his radar.
“Nobody believes it. People act like it’s normal. Nobody believes (the war) is going all over Ukraine,” she said. But it did.
Ozzie said his father, a soldier who spent 35 years working for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), predicted there would be trouble in Ukraine.
He urged Alina to flee Ukraine and go to Turkey. She did and found work as a dancer. But the political climate heated up a bit when the Russian speakers turned against the Ukrainian speakers.
Then, on February 23, everything changed. “It started to get bigger,” she said.
Ozzie burned the phone as he tried to bring it to the United States, but got bogged down in the complex immigration system. As the war unfolded on our television sets, to say he was worried would be an understatement.
Then in April, President Biden announced that Ukrainian refugees would be admitted to the United States. Ozzie finally had some hope.
When news reports announced that Ukrainian refugees would be admitted at the Mexican border, he called. He asked her to come to Maine. She said where is Maine?
They decided it was safe to travel, so he called the airlines. The ticket prices were high, but he didn’t care. She flew from Warsaw, Poland, to Paris, Mexico City and Tijuana. There she spent three days in a refugee camp populated by Ukrainians.
After three days, it was her turn and she presented her credentials to the US border agents. They asked her a few questions, then wondered where she was going. She answered in Boothbay, Maine. They said: Welcome to the United States.
She crossed the border, stayed at a hotel in San Diego for three days, then flew to Boston, where Ozzie was waiting for her at Logan Airport.
Since she arrived here, she admits that everything has been a little crazy. Ozzie agrees.
When she arrived here, the number of Ukrainian flags flying from Boothbay homes came as a surprise. And since she struggles to master another language, she would like to have a conversation with someone who speaks her mother tongue.
Still, she smiles and says she tries to make the best of her situation. “I try to be fun, but it’s hard. I try to keep smiling,” she said.
After all, no one is shooting her and she is happy to work as a stewardess. But she hopes she will have the opportunity to dance again. “It’s been my life since I was 7.” And she always tries to call her mother.
For generations, our Boothbay tourism industry has attracted young people from far and wide. Only a few of them remain.
For Ozzie and Alina, the former bellboy from Turkey and the smiling dancer from Ukraine, their story is not new.
It is as old as the port itself.